Falcons lean on run game to march over Saints

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 7: Devonta Freeman #24 of the Atlanta Falcons carries the ball for a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 7, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 7: Devonta Freeman #24 of the Atlanta Falcons carries the ball for a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 7, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

Credit: Scott Cunningham

Credit: Scott Cunningham

On an evening where quarterback Matt Ryan didn’t play his best game, the Falcons leaned on the running game to overcome the NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints in a prime-time divisional showdown.

The Falcons’ tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for 123 yards on 33 carries as Atlanta knocked off New Orleans 20-17 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

While an average of 3.7 yards per carry isn’t a number the Falcons’ offense will go crazy over, the run game provided stability and security in a time when the Falcons’ offense was in a chaotic tailspin.

Ryan’s final throw of the first half and his first throw of the second half were picked off by the Saints. The latter eventually turned into a New Orleans touchdown when quarterback Drew Brees hit Tommylee Lewis to put the Saints ahead 17-10 early in the third quarter.

That’s when the Falcons (8-5, 2-1) reliled on the ground game against the Saints (9-4, 3-1). The next five plays were all rushes.

Freeman gained six yards coupled with a defensive holding. Then, Taylor Gabriel powered a jet sweep for nine yards with a personal-foul, face-mask penalty tacked on to the end of the run. Freeman then added runs of 8, 19 and 4 to move the Falcons inside the Saints’ red zone.

“We just wanted to do our bread and butter,” right guard Wes Schweitzer said.

The Falcons did all of this while missing starting left guard Andy Levitre, who was sidelined for the game with a triceps injury. And late in the fourth quarter Coleman exited the contest with a head injury and possible concussion.

“I thought our offensive line did a great job specifically in the second half,” Ryan said. “We ran the ball really effectively. Our running backs ran hard, very physical. They did a great job. You know our wide receivers did a great job blocking on the outside and that was the reason we won.”

Ryan was almost the key reason the Falcons lost. After Freeman brought Atlanta deep into New Orleans territory, the quarterback threw his third interception of the game. He was looking for Julio Jones in the end zone, but underthrew him. It was the second head-scratching interception of the night. He also tried to force a throw to Jones late in the first half that was picked off and almost led to a Saints’ field goal.

“It’s football,” Freeman said in the aid of his quarterback. “You are going to have those turnovers. They are going to do something good, we are going to do something good. It’s the NFL for a reason. (New Orleans) is good too.”

On Thursday night, the Falcons’ offensive line and running backs were just a little bit better, especially the further into the night the game was played. The Falcons ran for 87 yards on 22 carries in the second half versus 45 yards on 15 carries in the first half.

“We knew (New Orleans) was tired,” Freeman said. “They got to play us four quarters. The freshest team at the end is going to win.”

And in the third and fourth quarters, the Falcons’ offensive line looked like they still had energy despite playing on a short week. The interior of the line - center Alex Mack and guards Ben Garland and Schweitzer - allowed Freeman and Coleman to shimmy through holes and reach the second level of the defense. The tackles and tight ends - Jake Matthews, Ryan Schraeder, Austin Hooper and Levine Toilolo - set the edge, which allowed Freeman to break long run runs on the outside.

Freeman said his 91-yard, one-touchdown performance can be credited to the offensive line.

“I feel like they are the most unselfish guys on the team and they don’t really get a lot of notoriety. From us in our building when we have team meetings and stuff, they get all the notoriety cause how they go out and compete and fight for us,” Freeman said. “Hats always off to them.”

Freeman was also thankful for Schweitzer who fell on a football Freeman fumbled as the Falcons attempted to run out the game clock.

Once the Falcons established their run game and the offense settled back into rhythm, offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian called more play-action passes to create a more balanced attack, which helped Atlanta outscore New Orleans 10-0 in the fourth quarter.

On the Falcons second-half touchdown drive to tie the game at 17, the offense executed nine run plays, which netted 37 yards and six pass plays, which netted 32 yards.

“We’re at our best when we’re able to feature the runners in their way and get our play-action game going,” coach Dan Quinn said. “That’s always by design with us, as well as having a chance to be physical in the run game.”

On the opposing side of the line of scrimmage, the Falcons’ defense was just as physical against the Saints’ rushing attack.

“We knew this was a must win,” safety Keanu Neal said. “We came in the same way we do each week. Each week is championship week. We focus on the team at hand. Obviously, that was New Orleans so we got ready for them and it was part of championship week. Guys start turning it up as the regular season is coming to an end.”

Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman discussed his team's running success in a 20-17 win over the New Orleans Saints.

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