Saints’ defense comes alive, shuts down Falcons

Here are five quick-hit thoughts on the Saints’ 17-14 win over the Falcons on Monday Night Football.

1. Gregg Williams’ defense steps up big-time.
On a night when the offense largely sputtered, Williams’ defense stepped up and won a game for the Saints. Outside of one 27-yard run by Michael Turner in the first half, the run defense was outstanding. This was a unit that has largely been gashed on the ground, which includes giving up over 100 yards last week to Ray Rice. Jonathan Vilma and Co. didn’t do anything special Monday night to shut down a potent Falcons’ rushing attack. They simply filled gaps, won in the trenches and got pressure up field. They dared the Falcons to beat them with the pass and while Matt Ryan was able to hit a few plays to Michael Jenkins throughout the game, this contest was largely won on the strength of New Orleans’ run defense (something that has often cost the Saints games this season).

2. The Falcons offense owes its defense an apology.
The reason I mentioned the Saints’ defensive effort first was because I didn’t want to take anything away from their effort. And I still don’t. That said, what a putrid effort by Mike Mularkey’s offense. They got zero push up front in the running game, center Todd McClure cost his team seven points with one of the worst snaps you’ll ever see and Turner put the ball on the ground at the goal line when the Falcons had seized momentum. And this came on a night when Atlanta’s defense held one of the most explosive offenses in the league to just 17 points. The effort that Jonathan Babineaux and John Abraham gave up front along the defensive line was outstanding. Yes, they missed Drew Brees on a handful of plays but they largely dominated the Saints’ offense with their aggressive play. Defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder deserves high praise for putting together a game plan that should have won the Falcons the game. How frustrating.

3. Brees is incredible but he’s still making too many big mistakes.
Had the Saints not been playing the Carolina Panthers’ offense, Brees would have cost his team a win. Abraham’s interception was just pure athleticism; there wasn’t much Brees could have done differently outside of tucking the ball and taking a sack. But his shovel pass right to Chauncey Davis was something a rookie would have done. Mike Tirico creamed his pants when Brees made the behind-the-back flip to Pierre Thomas the possession before the Davis’ interception and it was an incredible play. But the fact is, that was also a stupid decision and it was a precursor to the Davis’ INT. Brees was fortunate that Thomas was able to hang onto the ball as it rattled around in his hands. However, I don’t want to focus solely on the negative because Brees made some plays that were absolutely incredible. Some of his throws were picture-perfect and how many times did he avoid the Falcons’ consistent rush by moving around in the pocket and buying himself more time? Most quarterbacks would have been sacked 10 times but not Brees. If the Saints are going to defend their title this year, they’ll do so on the back of Brees. Talk about elite.

4. The Saints are set up to make another run.
Let’s play the assumption game for a second. Let’s assume the Falcons beat the Panthers to win the NFC South and earn a first round bye. That would mean the Saints would earn the fifth spot in the playoffs and take on either the inexperienced Rams or hapless Seahawks in the Wildcard Round. Brees and Sean Payton aren’t going to lose to a NFC West team – no matter where the game is being played. Thus, they could essentially set up another date with the Falcons inside the Georgia Dome (assuming that the No. 6 seed goes on the road and losses to either Philadelphia or Chicago). The Saints already proved that they can beat the Falcons in the Georgia Dome and then what’s stopping them from building a full head of steam and running right into the Super Bowl again? New Orleans has its issues, don’t get me wrong. But this may be the most dangerous team in the NFC right now because they’re starting to get a ton of confidence. And God help the conference if somehow the Panthers beat the Falcons on Sunday and the path runs through New Orleans again. Yikes.

5. The Falcons have a lot of tweaking to do.
Mike Smith has to love the way his defense played. The secondary is still a concern but if Van Gorder can figure out a way to drum up that much pressure every game, then Atlanta is going to be in good shape. But this game proved that the offense needs to be more explosive. Earlier in the season, Mularkey was criticized for his lack of play calls that test defenses vertically. We saw on Monday night that unless the Falcons can methodically go up and down the field on the strength of their running game, their offense is highly, highly, HIGHLY ordinary. And if the Saints’ run defense can shut down Turner, then teams like the Bears and Eagles can do it, too. I’m not suggesting Mularkey make wholesale changes at this point because the Falcons have won 12 games this season on the strength of their running game. But his play calling has to be better – especially around the goal line. Running Turner straight up the gut twice when they were primed to take the lead in the second quarter was ridiculous. Turner has to hang onto the ball, but how about a little play action? And why, when it has been so successful this season, did Mularkey only put Ryan in the no-huddle once? It was only one game, but this might have well been a playoff contest and Mularkey’s unit failed miserably.

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