The Atlanta Falcons showed a little signs of life, going the distance with the New Orleans Saints in a 17-13 loss. Despite now sporting a 2-9 record, the Falcons were able to hang with the rival Saints (now 9-2) and had opportunities to win the game late. It is a stark change from recent performances which have seen the Falcons get beat by at least two scores in four straight games.
Matt Ryan had an improved performance, completing 30 of 39 passes for 292 yards, but was held without a touchdown for the first time in 16 games. Steven Jackson scored the Falcons’ lone touchdown, leading the team with 16 carries for 63 yards on the ground. Harry Douglas led receivers with 9 catches for 79 yards. Darius Johnson (6 catches, 67 yards), Tony Gonzalez (4 catches, 43 yards), and Jackson (3 catches, 16 yards) had notable contributions in the passing game as well. Roddy White was held in check for the most part, catching just a pair of passes for 24 yards. Matt Bryant connected on two field goals from 39 and 24 yards out, but missed a 52-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. The kicked sailed wide left, giving the Saints the ball back and a chance to seal the game with their four-point lead. Matt Bosher punted 3 times for an average of 45.3 yards, with 1 punt placed inside the 20-yard line. Robert McClain returned one punt for 10 yards. The Falcons third down offense improved this week, as they were able to convert on half of their 12 attempts. They were also able to score touchdowns on one of two red zone trips.
Defensively, the Falcons held the Saints to their second-lowest scoring output of the season. They gave up 374 total yards, including 103 on the ground. They were unable to provide adequate pressure, totaling only a single sack on Drew Brees, and struggled to get off the field on third downs. The Saints were successful at converting 54-percent of their 13 third down attempts. Paul Worrilow led the team in tackles for the fourth-consecutive week, tallying 9 stops on the night. Jonathan Babineaux (4 tackles); Joplo Bartu (7 tackles); Thomas DeCoud (7 tackles, 1 pass defended); Peria Jerry (3 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 sack); Robert McClain (5 tackles); William Moore (5 tackles); Desmond Trufant (5 tackles, 3 passes defended); and Sean Weatherspoon (4 tackles) had notable performances.
The Falcons came out strong, forcing a three-and-out by the Saints offense to open the game. The run defense performed well, bottling up the Saints on first and second down for -3 yards combined. The Falcons offense responded with a good start of their own. Steven Jackson took his first four carries for a combined 23 yards to help move the ball into Saints territory. Matt Ryan then found Jacquizz Rodgers in the flat on a 3rd-and-3, who then ran for a 22-yard gain after the catch to put the ball at the Saints 9-yard line. Ryan then hit Darius Johnson for a 6-yard score two plays later, but the play was reviewed and overturned. Johnson’s knee was seen down just before he reached the ball over the goal line and the Falcons had the ball at the 1-yard line to set up a third down. But Jackson was able to leap over the pile to get the score and give the Falcons a 7-0 lead.
But the Saints answered back with a scoring drive of their own, marching down the field on a 15-play, 78-yard drive to tie the game. The Saints were able to convert three third downs to move the ball into the red zone, with two of them coming on Drew Brees passes to Pierre Thomas. On the Saints’ fourth third down attempt, Brees found Marques Colston on a 12-yard pass to put the ball down at the Falcons’ 3-yard line. Three plays later, Brees found an open Ben Watson in the back of the end zone for a 1-yard score. The Saints had now tied the game 7-7 with roughly a minute remaining in the first quarter.
Matt Ryan hit Darius Johnson on a 17-yard throw to close out the first quarter. Then he dialed up Johnson two plays later on a deep pass. And while the ball fell incomplete, Saints cornerback Corey White was flagged for pass interference which gave the Falcons the ball at the Saints’ 25-yard line. But a sack by Akiem Hicks on the very next play backed up the Falcons, and they were unable to convert two plays later on 3rd-and-17. Matt Bryant trotted out on the field and made his first field goal attempt from 39 yards to give Atlanta a 10-7 lead with 12:20 left in the first half.
The Saints responded quickly, moving the ball to near midfield on four plays. On the next play, tight end Jimmy Graham beat William Moore on a double move, and dragged Moore into the end zone for a 44-yard score. The Saints had taken the lead 14-10 in an 80-yard drive that lasted barely over two minutes.
But the Falcons offense would not be deterred, even when Jeremy Trueblood was flagged for a personal foul penalty after the Falcons had gotten a first down on a 12-yard pass from Ryan to Jason Snelling. The penalty backed up the Falcons to their 38-yard line, but Ryan hit Snelling again for 7 yards, which was followed up by an 11-yard run by Antone Smith to get into Saints territory. Darius Johnson had a pair of catches thereafter to get the ball into the red zone. But on 3rd-and-goal from the Saints’ 10-yard line, Ryan couldn’t find an open receiver and elected to scramble up the middle. Ryan slid rather than attempt to avoid the oncoming hit from Roman Harper and the Falcons were set to kick another field goal. Bryant hit from 24 yards out, the Falcons had cut the Saints’ lead to one point with 2:41 left in the half.
