Third down was problematic for Falcons’ defense against Saints

Credit: AJC

Falcons linebacker Foye Oluokun on the play of the defense against the Saints and their plan to stop Taysom Hill.

Credit: AJC

The Falcons’ defense had many opportunities to get off the field and give the ball back to the offense. But third down proved to be too big of a hurdle to overcome in Sunday’s 21-16 loss to the New Orleans Saints.

Although the final tally had the Saints converting eight of 17 third downs, they picked up six conversions on nine attempts in the first half. Capitalizing on third down, especially at that rate in the first two quarters, allowed the Saints to continue drives and ultimately score two of their three touchdowns.

And by continuing drives with those third down conversions, the Saints ended up owing a time of possession advantage of nearly 14 minutes.

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“That’s definitely the game they wanted to play, it was to control the time of possession, run the ball with the quarterback situation they got going on,” defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. “All in all we played the game the way they wanted to, which we didn’t want to do. We were still in position to win the game. So it’s not all bad to take away from this game.”

On the Saints’ first touchdown drive, the Falcons had a chance to get off the field on a third-and-7 play with just under 10 minutes to go in the first quarter. But instead of an incomplete pass, the drive continued due to a roughing the passer penalty called on Jarrett. On a later third-and-6 play that same possession, quarterback Taysom Hill found tight end Jared Cook for a 7-yard pickup.

On the next play, Hill scrambled for a 43-yard run, which was followed by a 15-yard touchdown pass to receiver Tre’Quan Smith.

“I was really happy with our game plan coming into the game on third down,” Hill said. “I think our coaches did a phenomenal job with putting us in situations to be successful on third down. I would say that there were some funky looks that I was not expecting on third down but we had practiced it and sure enough we got it. Some of those were big conversions.”

On a 14-play drive that bled from the first to the second quarter, the Saints picked up three first downs on third-down plays — which included third-and-13 and third-and-17 conversions. On the third-and-13 play, which came late in the first quarter, Hill found Smith open for what became a 21-yard gain. On the third-and-17 play, Hill connected with receiver Michael Thomas deep on the right sideline for an 18-yard pickup.

The drive eventually stalled with place-kicker Wil Lutz missing a 40-yard field goal attempt.

Two possessions later with just over two minutes to go in the first half, the Saints faced a third-and-8 at the Atlanta 36-yard line. Hill found receiver Emmanuel Sanders open for 18 yards, which led to an 11-yard touchdown throw to tight end Jared Cook only three plays later on third-and-3.

“I think his third downs all game were strong,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “I thought his performance was strong. He made a lot of throws.”

Saints running back Alvin Kamara dives into the end zone past Falcons cornerback Darqueze Dennard for a touchdown during the third quarter Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton /
Saints running back Alvin Kamara dives into the end zone past Falcons cornerback Darqueze Dennard for a touchdown during the third quarter Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton /

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The Falcons’ third-down woes continued into the third quarter, with the Saints opening the second half with a touchdown. Leading up to Saints running back Alvin Kamara’s 11-yard rushing score, the Saints converted a third-and-7 for 10 yards, with Hill finding Cook for the first down. The Falcons actually got a third-down stop earlier that drive but gave up a fourth-and-1 conversion, with Hill sneaking the ball for 2 yards.

The Falcons haven’t been bad on third down for most of the season. Entering Sunday’s game, the Falcons allowed teams to convert 37.2% of their third-down opportunities for first downs, which was the seventh-best mark in the entire NFL.

Sunday’s showing did not match the output the Falcons have put forth to date.

“We just have to do a better job honing our details on our rushes and coverages there,” linebacker Foye Oluokun said. “If the play does get extended, then we need to have our coverage be a little tighter.”

This loss marked the sixth time in the last seven meetings that the Saints have defeated the Falcons. A lot of factors were involved on the Falcons’ end — a lack of consistency offensively and allowing drives to continue when they otherwise shouldn’t on defense.

Being unable to get off the field on third down proved problematic for a Falcons team that would desperately wanted a win over their NFC South nemesis, which clinched a playoff berth with its Sunday victory at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“It is pretty obvious, I am on my sixth year here now and dropping games to them is tough,” Jarrett said. “Nobody is going to feel bad for us. We have got to execute and try our best to come out on top. I do not like that stat at all.”