Defense lifts Falcons over Saints

Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE

Babineaux celebrates an interception

The Falcons defense stepped up and created a number of turnovers against the New Orleans Saints to pull out the ugly 23-13 victory. The game came down to the wire with a strong defensive effort and lackluster offensive one for the Falcons. The Falcons are now a loss by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this Sunday from clinching the NFC South division crown this week with their 11-1 record.

Matt Ryan struggled in this game, completing 18 of 33 for 165 yards and a touchdown. Michael Turner led the team on the ground with 83 yards on 12 carries and a touchdown. He had a late fourth quarter fumble that gave the Saints one last late game opportunity to try and steal the win. Jacquizz Rodgers had 43 yards on 8 carries. Julio Jones led receivers with 5 grabs for 48 yards. Tony Gonzalez had 4 catches for 58 yards and Ryan’s lone touchdown pass. Jason Snelling caught 4 passes for 28 yards. Roddy White had a quiet night, catching only 1 pass for 20 yards. Matt Bryant really made up for the stalled offense, connecting on 3 field goals of 45, 29, and a 55-yarder that put the team up two scores with over 4 minutes left in the game. Matt Bosher punted 6 times, matching a season-high, averaging 53.2 yards and having 1 placed inside the 20-yard line. Rodgers returned 1 kickoff for 22 yards and Dominique Franks returned 1 punt for 13 yards. The offense started strong, rushing well on their opening drive, but then stalled out, unable to take advantage of multiple Saints turnovers. They started the game with 101 yards rushing in the first half, but only had 23 yards on 12 carries in the second half. They only managed to score 6 points off the five Saints turnovers. They finished 1 for 11 on third downs, unable to convert their first one until less than 7 minutes were left in the game.

Defensively, the Falcons gave up a lot of yards as the Saints racked up 436 total yards on the day. They also struggled to get off the field on third downs, allowing the Saints to convert 7 of 14 on that down. But they managed to pick off Drew Brees five times, which cut short a number of go-ahead or tying drives for the Saints. The run defense performed better than their last outing against the Saints, limiting them to just 38 yards in the first half. The Saints finished with 101 yards on the day. William Moore led the team with 11 tackles, including 2 for loss, and also picked off Brees twice. His second interception helped seal the Falcons victory after the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter. John Abraham (2 tackles, 1 sack, 2 pass deflections); Jonathan Babineaux (1 interception); Kroy Biermann (2 tackles); Thomas DeCoud (7 tackles, 1 interception); Robert McClain (6 tackles, 2 pass deflections); Stephen Nicholas (5 tackles); Chris Owens (3 tackles, 2 pass deflections); Dunta Robinson (7 tackles); and Sean Weatherspoon (4 tackles, 1 interception) all had noteworthy games.

