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.

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2010 NFL Question Marks: Atlanta Falcons

FLOWERY BRANCH, GA - JULY 30: Chevis Jackson , Dunta Robinson  and Brent Grimes  of the Atlanta Falcons celebrate after a defensive turnover during opening day of training camp on July 30, 2010 at the Falcons Training Complex in Flowery Branch, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Merry training camp season, everyone. It’s been a long offseason, but football is finally gearing up again and to celebrate I’m rolling out a new series on TSR entitled “2010 NFL Question Marks,” where I discuss one or two of the biggest concerns that teams have heading into the new season. Granted, some teams have more issues than others, but I’ll primarily be focusing on the biggest problem areas. Today I’ll be discussing the Falcons, who still have some holdover questions from last year in their secondary.

When you look up and down the Falcons’ current depth chart, you don’t see a lot of weaknesses. Their offensive core of Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez is outstanding and while their offensive line is comprised of five no-names (save for maybe former first rounder Sam Baker), they’re solid as a collective unit (even underrated to some extent).

Atlanta’s biggest question marks come on the defensive side of the ball, although they’re not as prevalent as some may think. John Abraham saw his sack total drop from 16.5 in 2008 to only 5.5 in 2009, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t effective. He still provided the Falcons with a steady pass rush – he just didn’t get to the quarterback as frequently as he did in ’08.

That said, the Falcons definitely need him to pick up his game if they’re going to make a trip back to the postseason this year. The good news is that he’ll have help in the form of Jonathan Babineaux (the team’s most underrated defensive player and best interior pass-rusher) and Peria Jerry (assuming he’s healthy), as well as two ends in Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury that I firmly believe will turn heads this season. Plus, if former 8th overall pick Jamaal Anderson ever lives up to the potential he displayed during his final year at Arkansas, the Falcons could have the makings of a great defensive line.

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Is the NFC South on the line tonight?

With over eight games remaining on the schedule, it might be a little early to suggest that a division winner could be theoretically crowned tonight in the NFC South, but a closer look reveals otherwise.

At 6-0, the Saints currently have a two game lead over the 4-2 Falcons in the division. A win tonight and New Orleans will open up a three game lead over Atlanta with nine games remaining for each team. Granted, a lot could happen in nine games but barring injury to Drew Brees the Saints don’t look like a team that will implode in the second half.

A quick peak at the rest of the Saints’ schedule reveals very winnable games against the Panthers (twice), Rams, Bucs (twice) and the Redskins. The only games that present a challenge are home dates with the Patriots (Week 12) and Cowboys (Week 15), as well as a trip to Atlanta in Week 14. The Falcons have a longer roe to hoe, with road games against the Giants and Jets, as well as home games against the Eagles, Saints and pesky Bills. So with all things considered, a loss tonight and a three-game hole would be incredibly tough to climb out of if you’re Atlanta.

Even at 4-2, the Falcons have a lot to prove. Michael Turner is averaging a full YPC less than he did last season, Matt Ryan started off hot but is now fading and the defense has major issues in the secondary. After they were spanked last week in Dallas, the Falcons need a good showing tonight in New Orleans not just to keep pace in the NFC South, but also to prove to themselves that they’re a legitimate playoff contender.

Atlanta will certainly be tested tonight. The Saints have the most balanced offensive attack in the league and if the Falcons can’t generate any pressure on Brees, he’ll light up a secondary that is athletic, but is often overmatched in coverage do to lack of size (Brent Grimes) or technique (Chris Houston). The Falcons’ corners don’t play well in man-to-man coverage, so blitzing extra linebackers isn’t always a possibility. That means the front four of John Abraham, Jonathan Babineaux, Jamaal Anderson and Chauncey Davis must step up and provide a consistent pass rush or else Atlanta will get torched.

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Smith needs to fix the Falcons’ defensive woes

Putting aside their lackluster effort Sunday in New England, the Atlanta Falcons have more than enough offensive talent to reach the Super Bowl. They have a rising superstar at quarterback in Matt Ryan, a solid back in Michael Turner and two excellent receiving weapons in tight end Tony Gonzalez and wideout Roddy White.

But the Falcons aren’t going anywhere unless Mike Smith fixes the issues on the defensive side of the ball.

Atlanta’s game plan in its loss to New England on Sunday was befuddling. They often only rushed four down linemen and allowed Tom Brady to stand back in the pocket for seconds, minutes and even hours (maybe not hours, but it sure seemed like it) on end. What should frustrate the Falcons is that Brady wasn’t very good, especially in the first half. He routinely overthrew his receivers and often failed to hit them in stride despite having loads of time to get the ball out of his hand.

I want to meet the person for the Falcons that watched the tape of the Jets’ win over the Patriots last week and decided not to attack Brady with multiple defensive fronts. I get that Atlanta didn’t want to be burned deep by Moss and was getting beat by New England’s screen passes in the first half, but why the Falcons didn’t get more aggressive in the second half is beyond me.

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Don’t let New England’s win fool you – the Pats are far from fixed

Patriots 26, Falcons 10.

The Patriots are back right? They rolled over a good Falcons team today and they’re back. They’re ready to take control of the AFC East again and stomp everyone in their way.

Uh, not quite.

The Patriots definitely deserved to win Sunday because they were the better team. But the Falcons should be embarrassed by their effort, because they were outplayed and outcoached in every phase of the game. Simply put, Atlanta wasn’t ready to go into New England today and earn a victory.

This game is a perfect example of how stats sometimes lie. Tom Brady threw for 277 yards and a touchdown on 25 of 42 passing, but if he were more efficient, his numbers should have been dazzling. The Falcons were brutal defensively. They generated zero pressure, allowed Brady to sit back in the pocket for minutes at a time and were completely unimaginable in their play calling.

Brady had all day to throw and yet he could only muster 277 yards. Don’t be fooled by his stats – he wasn’t that impressive today as he consistently overthrew open receivers and benefited from the horrendous play of Atlanta cornerback Chris Houston and one of his offensive lineman holding on a fourth quarter touchdown pass to Chris Baker to seal the game. (Seriously, John Abraham was molested as the New England O-line bear-hugged him and the refs did nothing.)

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