Defense Leads Falcons to Sweep Saints in 30-14 Win

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Harry Douglas quiets the Superdome crowd

The Atlanta Falcons eliminated their NFC South division rival in the New Orleans Saints from playoff contention with a 30-14 win on the road. The Falcons’ own playoff hopes still remain alive going into the final game of the season against the Carolina Panthers next week. Following a Week 1 overtime win over the Saints, the Falcons swept their rival in a season series for the first time since 2005.

Matt Ryan led the Falcons by completing 30 of 40 passes for 322 yards and a touchdown. On the ground, Devonta Freeman led the team with 36 yards on five carries and a touchdown. Jacquizz Rodgers added 29 yards on 11 carries as an early injury sidelined Steven Jackson. Julio Jones, despite nursing a hip injury, led the team with seven catches for 107 yards. Roddy White added six catches for 55 yards. Harry Douglas (four catches, 47 yards) and Freeman (three catches, 48 yards) also made contributions to the passing game. Eric Weems caught Ryan’s lone touchdown pass, which was his only reception of the day for three yards. Matt Bryant connected on three field goals for 44, 50 and 32 yards. Matt Bosher punted five times for an average of 44.2 yards with four placed inside the 20-yard line. Devin Hester had a pair of punt returns for two yards and a pair of kickoff returns for 49 yards. The Falcons nearly gave up a special teams touchdown on the opening kickoff as Saints receiver Jalen Saunders returned the kick 99 yards to the one-yard line. The Falcons finished the day converting seven of 15 third-down attempts and totaled 403 yards.

The Falcons defense played well throughout the game, generating four turnovers against the Saints, including returning a fumble for a touchdown to close out the win. The Falcons also generated plenty of pressure on Saints quarterback Drew Brees, sacking him five times. After holding the Saints to just 78 total yards in the first half, the Falcons allowed a total of 328 yards. The Saints struggled on third downs in the first half as well, converting just three of seven attempts. They finished converting seven of 14 third-downs for the game. The Falcons also prevented Saints touchdowns on two of three second-half red-zone trips. Paul Worrilow led the Falcons with nine tackles, also adding a quarterback hit, tackle for loss and pass defense. Jonathan Babineaux (two tackles, one sack, one tackle for loss); Kroy Biermann (three tackles, one sack, one forced fumble); Ra’Shede Hageman (three tackles, one sack, one tackle for loss); Kemal Ishmael (four tackles, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery); Dwight Lowery (five tackles, one sack, one forced fumble); Robert McClain (five tackles, one interception, two passes defended); Corey Peters (two tackles, one sack, two tackles for loss); Desmond Trufant (five tackles, one interception); and Osi Umenyiora (one fumble recovery and touchdown) had noteworthy games on defense.

Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Jalen Saunders returned the opening kickoff 99 yards

Things started poorly for the Falcons as Saunders took the opening kickoff 99 yards before Javier Arenas tracked him down at the half-yard line. Saints running back Mark Ingram had no problem scoring on the very next play to give the Saints a quick 7-0 lead 20 seconds into the game.

The Falcons offense did not get off to its best start either with center James Stone being flagged for a holding penalty, backing them up to 1st-and-19. But Ryan found his favorite receiver in Jones for a 23-yard gain to get those yards back on the next play. Two plays later, Ryan dialed up another deep pass on a wheel route to Freeman for a 36-yard gain to get the ball deep into Saints territory. However, three plays later Ryan’s next deep pass overshot a streaking Douglas to force the team to settle for a 44-yard field goal. Bryant connected on the kick and the Falcons had cut the Saints’ lead to 7-3 with 11:20 left in the first quarter.

Pressure forced Brees to throw the ball away on the first play of the Saints’ series. A swing pass to running back Pierre Thomas gained eight yards to set up a 3rd-and-2, but Brees missed on his next pass to Thomas over the middle. The Falcons defense had achieved a three-and-out and the Saints were punting it back to the Falcons. However, Hester opted not to field Thomas Morstead’s punt, and it bounced to the six-yard line for a 63-yard boomer.

