On an evening which marked the 10th anniversary of the famous (or infamous depending on your perspective) “Katrina game,” the Atlanta Falcons ruined the New Orleans Saints celebration with a 45-32 victory.
That game 10 years ago marked the return of the Saints to their home venue of the Superdome following the events of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina that wreaked havoc on the city of New Orleans and forced the local team to play their home games in San Antonio, Texas for the remainder of that season. The Saints won that 2006 game 23-3 on Monday Night Football, ushering in a brand new era for Saints football under head coach Sean Payton and Drew Brees.
However last night’s contest in the Superdome would prove to be entirely about the Falcons with a strong offensive outing and a dominant performance from the team’s pair of running backs.
Quarterback Matt Ryan led the way with 240 yards passing and two touchdowns, while completing 20 of 30 passes.
Running back Devonta Freeman led the team with 152 yards on the ground on 14 carries, nearly matching his career high of 153 yards from last year’s Washington Redskins win. Fellow runner Tevin Coleman added another 42 yards on 12 carries with three touchdowns on the night. Ryan even contributed with 23 rushing yards on five carries.
In the air both Freeman and Coleman also were the team’s leaders with starting wide receivers Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu nursing injuries. Freeman led the team with five receptions for 55 yards and a touchdown. Coleman had three catches for 47 yards. Sanu led receivers with three grabs for 31 yards, while tight end Jacob Tamme also had a trio of receptions for 28 yards. Justin Hardy scored Ryan’s other touchdown, finishing the night with two catches for 26 yards.
Kicker Matt Bryant took it easy on the night due to the offensive explosion with just one made field-goal attempt from 21 yards in the fourth quarter. Punter Matt Bosher also saw limited action with a pair of punts for an average of 45 yards and both being placed inside the 20-yard line. Eric Weems returned two kickoffs for an average of 27 yards.
The Falcons offense produced 442 total yards, including 217 on the ground. The latter figure marked the most for the team since their season-ending win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2011. The Falcons were also very efficient in the red zone, converting five of seven trips there into touchdowns. They also were efficient on third downs, converting five of 11 attempts (45 percent) into first downs. The offense wound up scoring on six consecutive positions between the middle of the first quarter until the fourth quarter when they were finally forced to punt.
Defensively the team gave up 474 total yards to the Saints thanks to their efforts to try and mount a comeback, which included 359 yards in the air. The Falcons did allow the Saints to convert four of five red-zone trips into touchdowns and seven of 13 third downs (54 percent) despite forcing a pair of turnovers. The Falcons managed to convert both of those turnovers into points, thanks to a muffed punt and a pick-six by rookie linebacker Deion Jones.
Fellow linebacker Sean Weatherspoon wound up leading the team with 10 tackles, including one for loss. Jones added nine tackles, an interception and two pass breakups in front of his hometown crowd. Cornerback Robert Alford (eight tackles, one pass breakup); safety Ricardo Allen (six tackles); defensive end Vic Beasley (three tackles, one tackle for loss, one quarterback hit); defensive end Dwight Freeney (two tackles, one tackle for loss, one sack); safety Kemal Ishmael (five tackles); safety Keanu Neal (four tackles, one pass breakup); cornerback Brian Poole (six tackles, one tackle for loss, one pass breakup) and cornerback Desmond Trufant (three tackles, one tackle for loss, one sack) also had notable performances on defense.
