In a memorable, physical NFC South showdown, the New Orleans Saints (9-4) fell 20-17 to the Atlanta Falcons (8-5) on Thursday Night Football. Penalties hindered New Orleans throughout the game, with several questionable calls and misses by the officials that will surely warrant league review this week. Still, this loss cannot be blamed on officiating alone.
The Saints built a 17-10 lead early in the third quarter and squandered several opportunities to add another score. They went scoreless in the final 28 minutes while Atlanta snuck ahead with 10 fourth-quarter points. Following an eight-game win streak, New Orleans has now lost two of their last three games. They’re heading in the wrong direction during the most critical part of the season. But if there’s one bright spot, it’s that you can use your bonus to play table games at Royal Vegas.
Here are three takeaways from the Saints first divisional loss of the season, as the NFC South race tightens up once again.
It started with a helmet-to-helmet hit on running back Alvin Kamara on the opening possession, and soon it felt like the Saints were losing a player to injury on each drive. A total of six Saints players were injured and did not return. Three others; tight end Josh Hill, wide receiver Michael Thomas, and running back Mark Ingram briefly left the game as well.
It didn’t help that some of the injuries occurred at positions where the Saints were already quite thin. Left guard Senio Kelemete went down in the third quarter filling in for injured starter Andrus Peat. Linebacker Michael Mauti, who’s mainly a special teams contributor, was forced into action following an injury to A.J. Klein early on. Trey Hendrickson left with an injury in the second quarter, leaving Hau’oli Kikaha as the only active defensive end left on the roster.
The only consolation is that this Thursday night game gives New Orleans nine days of rest before a home game against the New York Jets next week.
Offense Isn’t the Same Without Alvin Kamara
Kamara looked to be a major part of the Saints gameplan prior to his injury. On the opening possession, Kamara had four touches for 27 yards. That drive stalled three plays after Kamara’s exit, and New Orleans had to settle for a field goal. This was the story for much of the game as the Saints seemed to miss the spontaneity and spark that Kamara provides.
The Saints offense caught fire at different moments but struggled to finish drives. They failed to truly capitalize on the defense’s three takeaways, which resulted in just seven points. New Orleans also made little attempt to establish their running game. Ingram only received 12 carries despite averaging 4.1 yards per carry. Meanwhile, Atlanta ran 37 times and possessed the ball for nearly ten minutes longer than the Saints as a result.
New Orleans inexplicably forced quarterback Drew Brees to throw 35 times. He finished with a great completion percentage of 74.3%, along with 271 yards passing and two touchdowns, but the pass-heavy approach didn’t make sense since the Saints were tied with, or leading the Falcons for most of the game. The Saints paid for this aggressiveness on their final offensive play. From the Falcons 11-yard line with 1:25 still remaining, Brees forced a pass to Hill that was intercepted. He never saw Ingram, who was wide open in the flat.
Saints Defense Played Their Hearts Out
Despite entering the game plagued with injuries, along with losing three more starters against Atlanta, New Orleans did everything they could to stop the Falcons. Most significantly, quarterback Matt Ryan was intercepted on three of four passing attempts at one point. He was only sacked once, but the Saints hit him on five other attempts. Ryan finished with 221 passing yards, one touchdown, and a 55.3 passer rating.
Utilizing mostly man-to-man press coverage, the Saints young and battered secondary held its own for the most part. All-Pro Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones was held to five catches on 11 targets, but he did manage to gain 98 yards despite the limited touches. On a late Falcons drive at the end of the first half, rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore wrestled Jones at the line of scrimmage and beat him to intercept Ryan’s pass.
Lattimore was still bothered by an ankle injury suffered in week 11, and was reportedly ill as well. As a result, he left the playing field several times to receive oxygen. Listed as questionable heading into the matchup, safety Marcus Williams overcame his lingering groin injury to make some key plays. Williams recorded six tackles, broke up a long pass, and intercepted Ryan in the end zone.
The real problem for the defense was defending the run. Atlanta averaged only 3.6 yards on their 37 runs, but they controlled the clock and kept the ball away from a Saints offense that was playing much more efficiently.
New Orleans will greatly benefit from the upcoming nine days of rest to gather themselves, and attempt to reestablish some momentum to finish the regular season.