The Falcons offense followed the Saints’ lead with a three-and-out of their own. Saints linebacker David Hawthorne blew up Steven Jackson in the backfield for a two-yard loss on second down and Ryan’s pass to Levine Toilolo on third down was stopped a yard shy of the sticks to force a punt.

The Falcons looked to force another three-and-out thanks to Babineaux stuffing Ingram for a one-yard gain to force a 3rd-and-2. But Brees was able to scramble for a nine-yard gain to convert and gave the Saints their initial first down of the game. On Brees’ next pass, wide receiver Kenny Stills slipped on a deep out and McClain nearly intercepted the pass. But afterwards, Thomas rumbled 16 yards after shrugging off Umenyiora on a screen pass to cross into Falcons territory. But two plays later, Hageman and Paul Soliai got penetration to stuff Ingram for no gain to set up another 3rd-and-2. This time, Brees overthrew Graham on third down. The Saints opted to go for it at the Falcons’ 34-yard line, but left tackle Bryce Harris was flagged for a false start. However, the Saints still decided to go for it on 4th-and-7, but Babineaux delivered a big hit on Brees to force an errant throw, which Trufant picked off. The Falcons were gifted an additional 15 yards after the play due to a scrum between the two teams which saw Stills draw a personal foul penalty.

The Falcons took over at their 45-yard line with less than four minutes left in the first quarter. Hester gained nine yards on a screen pass to set up a 3rd-and-1. But the Falcons attempted to catch the Saints off guard with a pitch to Rodgers, who fumbled the ball, leading to a loss of three yards. A 15-yard personal foul penalty on White for fighting after the play backed the Falcons up furhter to force another Bosher punt.

The Falcons defense clamped down on a pair of Saints runs to start the next series, setting up a 3rd-and-5. Babineaux got loose on a Falcons blitz and sacked Brees for a seven-yard loss to force the team’s second three-and-out of the day.

Ryan found White over the middle for a 15-yard play to close out the first quarter with the Falcons back in Saints territory. On the first play of the second quarter, Jackson caught a check down from Ryan for a 14-yard gain. Ryan then dialed up White for a deep pass, but the receiver couldn’t stretch far enough to make the catch. That play was followed up by a swing pass to Freeman for an 11-yard gain, but Weems was flagged for a questionable offensive pass interference penalty, backing up the Falcons to 2nd-and-20. That was followed up by another penalty for holding on left tackle Jake Matthews, pushing the Falcons back into their own territory for a 2nd-and-30. A pair of completions to Douglas and White got 19 yards back to put the Falcons back in field-goal range, and Bryant nailed the 50-yard kick to cut the lead to 7-6 with 11:48 left in the second quarter.

On the fourth play of the ensuing series, Brees was too high on a throw to tight end Jimmy Graham down the seam. But on the next play, a 3rd-and-6, Stills converted by beating Josh Wilson on an out pattern for an 11-yard grab, his second catch of the drive. Two plays later, Brees was dropped for a sack by Hageman, who powered his way past Saints right guard Jahri Evans. That set up a 3rd-and-15, but the Falcons opted to rush only three pass-rushers, which led to the Saints converting on a 22-yard pass to Stills. That catch put the ball in Falcons territory. Two runs by Ingram set up a 3rd-and-5. On that play, Lowery came late on a blitz and was able to sack and strip Brees for an eight-yard loss. Saints right tackle Zach Strief recovered the loose ball, but the play pushed the Saints out of field-goal range, forcing another Morstead punt.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Eric Weems celebrates the Falcons’ first touchdown with teammates