The game started poorly for the Falcons defense with Saints running back Mark Ingram powering his way to a combined 12 yards on three of the first four plays from scrimmage, including a three-yard win on 3rd-and-2. A few plays later an offsides penalty against defensive tackle Grady Jarrett gave the Saints a new set of downs, allowing them to also cross into Falcons territory. On the next play, Deion Jones shot through a gap to take down Ingram in the backfield for no gain. However Ingram found running room up the middle on the next play on a draw play to gain seven yards to give the Saints another first down. Saints running back Travaris Cadet then beat Jones on a wheel route down the sideline to make a diving 25-yard grab, but was flagged for offensive pass interference for pushing off against Jones’ face mask to create separation, nullifying the big gain. Yet the Saints got that yardage back off a flea-flicker on the next play, with wide receiver Brandon Coleman sneaking behind the Falcons secondary for a 28-yard gain. Falcons linebacker Philip Wheeler delivered a shot to Brees after the throw and was flagged for roughing the passer, gifting the Saints another nine yards to put them down at the Falcons eight-yard line. A jet sweep to wide receiver Brandin Cooks gained six yards before tight end Coby Fleener got behind the Falcons defense in the back of the end zone for a two-yard score. Falcons safety Ricardo Allen got sucked up by the Saints’ play action in the backfield, leaving Fleener open for an easy score. The Saints took a 7-0 lead to start the game with an 11-play, 75-yard drive that consumed 6:35 of clock.
Weems found room up the middle on the ensuing kickoff return, gaining 42 yards before he was dragged down from behind by safety Vonn Bell to give the Falcons excellent field position to start their drive at their 44-yard line. The first two plays from scrimmage were a pair of runs by Freeman, who delivered a vicious stiff arm to Saints cornerback Sterling Moore to gain seven yards and set up a 3rd-and-1. However Ryan saw pressure on that down, getting sacked behind the combination of Cameron Jordan and Nick Fairley for a seven-yard loss. The Falcons started with a three-and-out. But on Bosher’s 42-yard punt, cornerback De’Vante Harris ran into returner Tommylee Lewis. Then Harris tried to return the ball on a bounce and was hit by long snapper Josh Harris, jarring the ball loose before Falcons linebacker LaRoy Reynolds fell on it at the Saints 11-yard line. On first down, Ryan overthrew Julio Jones in the back corner of the end zone. Then on second down, Ryan hit Coelman on a swing pass for a nine-yard gain to get the ball down to the Saints two-yard line. Coleman then bullied his way up the middle for a two-yard score to tie the game 7-7 with 5:21 left in the first quarter after a three-play, scoring drive off the Saints turnover.
The Falcons defense got their act together on the ensuing Saints drive, although they appeared to get away with a neutral-zone infraction on first down when Jarrett seemed to jump offsides, but no flag was thrown. Brees missed on his throw to Cooks, who got tangled up with Robert Alford. Brees’ next pass to Ingram in the flat was behind the running back and he couldn’t make the adjustment to reel in the catch with Weatherspoon bearing down. On 3rd-and-10, Brees overthrow Cooks down the seam and the Saints had a punt after a three-and-out.
Coleman got two carries to start the next drive, combining for six yards to set up a 3rd-and-4. Ryan hit Mohamed Sanu on a quick out for nine yards to convert before Freeman entered the game and gained nine yards up the middle on his first carry. Tamme turned that into a first down with an eight-yard snag off a play-action rollout on the next play. Two plays later Tamme made another five-yard grab to set up a 3rd-and-2 for the Falcons at the Saints 34-yard line. Coleman’s run up the middle was stuffed by linebacker James Laurinaitis for a gain of one yard, compelling the Falcons to go for it on 4th-and-1 with 1:01 left in the first quarter. The Falcons went to Coleman for a toss play and he was able to speed past Saints safety Roman Harper, who dragged him down from behind but not before he was able to reach across for a first down. Harper was also flagged for a horse-collar tackle, gifting the Falcons another 15 yards and setting them up in the red zone at the 17-yard line as the first quarter came to a close. To start the second quarter, Ryan hit Freeman on a swing pass, who ran untouched into the end zone for a 13-yard score thanks to excellent downfield blocking from left tackle Jake Matthews. That pushed Atlanta’s lead to 14-7 after an 11-play, 74-yard scoring drive.
