For a while it looked like the story of this Falcons season would be their injury-depleted defense dragging them down. That narrative no longer holds. Now, it’s the other way around.
The Falcons got worse on offense at the same time their defense got better. They are springing leaks faster than they can plug them. Their season was sunk before they got to the Other Benz Dome on Thanksgiving night, but the Falcons could have shown something with a competitive effort.
Instead, they flopped. You’d think a 31-17 loss to the Saints meant Drew Brees carved them up, but he didn’t break 200 yards passing. The Falcons lost because they floundered with the ball. That isn’t supposed to happen with this star-studded and high-priced offense.
What a mess.
“The most challenged we’ve been over the last three years,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “It can be frustrating and confusing for sure.”
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The Falcons (4-7) have lost three straight games for the second time this season. The first losing streak happened mostly because they couldn’t stop anybody. The current streak is on their misfiring offense, which gave the ball away four times to the Saints .
The Falcons have been good offensively one time in their past five games. They scored 20 points or less in three of them. If the Saints game wasn’t the group’s worst effort, it was the ugliest.
“We’ve got to get back to playing our style of football and execute better because obviously it’s not working right now,” Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews said.
But what would that style even look like now? At this point the Falcons have a good quarterback and skill players, but their offensive line can’t block consistently for run or pass. Quinn said he’ll look to see what changes can be made with that group, but I don’t see many good options.
The Falcons are trying to function with no real running game. That’s not sustainable. They can’t execute stretch plays behind this offensive line, which is down two starters, and they’ve never been a power team.
Their inability to run has rendered moot the play-action bootlegs which had been so effective. Former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan lived off those plays. Current OC Steve Sarkisian was using them more in his second season, but now opponents need not respect the play-fakes.
The Saints are improved defensively, but that just means they went from bad to OK. Next week’s Falcons opponent, Baltimore, has a top-tier defense. The Falcons are looking at yet another week of struggling to score.
“We’ll see what guys are made of,” Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones said. “It’s rough right now, but you don’t want guys to quit.”
This wasn’t like the collapse in Cleveland. In that game, the Falcons seemed to go through the motions. In this game, they played with intensity. They just weren’t good enough even with the Saints not at their best.
The Falcons were down 24-3 before they scored their first touchdown. It took everything they had.
During that drive the Falcons converted a fourth-and-2 and a third-and-23. The latter came via Ryan’s improvised pass to Calvin Ridley that put them at the 2-yard line. They didn’t score until fourth down, when Ryan tossed a 2-yard touchdown pass to Ridley.
The Falcons forced a three-and-out after that. Here was a chance for the Falcons, down 24-10 early in the fourth quarter, to climb back in it. But Ryan’s shaky protection collapsed, Saints defensive tackle Tyeler Davison tipped his pass and A.J. Klein intercepted it.
The Saints needed only 22 yards for another touchdown. They got it in five plays to finish the Falcons. Then Ridley made things worse by losing his team’s third fumble in the red zone.
The Falcons coughed up the other two in the first half. They gave the ball away to end their first drive of the game when a blitz blew a hole through the line and safety Marcus Williams stripped the ball from Ryan. The Falcons gave it away on their last drive of the half when Jones took a hit.
The Falcons were down 17-3 at halftime. Perhaps they could have made a game of it without those miscues. Then again, isn’t that what we’ve been saying about the Falcons for three weeks now? Maybe if things were different for the Falcons, they wouldn’t be the same.
The Falcons are what they are, and it’s not good enough. Their defense is better but, without its best linebacker and two good safeties, isn’t going to carry the team. The Falcons just aren’t going to shut down opponents with good offenses.
The Saints have a great offense. The Chiefs and Rams are on another level, but the Saints are just a notch below. That loss to the Buccaneers was bad, but the Saints scored 40 points. They’ve hit that mark or higher in five other games.
That’s why it’s significant that the Falcons held the Saints to 31 points (with seven scored via the short field) even as they surrendered 150 yards rushing. Earlier in the season the Falcons couldn’t cover but there was Brees holding the ball for a while looking for targets.
“It doesn’t matter how we played defense,” linebacker De’Vondre Campbell said. “We lost.”
The Saints swept the Falcons for the first time since 2015, Quinn’s first season as coach. It’s been a while since the gap between them is this wide.
The Falcons lost at home to New Orleans in Week 3, back when both teams looked shaky. The Falcons were reeling from the cascade of injuries. New Orleans had lost at home to the Bucs and lucked out to beat the Browns here.
The Saints haven’t played a bad game since. They had their two best games in the past two weeks. The Falcons had that mystifying effort in Cleveland and scored one touchdown in the loss to the Cowboys.
That’s why the Saints were favored by 12 ½ points in the rematch. The Falcons needed a garbage-time TD to get near that margin. Now the new story for their season is how their offense went south just as things were looking up.