Steven Jackson took the first play for a five-yard gain, which would be his last play of the game after suffering a quadriceps injury. Then, Toilolo made a four-yard grab to set up a 3rd-and-1. This time, Rodgers ran up the middle and gained two yards to convert in short-yardage. Ryan connected on his next three passes to Freeman, White and Douglas to get the ball near midfield as the two-minute warning hit. However on 2nd-and-1, Ryan’s pass to White went through the receiver’s hands. But on the next play, Jones made the quick catch for a 12-yard gain to get the first down and put the ball firmly into Saints territory. Three plays later, White redeemed himself with a six-yard grab to convert on 3rd-and-4. Pressure forced Ryan to throw the ball away to avoid sack on the next play. Ryan then was too high on a throw to Freeman, which set up a 3rd-and-10 at the Saints’ 27-yard line. Jones beat Saints cornerback Terrence Frederick on a double move over the middle to gain 24 yards and set up the Falcons at the Saints’ three-yard line. With eight seconds on the first-half clock, the Falcons utilized misdirection on the next play with a shovel pass to Weems, who snuck up the middle for a three-yard score. The Falcons had taken the lead and held that going into halftime after a Saints kneel down.

The Falcons received the ball to open the second half. Rodgers took his first two carries for a combined 13 yards. His third was a one-yard run that was stuffed to set up a 3rd-and-1. The Falcons turned to Freeman, but he was stopped a half-yard shy of the sticks. The Falcons opted to punt it, with a 46-yarder from Bosher that set up the Saints to start their opening drive of the third quarter at the nine-yard line.

After a six-yard pass to wide receiver Marques Colston gave the Saints a first down, the Falcons were able to generate pressure on the next play, causing Brees’ pass to Graham to land in the turf. Two plays later on 3rd-and-6, Worrilow delivered a hit up the middle on a blitz but Brees was still able to deliver a catchable pass to Graham over the middle, who simply dropped it. That forced another Saints punt and the Falcons took over at their 14-yard line with 9:22 left in the third quarter.

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Devonta Freeman avoids a Saints defender before scoring

The Falcons took advantage with a scoring drive, prompted by two big throws to Jones downfield for a combined 39 yards to quickly flip field position. However, Ryan’s third pass to a wide-open Douglas was dropped as the receiver made a poor adjustment to the ball that was thrown slightly behind him. However, White made up for it with a six-yard play on 3rd-and-5 that saw him stretch for the first down. After a five-yard run by Rodgers, Freeman got the handoff. He made a nice cut in the hole to avoid and a tackle by a Saints defender, and then sprinted the rest of the way for a 31-yard touchdown run. The Falcons then had a 20-7 lead with 5:42 left in the quarter.

Biermann was able to generate some pressure off the edge to start the next Saints series, forcing Brees up in the pocket into the waiting arms of Peters for a sack. However on the next play, Colston was able to climb the ladder to make a catch over Worrilow for 27 yards. Three plays later, Lowery made a nice open-field tackle on Graham on a slant to set up a 4th-and-2. The Saints opted to go for it again and found better luck as Stills converted with an eight-yard catch, putting the ball into Falcons territory. Brees dialed up a deep shot to wide receiver Nick Toon on the next play, but the pass was overthrown. Then William Moore stepped up and delivered a big hit on running back Khiry Robinson after a four-yard gain and went down with a shoulder injury. On the next play, Brees connected with Toon for a seven-yard catch to convert on 3rd-and-6. Wilson went down on that play with a hamstring injury, which was followed a few plays later by a shoulder injury to Dwight Lowery, leaving the Falcons secondary especially thin. The Saints took advantage, attacking that secondary on their next third down play, with Colston beating Arenas for 15 yards on a slant on the final play of the third quarter. That put the ball at the Falcons’ 14-yard line. On the next play, Brees hit Graham over the middle in front of Dezmen Southward at the goal line, but Ishmael came late and stripped him just before he was able to cross the plane. Ishmael then scooped up the loose ball and returned it 18 yards to the Falcons’ 20-yard line. Officials initially called the play a fumble, and then in what was an extremely close decision, opted not to overturn the call on the field. That gave the Falcons the ball with 14:49 left in the fourth quarter.