The offense started strong on the opening drive of the game. While Matt Ryan was hit as he threw by Sedrick Ellis, Tony Gonzalez was able to reel in a tough grab away from Malcolm Jenkins to get 9 yards. Michael Turner would break off a run to the right on the next play for 35 yards. He followed that with a 5-yard gain to the left side. Jacquizz Rodgers stepped in and took over, carrying twice for 14 yards each to put the Falcons at the Saints 3-yard line. Turner powered up the middle for a 3-yard touchdown to finish the drive, giving the Falcons a 7-0 lead four minutes into the game. John Abraham would tip the first pass by Brees on a quick throw to start the Saints drive. But the Saints would convert the upcoming 3rd & 8 with a 38-yard gain to Joseph Morgan. Asante Samuel, who was trying to gut out a bum shoulder would limp off the field after that play and not return. Two plays later, Brees takes another deep shot to Marques Colston who beat Dunta Robinson in the endzone, but Thomas DeCoud came over the top to pick off the pass. But the Falcons offense would respond with a three-and-out. Ryan would take a deep shot to White on third down, and while it appeared he was interfered with by Patrick Robinson, there is no call as the pass hits the turf. The defense stepped up on the first play, with Robert McClain preventing Chris Ivory from turning the corner, as the rest of the defense rallied on the ball to get a 4-yard loss. But Brees would find Colston to convert a 3rd & 14 for a 15-yard gain to extend the drive two plays later. His next third down attempt would be a miss to Lance Moore on a quick slant, forcing the Saints to punt at midfield. They would be able to down it at the Falcons 8-yard line. The Falcons offense gets back in gear with the ground, as Turner has a pair of 12-yard rushes to start the next possession. Ryan took a deep shot to Harry Douglas two plays later, but the pass is underthrown. Douglas did a good job preventing Malcolm Jenkins from picking off the pass, but he injured his ankle on the play. He would return to the game, but would largely be a non-factor from that point on. Ryan’s pass on 3rd & 10 goes through Julio Jones’ hands and the Falcons punt. The Saints defender runs into Darren Sproles on Bosher’s 56-yard punt and the ball is blown dead when Patrick Robinson recovers at the Saints 12-yard line. The Falcons defense gets off the field on another 3rd & 2, as Kroy Biermann and Stephen Nicholas converge on Brees to knock the pass incomplete. On second down of the ensuing drive which starts at midfield, Ryan hits Jones for a 7-yard pass on a quick slant. He finds Jones again over the middle for an 18-yard gain to put it at the Saints 16-yard line as the first quarter comes to a close with the Falcons still up 7-0. The second quarter began with Rodgers being bottled up for a 1-yard loss. But then Tony Gonzalez beat Curtis Lofton down the seam, with Ryan throwing over the top for the 17-yard touchdown to extend their lead 14-0. On the next Saints drive, Dunta Robinson delivered a big hit on Michael Higgins on an underneath throw for a 3-yard loss to set up a 3rd & 10. A delay of game penalty would put the Saints in a 3rd & 15. Kroy Biermann would step up again to pressure Brees who couldn’t find Marques Colston and the Saints punted again. A Ryan pass to White on 2nd down tips off his finger tips. Ryan then checks down to Snelling on 3rd & 8, but he’s stopped a yard shy of the first down marker and the Falcons are forced to punt again. Sproles returns Bosher’s 49-yard punt for 21 yards. Brees tries to check down to Chris Ivory, but the ball bounces off his hands into the waiting arms of Sean Weatherspoon, who returns it 6 yards to the Saints 29-yard line. Ryan is high on his first two passes of the ensuing drive to Gonzalez and Douglas, the latter being another missed third down opportunity. Matt Bryant trotted out on the field to hit the 45-yard field goal to push the Falcons lead to 17-0 with 9 minutes to go in the half. On the second play of the Saints next drive, McClain jumps the Brees pass to Colston, almost nearly getting the interception. That forces a 3rd & 9, but Lance Moore beats Weatherspoon deep down the middle for a 32-yard strike.  Chris Owens breaks up two Brees passes, including a sure touchdown on a deep post on 3rd & 3 to Devery Henderson. But Biermann is called offsides, giving the Saints a first down at the Falcon 21-yard line. Brees shrugs off a potential Corey Peters sack and delivers a throw to Colston over the middle for 11 yards. Pierre Thomas runs up the middle for 10 yards, driving his feet and powering over William Moore for the last two yards to get a touchdown on the next play. Moore is called for a facemask penalty, but the play is reviewed and Thomas’s knee hit the turf before he crossed the plane. The ball is then spotted at the 1-yard line, but it’s moot because Mark Ingram leaps over the pile for the 1-yard touchdown on the next play to get the Saints on the board for the first time with 3:17 left in the first half. On the second play of the Falcons next drive, Cameron Jordan beats Peter Konz to sack Ryan for a 6-yard loss. On 3rd & 16, Ryan tries another dumpoff to Snelling, and again he’s stopped inches shy of the first down marker and the Falcons have another three-and-out. Sproles 15-yard return on the punt starts the Saints next series at their own 29-yard line with 2:13 left in the half. Just before the two-minute warning, Brees finds Lance Moore for a deep strike 29 yards downfield. On the next play, Brees finds an open Colston over the middle for another 21 yards. Pressure gets to Brees on the next play, and he throws it away into the turf. For the rest of the drive, Brees would target Sproles with Weatherspoon in coverage. But the speedy Sproles proves too much for Spoon, as he beats him for a pair of catches for 21 yards, including a 7-yard touchdown catch where he was untouched on a screen pass. But on that play, Jimmy Graham is called for offensive pass interference and the score is negated. Brees and the Saints offense waste too much time after another 12-yard catch by Sproles. Brees dumpoffs to Sproles for the fourth consecutive time for a 2-yard gain inside the five, but McClain and Weatherspoon stop him shy of the goalline. As the Saints try to get to the line to spike the ball with a second left, the clock expires and the Falcons hold a 17-7 lead at halftime.