The Falcons defense stepped up and forced a three-and-out of the Saints offense thanks to a dropped pass from tight end Josh Hill and a holding penalty on Tim Lelito on third down. But the Falcons were unable to get the ball out of their territory before they were forced to punt the ball back to the Saints with 34 seconds left in the half. The Saints were able to get the ball into Falcon territory thanks to an 18-yard run by Pierre Thomas and 17-yard catch by Lance Moore, but time expired before the Saints could get closer to attempt a last-second field goal. The score remained 14-13 in the Saints favor at halftime.
The Falcons opened the third quarter, allowing a pair of pivotal sacks from Cameron Jordan, which backed up the team and forced a punt. But the Falcons defense responded, and Thomas DeCoud broke up a pass to Ben Watson on a 3rd-and-1 to force a Saints punt. But again, the Falcons defense failed to take advantage thanks to a dropped pass by Johnson, who was wide open on 3rd-and-2.
The next series starting with promise for the Falcons defense, as Peria Jerry burst up the middle to get a sack on Brees. But Thomas was able to run 18 yards to convert the first down on the very next play. Three plays later, Brees found a wide open Graham over the middle for a 35-yard gain after he dragged a couple of Falcons defenses. That kicked the Falcons defense into gear and they were able to get off the field on their next third down, forcing a 41-yard field goal from Garrett Hartley, which pushed the Saints’ lead to 17-13.
Atlanta took over with 4:37 left in the third quarter and were able to move the ball beyond midfield with smart play from Ryan. He completed four consecutive passes for 37 yards, before scrambling for a 6-yard gain on 3rd-and-2 to close out the quarter. That run gave the Falcons a new set of downs at the Saints’ 40-yard line. After hitting Tony Gonzalez and Douglas for a pair of 8-yard passes, the Falcons offense was driving and poised to try and take its first lead since the first quarter. But two plays later, Ryan hit Johnson on a screen pass, and he was stripped from behind by Keyunta Dawson, and Corey White recovered the fumble. The Saints took over at their 13-yard line with 13:05 left in the game.
Brees continued to dial Pierre Thomas’ number, as the running back converted a 2nd-and-15 with 16-yard catch on the third play of the ensuing drive. Four plays later, Brees connected once more with Thomas for a 13-yard gain to put the ball into Falcon territory. But the Saints drive then stalled thanks to Desmond Trufant breaking up a pass to Robert Meachem on third down. That forced a Thomas Morstead punt, and Atlanta had the ball back at their 9-yard line with 7:53 left in the game.
Ryan was sacked for the fourth time to open the series, backing up the Falcons to their 3-yard line. But Roddy White made his biggest catch of the night two plays later, with a 13-yard grab to get the Falcons out of the shadow of their end zone. Ryan dialed up Gonzalez and Douglas again soon thereafter for a combined 32 yards on a pair of passes to get the ball into Saints territory. After an 8-yard run by Steven Jackson helped convert on a 2nd-and-3 two plays later, the Falcons looked to be on one of their patented game-winning drives with 2:36 left in the game. But two plays later, Ryan was sacked for the fifth and final time of the night, once again by Cameron Jordan which backed them up to a 3rd-and-15 at the Saints’ 34-yard line. Ryan’s lob pass to Douglas was incomplete, which set up a 4th-and-15 with 2:24 left. Mike Smith elected to go for the 52-yard field goal rather than going for it. Bryant connected on his initial attempt, but Saints head coach Sean Payton was successful at calling a timeout before the snap, nullifying the try. On Bryant’s next attempt, the kick sailed wide left and the Saints took over at their 42-yard line with 2:19 left in the game.
The Falcons burned one of their three remaining timeouts after a 4-yard run by Thomas on first down. But Brees found Meachem for an 18-yard gain to get the ball into Falcon territory on the next play. After a 2-yard run by Thomas, the two-minute warning hit. But Thomas then ran 16 yards up the middle to get another first down, and the Falcons were forced to use their second timeout as their chances of winning evaporated. The Saints proceeded to run the ball two more times before Brees knelt twice to set up a fourth down with 12 seconds left. Brees took the snap and ran around to burn extra time, as the Falcons took over on a turnover on downs with just 5 seconds left. Atlanta tried to lateral the ball on the final play to make up the 62 yards needed to score, but an illegal forward pass penalty was called on Douglas, and the game was over.
The Falcons will have some extra rest as they prepare to go on the road to face the Buffalo Bills in Toronto ten days from now. Since the Bills began to host home games at the Rogers Centre in Toronto in 2008, they are 1-4. The Falcons are 1-2 under Mike Smith in games following a Thursday night contest.