The Saints handed the Falcons their first loss of the season, and may have just saved their own season—and Rob Ryan's job—in the process.
It didn't have the same sense of inspiration we all saw in the Superdome on Sept, 26, 2006, when the Saints returned to their home for the first time in over a year following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. There were no pregame songs from U2 or Green Day, and the entire nation wasn't rooting for a feel-good story. But there was a different sense of desperation overcome in that same stadium on Thursday night, as the Saints beat the Falcons—the same foe they handled on that first home game for both Drew Brees and Sean Payton years ago—and there was a blocked punt that awakened the echoes of that inspiring night.
Back then, it was safety Steve Gleason who blocked a Michael Koenon punt, and cornerback Curtis DeLoatch who fell on the ball for a touchdown in a moment that threatened the dome's resolve. That was the highlight of that 23-3 win, and it was a blocked punt and touchdown by Saints linebacker Michael Mauti, who took care of Falcons punter Matt Bosher, that was an early turning point.
In a rather amazing coincidence, Mauti, who was born in New Orleans, had seen Gleason's block years before from a special vantage point.
“I do not think it’s hit me yet,” he said after the game. “I was in the stands when Steve Gleason blocked that punt against Atlanta. It was a special feeling. That’s what I’ve been dreaming about since I was sitting in that seat up there. To live that out is something special... He is one of my heroes. I look up to him. To do something like that against Atlanta like he did is something that I’ve been dreaming about for a long time.”
The blocked punt put New Orleans up 14-0 with 2:06 left in the first quarter, and the Saints never looked back, winning 31-21 and raising their 2015 record to 2-4. A loss would have basically ended their season, but the Saints played with an efficiency and intensity not seen through most of the season on either side of the ball.
“Every time out, you want to win, but coming home after a disappointing loss last week and the situation we've been in early on in this season, we needed a win like this against a very good opponent,” Brees said after it was over. “The team really came together and played great tonight in all three phases. Can't say enough about our defense—they did a phenomenal job and got a bunch of takeaways, which was big time. Offensively, we were able to sustain drives and get points when we needed to. We left a few out there, but it was something to build on.”
Gleason, who was in the stadium despite his long battle with ALS, perhaps put it best on Twtter.
Hey, Falcons. #NeverPunt -SG— Steve Gleason (@TeamGleason) October 16, 2015
Here are three more things to take away from Week 6's first game.
1. The Saints may have found Matt Ryan's Kryptonite—and Rob Ryan may have saved his job.
Through their first five games of the 2015 season, the Falcons established an undefeated mark predicated to a large degree on a dynamic offense designed by Kyle Shanahan in which coordinated zone blocking led to huge openings and opportunities for running backs Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman, and first-read openings for quarterback Matt Ryan and his receivers. Ryan had always had a tendency to dawdle too long in the pocket waiting for the perfect scenario, but Shanahan's route concepts allowed him to find receivers more quickly, and the results showed on the field.
Not so this time. Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, rumored in some outlets to be out of a job if New Orleans' defensive woes continued, dialed up the perfect combination of man coverage, run blitzes, and pattern-matching downfield to confuse Ryan and force him to hang in the pocket too long too often. He trusted cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Devin Breaux to go up hard against Roddy White, Leonard Hankerson and Julio Jones, directing them to stick to Atlanta's talented receivers all the way through the play. Ryan finished with 30 completions in 44 attempts for 295 yards and two touchdowns, but he also bobbled one handoff, was the recipient of a bad snap, and was sacked five times—three times by end Cameron Jordan, whose strip-sack of Ryan with a few seconds left ended the game. Freeman scored two more touchdowns to increase his league-leading total to 10, but it was too little, too late, and now the real challenge begins for the Falcons, as teams start to adjust to Shanahan's impressive concepts.
2. Drew Brees has still got it: No, Brees's arm isn't what it used to be. And yes, his offensive line has been attacked by injuries and attrition, a situation compounded when rookie left tackle Andrus Peat left this game early in the first quarter with what looked to be a lower leg injury. But he still knows how to carve up a defense—especially against a defense like Atlanta's, with its Cover-1 and Cover-3 concepts. Against such a defense, you throw under the hood of the coverage, and that's precisely what Brees did, completing 30 of 39 passes for 312 yards and a touchdown to wide-open tight end Benjamin Watson, who set a career high with 127 yards on 10 catches.
“That's my guy,” Brees said of Watson, the 12-year veteran. “He's probably one of the greatest teammates you could ever ask for. He's a phenomenal worker, he's a great leader, a great person, a great family man—he's everything you'd want in a teammate. I look up to him—he motivates me so much. He inspires me every day. So, for him to have a night like tonight was fantastic.”
It was also a fantastic night for running back Mark Ingram, who scored two touchdowns on the ground, though he totaled just 46 yards on 20 carries. The Saints still need to get all their playmakers involved more often—the relative absences of running back C.J. Spiller and receiver Brandin Cooks were curious—but it was enough on this night, because the quarterback had it on lock.
3. Dan Quinn's a great coach, but the Falcons aren't at the top of the pantheon yet.
One loss doesn't tell you everything about a team, and the Falcons are still a formidable foe. They're 5-1, and still in place to do some serious damage in the NFC. And according to Football Outsiders' metrics, they have the NFL's easiest remaining schedule. But the lack of pressure on Brees—he was sacked just once—and several coverage breakdowns proved what many suspected to be true. This Atlanta defense is much better under Quinn, in his first year as head coach after a wildly successful stint as Seattle's defensive coordinator. But there are personnel disadvantages, especially in the back seven, and there's only so much of that you can coach up. And on offense, as previously discussed, we'll see how opponents counter what Shanahan does. Some in and around the league believe that Shanahan's playbook is one that can be cracked over time, and even with the talent the Falcons have on that side of the ball, it certainly appeared that some weaknesses were revealed.