The Saints ground attack would come alive on the opening drive of the second half. Pierre Thomas would help lead the Saints on a 15-play, 83-yard scoring drive with five carries for 38 yards. Brees would be able to convert another 3rd & 9, as Sproles would beat DeCoud to the corner on the throw into the flat for a 10-yard gain. Jimmy Graham would make an athletic 17-yard grab to put the Saints at the 7-yard line two plays later. Brees’ next pass would be a quick slant to Lance Moore, but the ball goes just off his fingertips in the endzone. On the next play, Ingram would slip after making the catch on the swing pass in the flat. William Moore would close on him before he could recover, resulting in a 1-yard loss. The defense would converge on Thomas on the dumpoff 3 yards shy of the goalline to set up a 21-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley. The Saints cut the Falcons lead to 7 points to start the second half. After a holding call on Todd McClure sets up a 2nd & 15 on the ensuing Falcons drive, an 8-yard screen to Julio Jones sets up a 3rd & 7 for the offense. But Jabari Greer breaks on the quick slant to White to force another Falcons punt, with the Falcons still unable to convert a third down to start the second half. On the third play of the next Saints offensive series, Sproles beats Spoon deep on a wheel route, but Moore comes over the top to break up the throw by delivering a hit to Sproles. But an 8-yard run by Thomas converts on the ensuing 3rd & 2 gives the Saints another conversion. Thomas would hit up the Falcons defense up the middle for another 8-yard gain on the next play. But Brees would overthrow Colston deep over the middle to set up another Hartley field goal. Hartley would hit the 52-yarder to cut the Falcons lead 17-13 with 4 minutes to go in the third quarter. Ryan and the Falcons would follow up with another three-and-out. Ryan’s pass to White on 3rd & 10 would be dropped a yard shy of the sticks. But on the second play of the next drive, William Moore would pick off Brees who threw late over the middle. The Falcons now took over at the Saints 41-yard line, hoping to take advantage of another Brees interception. But Rodgers first down run goes nowhere for a 1-yard loss. Gonzalez steps up and gets an 18-yard gain over the middle on the next play. White would make his first and only catch of the night on the following play for a 20-yard gain as Ryan rolls right. White would make a diving grab at the Saints 4-yard line to potentially set up another Falcon touchdown. A toss left to Turner would get stopped for a 2-yard loss.  Gonzalez would be called for a false start on the next play, backing up the Falcons to their own 11. Ryan would overthrow Snelling on the easy checkdown on the final play of the third quarter. The Falcons began the fourth quarter with a 3rd & goal, but Ryan’s pass to White falls incomplete as a pair of Saints defenders converge on the receiver. Matt Bryant would hit from 29 yards out to push the Falcons lead back to 7 points, 20-13. Brees and the Saints would follow up with another third down conversion with a 9-yard gain by Lance Moore. John Abraham would be in coverage on the next play against Jimmy Graham, an obvious mismatch which Graham exploits for a 25-yard gain. William Moore would step up with a big stop in the backfield of Pierre Thomas for a 4-yard loss. Abraham would redeem himself, blowing by the Saints right tackle Zach Strief for a sack on Brees to force a Saints punt. The Saints nearly down the ball at the 1-yard line due to a bounce, but the Saints player’s toe grazes the goalline resulting in a touchback. The Falcons drive starts with a pair of completions, the latter of which is a 14-yard gain by Gonzalez. Two plays later, Ryan’s pass is tipped at the line by Akiem Hicks. A draw to Rodgers gets only two yards on the next play, setting up a 3rd & 8. But Ryan finds an open Jones underneath to convert their first third down of the night on their ninth attempt with 6:29 left in the game.  Three plays later, a screen to Snelling is stopped several yards shy of the sticks on 3rd & 14. Bryant comes in to attempt a 55-yarder and nails it. That gives the Falcons a 10-point cushion with four and a half minutes to go in the game. On the fourth play of the next Saints series, Chris Owens is able to recover in time to break up a deep pass to Henderson. On the next play, Biermann beat the right tackle to hit Brees from behind, and the deflected pass goes right into the unexpecting arms of Jonathan Babineaux for Brees’ fourth interception of the night. As the Falcons take over, Turner is bottled up on first down for a 1-yard gain. On the next play, he burst off the left side for a 6-yard gain, but trying to fight for extra yards, the ball is stripped and recovered by Rafael Bush. Bush falls on the ball with no whistle being blown, gets up and sprints 71 yards for a touchdown. But the play is reviewed, and it is revealed that offensive tackle Mike Johnson grazed Bush as he was on the ground resulting in him being down by contact. The Saints took over at their own 30-yard line with 2:33 left in the game with a chance to cut the Falcons lead to one score. On the first play, Brees hit Lance Moore for 15 yards over the middle. Stephen Nicholas steps up and broke up the pass to Jimmy Graham on the next play. Brees’ next pass would be tipped by Corey Peters, who then showed great awareness to pick it off on the rebound. But Abraham is called for an offsides penalty, negating the turnover as the two-minute warning hits. On the next play, Brees takes a deep shot to Colston down the sideline. There is contact by Dunta Robinson, but the refs don’t throw a flag and William Moore picks off the rainbow pass going out of bounds, coming from the middle of the field. Brees just threw his fifth interception with 1:52 left in the game, and that final turnover seemingly seals the Falcons win. Two runs by Jacquizz Rodgers, including an 8-yarder on the second carry converts a first down and the Saints are forced to use their final timeout with 92 seconds left on the clock. Ryan and the Falcons kneel three times and the game is over. The Falcons escape with a 23-13 win despite one of their most lackluster offensive efforts of the season. But a very opportunistic defense bailed them out several times.

The Falcons have a couple of extra days of rest before they have to travel to the Carolina Panthers on December 9. The Falcons squeaked by the Panthers thanks to some late game heroics by Ryan and White in Week 4 with a 30-28 win. The Falcons have won five straight against the Panthers, including two on the road. Under Mike Smith, the Falcons are 7-2 against the Panthers, with both losses coming on the road back in 2008 and 2009. Both times the Falcons have played on Thursday night under Smith, they have won and followed it with road contests. A year ago, they went on the road to lose to the Saints. But in 2010, they travelled to St. Louis to beat the Rams 34-17. Since Smith took over, the Falcons are 2-5 in road games following home victories in primetime.

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Aaron Freeman
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