The Falcons’ future was so bright, they needed sunglasses basking in the NFL spotlight that day in Canton.
But with three-quarters of the season over, the Falcons are left to figure out exactly what went wrong in 2019 as they were eliminated from the playoffs on Thanksgiving as the Saints clinched the NFC South title with a 26-18 win. The Falcons joined Cincinnati and Detroit as only teams eliminated with four games to play.
Did Quinn foresee this in August?
“No,” Quinn said. “Certainly, not.”
Here are the five things we learned from the loss to the Saints:
1. Offensive line woes continued. The offensive-line rebuild has been a complete and utter failure. The inability to establish the running game and protect the quarterback is to be the trademark of the unit.
The offensive line was steamrolled by the Saints, as they gave up nine sacks and 13 quarterback hits. The running backs were held to 68 yards on 23 carries for a meager 2.9 average per carry. Quarterback Matt Ryan added 21 yards on three scrambles.
“This one is tough,” guard Jamon Brown said. “It stings.”
Left guard James Carpenter left the game with a concussion in the second quarter and did not return. Wes Schweitzer, who started at right guard, moved over to left guard. Brown, who was benched in favor of Schweitzer, went in at right guard.
Saints defensive end Cam Jordan wrecked the line with four sacks and four quarterback hits.
The entire line had a bad day from right tackle Kaleb McGary to left tackle Jake Matthews.
Ryan stuck up for the unit despite the beating.
“I was proud of the way everybody battled,” Ryan said. “There was no give up in anyone through some tough circumstances, but that was the way the game went.”
But what else could the classy Ryan say?
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Brown tried to explain what really happened.
“We had a snowball effect,” Brown said. “One mistake led to another, offensively speaking. We have to be able to put drives together and finish drives at the end. We need points at the end of the day.”
The Falcons scrambled back and thanks to two onside kick recoveries, had the ball with 1:56 to play and three timeouts with a chance to tie the score. But the Saints defense went on the attack and got four sacks on that final series.
“When you look at the other phases of the game in special teams and defense, those two units played their butts off,” Brown said. “Offensively, we have to be better. We know from and offensive line standpoint that we have to do better. We’ve got to protect Matt no matter what a defense throws at us.”
The sight of Ryan laying splattered on the turf was unnerving for Brown.
“It’s real frustrating, especially when it’s one of those big guys that lay on him,” Brown said. “I know as an offensive lineman, you take that personally, even if it’s not your guy. So, I know that all five guys, every guy in that room, is fighting their butt off to make sure that we keep that man, Matt on his feet.”
2. Replacing Julio Jones. The Falcons announced that Russell Gage would start for Julio Jones, the six-time Pro Bowler, who was declared inactive with a AC-joint shoulder sprain.
However, wide receiver Christian Blake got the start and finished with six catches for 57 yards. Gage had five catches for 52 yards and a touchdown.
Blake had some spirited battles with Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore, before he left with an injury.
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“Christian Blake did a great job for us tonight stepping in,” Ryan said. “He’s tough. There’s no back down in him. He was absolutely in his element out there. That was impressive to see. I was proud of the way he played and competed.”
Blake had played only 77 offensive snaps to Gage’s 277 before the Saints game. Blake played 83 of the 93 offensive snaps (89%) against the Saints. Gage played 63 snaps (68%).
“I've been impressed with Russell for the last few weeks,” Ryan said. “He's done a great job for us in terms of making plays. We're game-planning around him now, which is featuring his strengths. I think he's doing an excellent job with it.”
3. Freeman returned. Running back Devonta Freeman returned after missing the past two games with a foot sprain. He rushed 17 times for 51 yards, as there wasn't much room to run. He had a long run of six yards.
“It felt good,” Freeman said. “I’m thankful to be out there, so that’s the most important thing; I get to play out there on Thanksgiving, so I had fun, I enjoyed it, and I’m just thankful I got an opportunity to play out there.”
4. Defense fought hard. The Falcons' had an alignment mistake that allowed Taysom Hill a lot of space on a 30-yard touchdown run. Linebacker Foye Oluokun was yelling at safety Ricardo Allen to shift after Deion Jones went in motion with Saints running back Alvin Kamara.
“It was a miscommunication, that is all I got for that,” Oluokun said.
After the Hill touchdown, the defense held the Saints to three field goals and kept the offense within striking distance.
“I like how we were fighting even with short (field) position,” Allen said. “We fought all night trying to keep ourselves in the game, limit big plays.”
5. Kicking woes continue. Kicker Younghoe Koo pushed an extra-point attempt and a field-goal attempt wide left early in the game.
He rebounded to make a 45-yard field goal in the fourth quarter to make it a one-score game. He also had two onside kicks that were recovered by Oluokun and Kemal Ishmael.
“That is just what we discussed over the week during practice, and we just felt like that was going to give our guys the best chance to get the ball back,” Koo said of the placement of the onside kicks to his left. “So we just went with that.”
The Falcons hadn’t practiced the kick often.
“It is not like you get the chance every game, so once in a while we practice it to make sure we get it done and it goes 10 yards to give our guys a chance,” Koo said.