Ingram continued to churn his way to yardage with an 11-yard gain followed by a two-yard gain to start the next Saints series. Two plays later on 3rd-and-7, Brees’ pass to Fleener was broken up by safety Keanu Neal to force a Saints punt. But on that play, Justin Hardy rolled into the leg of Saints punter Thomas Morstead after nearly blocking the 53-yard kick, gifting the Saints a new set of downs in Falcons territory after the 15-yard roughing the kicker penalty. Jones popped Ingram on a check down over the middle after an eight-yard gain before backup running back Tim Hightower converted on a three-yard gain up the middle. Brees’ next pass was batted down at the line by defensive lineman Tyson Jackson. But Ingram found more room on a draw play for 17 yards, before Derrick Shelby and Jonathan Babineaux were able to get pressure up the middle for another batted pass. Brees connected on his next two passes, including a six-yard rollout to Brandon Coleman that converted a 3rd-and-1 and put the ball at the Falcons three-yard line. On the next play, Brees hit Michael Thomas on a quick slant to score from three yards out to tie the game 14-14 with 10:01 left in the first half after a 12-play, 75-yard scoring drive from the Saints.
Coleman gained seven yards on a screen pass to start the ensuing Falcons series. Ryan then threw behind Jones on a quick out for an incompletion to bring about a 3rd-and-3. The Falcons converted when Ryan stepped up in the pocket and stumbled to a four-yard gain. Freeman then found running room off tackle on the next play and managed to juke Saints safety Jairus Byrd hard on the second level to gain 36 yards before being dragged down from behind. That put the ball at the Saints 28-yard line. Freeman then gained another five yards on the next play on a run up the middle. Ryan rolled to his left and looked for Sanu down the field, but the receiver couldn’t reel in the high pass and it was nearly intercepted by a nearby Saints defender. Sanu then redeemed himself on a six-yard catch on 3rd-and-5 over the middle to convert on the very next play to put the Falcons once again in the red zone. Freeman avoided a defender in the backfield on the next run to the outside, but was still stopped by Saints defensive end Paul Kruger for a one-yard loss. The Falcons dialed up a screen pass to Sanu, who picked his way for a 16-yard gain to put the ball down at the two-yard line. Ryan tried a fade pass to Jones in the end zone with the pass being well overthrown. But Coleman converted for the score on the next play with a two-yard run up the middle to push the Falcons lead to 21-14 with 5:31 left in the second quarter.
Brees was able to avoid Adrian Clayborn’s pressure on first down, but underthrew Cooks on a deep crossing pattern. However Hightower was able to gain 11 yards on a draw play on second down, shaking Allen on the second level. The Saints dialed up a reverse three plays later, but Tommylee Lewis was only barely able to get back to the line of scrimmage for a one-yard gain before Desmond Trufant forced him out of bounds. Weatherspoon then blew up a screen pass to Cadet for a loss of five, bringing about 3rd-and-14 with 2:35 left on the first-half clock. After the two-minute warning, Lewis was able to avoid a couple of Falcons defenders on a shallow crossing pattern, but was eventually dropped after an eight-yard gain to force a Saints punt. The punt was downed at the 12-yard line giving the Falcons 1:51 to try and extend their seven-point lead.
Ryan connected with Freeman on a pair of check downs to start the drive, gaining a combined eight yards. On third down, Ryan heaved a deep pass to Taylor Gabriel, but the diminutive receiver couldn’t reel in the leaping grab. But he was successful in drawing a pass interference flag on Saints cornerback Ken Crawley, resulting in a 25-yard gain for the Falcons offense. Then Hardy made a nice grab over the middle for a 22-yard gain before Gabriel made a 14-yard grab on a slant to put the Falcons in field-goal range against the Saints 25-yard line with under a minute to go in the half. Coleman then gained six yards on a screen before the Saints were forced to call a timeout with 47 seconds left on the clock. Saints linebacker Craig Robertson then fell down and Tamme broke open for an easy 15-yard gain before the Saints stopped the clock once more with 35 seconds left. Now at the four-yard line, Ryan dialed up another fade to Jones in the back of the end zone. The receiver made the diving grab, but not before he could get both feet in bounds before Crawley nudged him out of bounds. Ryan then executed a shovel pass to Hardy, who was dropped by Laurinaitis as he was stretching across the goal line. It was initially ruled a three-yard gain stopped a yard shy of the score but the officials reviewed the play and reversed their initial ruling to make it a four-yard score for Hardy. The Falcons now had a 28-14 lead after an eight-play, 94-yard drive that only took 1:23 off the second-quarter clock.
