The Saints are now 7-2 and had a six-game winning streak broken. The last time a 1-7 team scored a win over a 7-1 team was Nov. 9, 2003, when the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars defeated the Indianapolis Colts.
“It’s hard to win in this league,” defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. “Every win is good. We’ve been in a slump, but it feels go to get a W.”
The Falcons, who entered the game with only seven sacks, found a pass-rushing groove and came up with six sacks against the normally elusive Drew Brees.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan discusses returning from an ankle injury to return Atlanta to the win column with a 26-9 victory over the Saints. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC)
Ryan completed 20 of 35 passes for 182 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He finished with a passer rating of 78.5.
It was his first game back since halting a streak of 163 starts (154 regular season, nine playoffs).
The Falcons rushed 34 times for 143 yards for a 4.2 yard per carry average to help win the time of possession battle.
The Falcons’ previous rushing high was 103 yards Oct. 13 against Arizona.
“It was a huge part of the game plan,” Ryan said. “Coming into it, we wanted to be able to establish the run and get that going.”
Brian Hill had 20 carries for 61 yards in relief of Devonta Freeman, who left the game with an ankle injury.
“When his moment came to deliver he was able to,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “I don’t know the extent of (Freeman’s) injury or where he’s at, but Brian was certainly ready for the moment. He’s one of the hardest workers that we have.”
After Ryan tossed a 10-yard touchdown pass to Hill, the Falcons held a 20-9 lead with 14:53 to play.
It was just a matter of closing the deal against the Saints, who committed four untimely illegal hands to the face penalties and had a roughing the punter penalty that led to a field goal.
In all, the Saints committed 12 penalties for 90 yards.
The Falcons on the strength of three time-consuming scoring drives held a 13-6 halftime lead over the Saints.
It was just the third time this season the Falcons have held a lead at halftime. The Falcons led the Eagles 10-6 in Week 2 and held a 17-16 lead at halftime over the Texans on Oct. 6. The Falcons went on to beat the Eagles, but were blown out in the second half against the Texans (53-32).
The Falcons won the toss to start the game and elected to receive. The offense, leaning heavily on the rushing attack, zipped down to the Saints’ 13-yard line after a 12-yard gain by running back Kenjon Barner off a direct snap.
But the Saints’ crowd got loud and right tackle Kaleb McGary jumped offsides followed by right guard Jamon Brown jumping offsides. Instead of first and 10 from the 13, the Falcons had first-and-20 from the 23 and they couldn’t overcome the setbacks.
The Falcons settled for a 37-yard field goal from new kicker Younghoe Koo to take a 3-0 lead. The drive took 5:33 off the clock.
The Saints answered with a 29-yard field goal by Will Lutz to tie the game.
The Falcons then put together a 17-play, touchdown drive that included a Ryan scramble on a four-and-4 from the Saints’ 44 yard line.
Ryan tossed a 9-yard touchdown pass to tight end Austin Hooper to cap the drive and put the Falcons up 10-3. Hooper left the game left with an apparent knee injury, but returned to the action.
The game went back and forth until Koo added a 36-yard field goal with 1:35 left in the second quarter.
The Saints answered with a 47-yard field goal from Lutz at the halftime buzzer.
In the second half, the Saints opened with another field goal drive to make it 13-9.
The Falcons’ defense came through with sacks from linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, defensive end Adrian Clayborn, defensive end Vic Beasley (one and half), Jarrett (2.5 sacks). The Falcons also had 11 quarterback hits.
Falcons defensive end Grady Jarrett discusses the team's defensive effort in the win over New Orleans. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC)
“It’s always feels good to get to the quarterback,” Jarrett said. “It felt good to get there today and we have to build off of this performance.”
Jarrett and Clayborn had sacks on third downs and Beasley’s sack came on a fourth down.
“It felt good to get off the field on third downs,” Jarrett said. “It’s something that we need to continue to build on as well. We got the ball back to our offense. I think it was critical for us to make those plays on third down.”
The Falcons only had seven sacks on the season before this pass-rushing outburst.
On defense, the Falcons, who moved assistant coach Raheem Morris over to help coach the defensive backs, didn't have any blown coverages and free safety Damontae Kazee came in nickel packages and added a physical presence.
“We all just fought together,” free safety Ricardo Allen said. “Everybody got out there and every drive we just told each other, just do your 1/11th. The plays are going to come to you.”
Kendall Sheffield started at left cornerback, but went down inside while Blidi Wreh-Wilson came in to play outside in the nickel.
Kazee and Wreh-Wilson came in for the nickel while safety Kemal Ishmael and linebacker Foye Oluokun left the base defensive package.
Ito Smith (neck injury) was placed on injured reserve on Saturday. Rookie Qadree Ollison was active for the first time this season.
The Falcons next play at the Carolina Panthers at 1 p.m. Sunday in Charlotte.
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