This was a highly enjoyable game to watch if you are interested in pro football, and what drives in-game decision-making for NFL head coaches. The game also showed the difference between NFL football and college football; both teams came out intent on running the ball out of the I-formation, for example. Finally, this game showed dramatically the intensity difference between a divisional game and non-divisional game. These two teams know each other very well, and on a short week, both coaches did an outstanding job managing the game so that each was in a position to win, even though player execution was lacking. In fact, two key Saints penalty cost them the game: a 15 yard roughing the passer call on DT Sheldon Rankins allowed the Falcons to retain a possession that led to seven points, and a five-yard illegal formation call on 3rd string G Josh LeRibeus on a first half-ending FG took three points off the board.
Play Calling: There were a number of notable and interesting head coaching decisions for both teams tonight.
- Saints: Trailing 20-17, with 1:55 left in the fourth, and facing 4th and inches at the Atlanta 24 – both teams have all three timeouts left. Sean Payton decided to go for it – he got it on a sneak – and we agreed with the call.
- The Saints trailed 20-17, and faced a 2nd & 10 at the Atlanta 12, with 1:30 left in the 4th, and one timeout remaining and two for Atlanta. In this scenario, the Saints had a game tying FG attempt from 29 yards secured, and two or more downs potentially to win the game outright. The play call was a play-pass to TE Josh Hill in the endzone, with a check down available to RB Mark Ingram. The pass was intercepted, and the play effectively ended the game. Between running it and forcing the Falcons to burn a timeout, and giving the ball to future HOF QB Drew Brees on 2nd down, it wasn’t a bad play call. Brees had the check down available (which he acknowledged) but it was just a lack of execution that flipped the game to the Falcons.
- Saints led 17-10 with 4:22 left in third, and faced a 1st and 10 on their own 24. It is a second consecutive opportunity to go up by two scores, and with the Falcons offense struggling, a two score lead would have felt insurmountable. The first down play call was a jet sweep to WR Ted Ginn that resulted in a 3 yard loss. We didn’t favor this call because the Falcons have a very fast defense – it’s built on speed – and while Ginn is one of the fastest players on the Saints, running lateral plays on the Falcons is hard to do. The loss on first down was too much to overcome, and the Saints were forced to punt. It was their last, best chance to effectively secure the game. Payton probably was trying to catch the Falcons in an over-pursue situation, but it just didn’t work this time. While it may not seem like it at first blush, this was a key play in the game.
- Falcons: One of the most interesting play call sequences in this game came on the Saints’ final possession. The Saints had the a 3rd & about eight inches at the Atlanta 24, trailing 20-17. Both teams had all three timeouts remaining, just over two minutes left in the game.
- The Saints attempted a pass play, but committed a holding penalty. Falcons head coach Dan Quinn was presented with this choice: accept the penalty and allow the Saints a 3rd & 11 from the Atlanta 34, or allow the Saints a 4th & inches from the 24?
- This sequence illustrates well the fun part of professional football and the poker nature of head coaching. Based on Dan Quinn’s post-game comments, he decided to decline the penalty because he felt Saints head coach Sean Payton would opt for the FG, and Quinn’s offense would have nearly two minutes and three timeouts left to pursue a winning FG or TD.
- But Quinn guessed wrong about Payton’s decision. Payton decided to go for it, and if Brees doesn’t throw the interception in the endzone in an ensuing play, Quinn’s decision here would have been severely second guessed.
- In the 2nd half, the Falcons defense made FOUR consecutive stops, including the game winner in which LB Deion Jones intercepted Brees’ pass intended for TE Josh Hill. That play was a brilliant play call by DC Marquand Manuel – he had to trust Jones’ athleticism, and Jones came through time and again in this game. We have been impressed with Manuel throughout the year; we view him as a future head coaching candidate.
- Likewise, in the first half, the Saints had two consecutive opportunities to go up two scores, and Manuel’s defense made two stops. Six possessions vs a Payton offense that results in zero points is hard to do, even if the Saints had lost Kamara to injury.
- The Saints lost a number of defensive and offensive players in this game, and were challenged to continue to fight, and on a short week as well. They showed tremendous resiliency against a Falcons teams that essentially was playing for its season.
- DC Dennis Allen did a nice job of playing sound defense even though he had to do so with a rotating cast of players, in addition to having star CB Marshon Lattimore exit the game at various points. Three interceptions of QB Matt Ryan is quite an accomplishment, and one was by backup DB Chris Banjo.
- The Saints also had a nice contribution from WR Tommy Lee Lewis, typically their kick returner and gadget specialist.
- Saints: All eyes were on Sean Payton as to what to do with Kamara being hurt on the first offensive series. Well, on a short week, there isn’t much you can go to, and that showed as there were at least 6 offensive series that resulted in 0 points. However, Payton was able to work in WR Tommy Lee Lewis effectively enough for a TD.
- Falcons: The Falcons get key contributions from their TE group every game. Austin Hooper and Levine Toilolo aren’t household names (Hooper is getting there), but they are key contributors to the offense because of the many multiple TE looks the Falcons run, and Toilolo continues to make key plays on special teams.
- FB Derrick Coleman was a key contributor this game. The Falcons came out intent on running the ball out of I-formation, and they were successful most of the night. DB Brian Poole is a player that always shows up as well; he is a physical player, and a credit to the Falcons personnel department – he was signed as an undrafted free agent.
- Both teams came out with some old school offensive football notions tonight – lots of I-formation and play action. We like that style here at HCR. No one really game plans much for any Thursday night game, however.
- Saints: On defense, the Saints continue to grow in confidence in their man to man scheme, and it was effective as they intercepted Matt Ryan three times.
- Falcons: Offensively, it appears they were really intent on getting the ball to WR Julio Jones. They were successful in spots, but it felt forced, to the detriment of WR Taylor Gabriel, who was essentially ignored. Defensively, we like how consistent the Falcons are to their scheme. They trust the speed of their players, and they don’t need to do anything exotic.
- Saints: Defensively, the Saints performed well this game, especially since they had lost so many players to injury. One adjustment they had to deal with in this game was managing CB Marshon Lattimore, in his first game back from a 2 week absence due to ankle injury. Lattimore also was playing with an illness, so making the defensive calls with his backup playing significant snaps was something the Saints had to adjust to.
- Falcons: The key adjustment made by the Falcons in this game came on offense. The Saints now have an effective man defense game on the outside, and even with the Falcons stubbornly trying to force the ball to WR Julio Jones, the Saints managed to shut him down in some key series. So the Falcons could have continued to be stubborn, or they could choose to move Jones around and offer him some relief from man coverage. The Falcons chose to adjust, and started using bunch formations. This was tougher for the Saints to defend, and it also freed up WR Mohammed Sanu.
- Both teams generally managed the clock well. The Saints burned one timeout on their opening drive, which we generally don’t favor, but both of these teams are good front running teams, so the Saints may have felt it was judicious to use the timeout on a key 3rd & 2 at the Falcons 32 in an effort to go up a TD early. There also was a notable penalty on Sean Payton on an end of game sequence that received a lot of attention, but frankly, even if the Saints would have successfully stopped the Falcons on 3rd down, the Saints may have gotten the ball with only about 20 seconds to go in the game.
What We Liked
- The Falcons defense and its commitment to its style. Kudos to DC Marquand Manuel.
What We Didn’t Like
- The Falcons forcing the ball to WR Julio Jones. They have a plethora of weapons on offense, and part of their relative stagnation this year is an effective use of all of their personnel.