The Saints now had 28 seconds to make the most of what they could to end the first half before being compelled to kick off to the Falcons to start the second half. Brees missed on a back-shoulder throw to Lewis to start the series before throwing a streaking Fleener over the middle thanks to pressure by Vic Beasley on a stunt. But on third down, Fleener slipped behind Neal and Brees hit him on a deep post for a 32-yard gain. Brees then nearly had Cooks along the sideline, but the ball tipped off his fingers and Allen nearly made a diving interception, but unfortunately the ball hit the turf for an incompletion. Brees then threw behind Fleener on an out pattern to bring about another 3rd-and-10, with Cooks taking the quick throw for four yards to help set up a more makable field goal with three seconds left. Kicker Will Lutz connected on the long 57-yard kick to cut Atlanta’s lead to 28-17 with the half coming to a close.
To start the second half, Ryan was able to extend the opening play from scrimmage and flip it to Freeman over the middle, who rumbled for a 26-yard gain to put the ball at the Saints 49-yard line. Ryan then missed Jones over the middle, with Crawley draped all over him to break up the throw. Two plays later on 3rd-and-9, Ryan hit Freeman again downfield for an eight-yard gain to bring about a decision for Falcons head coach Dan Quinn. Quinn opted to go for it on 4th-and-1 at the Saints 40-yard line. On the rollout, Coleman was wide open in the flat and Ryan hit him before the running back sprinted for a 34-yard gain to put the ball down at the Saints six-yard line. The Saints were caught out of position on the next play with Coleman walking into the end zone without any nearby defenders for a six-yard score. Atlanta now sported a 35-17 lead with 12:03 left in the third quarter after a six-play, 75-yard scoring drive.
Brees missed on a throw to Thomas to start the next series thanks to Beasley getting some pressure in his face. Thomas then got behind Brian Poole down the sideline to make a nice adjustment on a 25-yard play to give the Saints a first down two plays later. Two plays later, Brees’ next pass was another 25-yard gain thanks to Cadet blowing past Weatherspoon on a wheel route. Coleman then found a soft spot in the Falcons zone coverage for an 11-yard reception to put the ball at the Falcons eight-yard line. Thomas then avoided a tackle from Poole on a quick slant for a six-yard gain. Beasley then blew up a shovel pass tto Ingram, dropping him for a one-yard loss. However Saints fullback John Kuhn powered past Weatherspoon for a three-yard score. The Saints opted for the two-point conversion and Ingram converted on a toss play, cutting the Falcons’ lead to 35-25 after a nine-play, 75-yard Saints scoring drive.
Freeman found a cutback lane on first down to gain 21 yards to start the next Falcons series. Two plays later Ryan connected with Gabriel on a deep crosser for 19 yards off play action to put the ball into Saints territory. Off another play-action play, Ryan faced pressure and nearly threw an interception on an errant pass to Aldrick Robinson, with Byrd nearly making the diving grab. Ryan then hit Jones for the first time in the game on a comeback for a 16-yard gain. Coleman then delivered a stiff arm to Crawley before gaining nine yards on the run to the outside to put the Falcons at the Saints 11-yard line. A pair of runs split by Coleman and Freeman got the Falcons five more yards before Ryan opted to keep the ball on a read-option, gaining three yards to set up a 3rd-and-goal from the Saints three-yard line. However Ryan overthrew Tamme in the back of the end zone and the Falcons had to settle for a 21-yard field goal from Matt Bryant to push their lead to 38-25 with 3:03 left in the third quarter.