The Falcons converted on 3rd-and-2 with a 16-yard pass to Hester downfield. The Falcons converted another third down a few plays later when Freeman made a nice move on a slant to get yards after the catch on an eight-yard play. But on the next third-down opportunity, Ryan overthrew Hester along the sideline and the Falcons punted it back to the Saints with 9:38 left in the game.

The Saints dialed up a screen to start the next series, but Babineaux helped string it out for a one-yard loss. But Brees hit Toon and Colston on two straight passes over the middle for a combined 33 yards to get the ball near midfield. Then Brees finally began connecting with Graham, hitting him on a pair of catches for 24 yards to get the ball deeper into Falcons territory. Umenyiora brought pressure on 2nd-and-1, but Brees was able to shrug off the sack and deliver a 13-yard strike to Robert Meachem along the sideline. The Saints then found themselves in the red zone with less than seven minutes left in the game. After a seven-yard run by Ingram, Colston made a seven-yard play on a curl route to get the ball down to the Falcons’ four-yard line. Worrilow was then able to tip Brees’ next pass to Colston over the middle, with Trufant nearly picking off the deflection in the end zone. The Saints then tried a quick slant to tight end Ben Watson, but the pass tipped off his hands. That set up a 3rd-and-goal, and Brees was able to find Graham in the end zone. The big tight end managed to get position against Ishmael, shielding him away for the score. The Saints had now cut the Falcons’ lead to 20-14 with 5:48 left in the game.

On second down of the ensuing Falcons’ series, Douglas broke loose on a screen thanks to a big block by Jones for a 27-yard gain. The Falcons tried another screen pass to Jones two plays later, but Douglas missed on his block and it led to no gain. That set up a 3rd-and-8 at midfield with 3:29 left in the game. The Saints’ blitz forced Ryan to make a quick throw, which White caught but only for a three-yard gain. The Falcons were punting the ball back to the Saints with 2:47 left on the game clock. Bosher hit a 36-yard punt that forced Saunders to make a fair catch at the 10-yard line, meaning the Saints would have to drive 90 yards in under three minutes to try and win.

Pressure got to Brees on first down, forcing a high throw to Colston along the sideline. On the next play, Umenyiora put a move on Saints left tackle Bryce Harris that caused him to whiff badly on the block. Osi delivered a hit to Brees, whose pass to Toon was jumped by McClain for an interception.

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Osi Umenyiora celebrates following Robert McClain’s interception

The Falcons took over already in field-goal range at the Saints’ 13-yard line with 2:28 left in the game. They ran three times to Rodgers for no gain, forcing the Saints to burn their two final timeouts and winding down the clock to a fourth down after the two-minute warning. Bryant connected on a 32-yard field goal, giving the Falcons a two-score lead with the scoreboard reading 23-14 with 1:56 left in the game.

Brees connected on his first four passes, marching the Saints 52 yards downfield and into Falcons territory in under a minute. After spiking the ball with 55 seconds left to go, Brees missed on a deep shot to Toon. But Toon converted on a 16-yard catch on 3rd-and-10 to get the ball down to the 12-yard line with 35 seconds to go. Arenas then broke up Brees’ next pass to Colston in the end zone, stopping the clock with 30 seconds left. Ingram made the check-down catch for four yards on the next play, setting up a 3rd-and-6 at the eight-yard line. With the clock ticking, Biermann and Babineaux created pressure to flush Brees from the pocket. Biermann chased him down from behind and got a sack-strip. The loose ball bounced right into the waiting hands of Umenyiora, who jogged 86 yards with time expiring to get the emphatic close-out touchdown.

The Falcons will return home to the Georgia Dome next week to face the Carolina Panthers, with the winner of the contest winning the NFC South and representing the division in the playoffs. The Falcons beat the Panthers once already this season, with a 19-17 victory on the road in Week 11. Should the Falcons beat the Panthers, it will mark a complete sweep of the division for the season. The Falcons are 3-4 thus far this year at home, while the Panthers sport a 2-4-1 record on the road.

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Aaron Freeman
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