After a two-yard run by Ingram to start the next Saints possession, Alford got beat on a pair of passes to Lewis and Thomas for a combined 22 yards. However teammate Trufant came off the edge on a corner blitz to get the team’s second sack of 2016, dropping Brees for an eight-yard loss. Yet the Saints gained much of that back on an 11-yard gain by Ingram on a draw play. However Fleener was flagged for a holding call, wiping out the gain and pushing the Saints back to a 2nd-and-21 with the third quarter coming to a close. However the Saints were able to convert the ensuing 3rd-and-14 to start the fourth quarter with Ingram gaining 18 yards on a check down. Lewis then got behind Weatherspoon on a deep cross for a 26-yard gain to put the ball down at the Falcons 11-yard line. But Poole jumped an attempted pick route to Thomas, tipping the ball up into the air and Jones snatched it before rumbling 90 yards for a pick-six to stretch Atlanta’s lead to 45-25 with 13:37 left in the game.
Thomas beat Alford on a quick slant for a 12-yard gain to start the next series. Brees connected with Fleener on his next two passes for a combined 45 yards, including a 36-yard lob deep over the middle with Jones trailing him in coverage. Ingram broke a series of tackles on a six-yard gain to put the ball down at the Falcons 10-yard line, before converting a 2nd-and-4 with a five-yard run up the middle. Ingram then made the grab on a screen pass while lined up on the outside, scoring from five yards out. That cut the Falcons lead back to two scores after a seven-play, 75-yard drive, with the Saints now down 45-32 with 10 minutes left to go in the game.
On the second play of the ensuing Falcons series, Sterling Moore made a good leaping breakup of a deep throw to Jones down the sideline to bring about a 3rd-and-8. But Ryan was able to win with his legs, stepping up in the pocket to avoid pressure from defensive end Kasim Edebali and gained 18 yards to convert. Two plays later Ryan then threw high to Gabriel on a rollout to his left, with the receiver unable to make the leaping grab with Crawley all over him. The Saints blitzed on the next play, with defensive tackle Nick Fairley dropping Ryan for a sack on 3rd-and-8 to force the first Falcons punt since the first quarter.
Alford nearly snagged an interception on the second play from scrimmage on the ensuing Saints drive, jumping a throw to Ingram. Initially ruled an interception, however upon review it was deemed that the ball hit the turf before Alford could secure it, resulting in an incompletion. The Saints converted the ensuing 3rd-and-1 on a quick throw to Cadet in the flat for a three-yard gain. Brees then threw a dart to Coleman, but Alford was able to trip him up to prevent him from securing the ball for another incompletion. Fleener then beat cornerback C.J. Goodwin for a 24-yard gain on a crossing pattern to put the ball at midfield. Jones nearly had another interception off a deflection on a Brees pass to Fleener three plays later. Two plays later, Thomas made a diving grab on a slant for three yards, failing to convert on 3rd-and-4. The Saints went for it on 4th-and-1 and Brees converted on a sneak for two yards. However on the next play, Dwight Freeney powered past Andrus Peat for a sack, dropping Brees for a nine-yard loss. Poole made a nice open-field tackle in the flat on Cadet for a loss of two yards. Two plays later on 4th-and-21, Brees was forced to step up in the pocket to avoid pressure from Clayborn and was dropped after a seven-yard run. The Falcons took over at their 32-yard line with 2:51 left in the game.
Freeman got the first opportunity to salt away the game, reversing field and gaining 16 yards before sliding down in bounds to keep the clock moving just before the two-minute warning hit. Freeman then found a huge alley off the right side, juked Byrd once more in the open field being dragged down at the Saints four-yard line after a 48-yard gain. Freeman was stuffed up the middle for a loss of one yard before the Falcons opted to kneel down twice to end the game.
The Falcons start the year 2-1 with both victories on the road, aping last season’s 2-0 road start. Next week they return home to face fellow NFC South division rival Carolina Panthers. The Falcons have split with the Panthers over the past five seasons since Cam Newton became the latter’s starting quarterback with a 5-5 record. However the Falcons have loss five of the last seven in that series. Their most recent outing was a surprising 20-13 home win over a then undefeated Panthers team in Week 16.* That followed two consecutive home losses against the Panthers. The 1-2 Panthers are looking to defend their NFC South crown with their first division win over the season. Since 2011, the Panthers are 2-8 in road games immediately following on the heels of a home loss. The Falcons were 2-1 last year under Quinn in home games immediately following a road win. Since 2008, the Falcons are 15-7 in such contests.