Prior to their rematch against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 13 of the 2012 season, the swelling sentiment coming out of New Orleans was that it would be the second season in a row that the Saints would sweep the Falcons. Despite an acrimoniously slow start, pundits and fans alike were under the notion that a 5-6 Saints team would leave Atlanta as the victors on a march towards another playoff push. The thrilling win at home over the previously undefeated Falcons in Week 10 was thought to be the spark that would propel this whole theory.
By all accounts, and justifiably so, the Saints under coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees have proven to be the Achilles Heel to a plethora of Falcons attempts to get a check in the win column. As most fans of combat sports know, styles make fights and often time fights have key turning points. I'll explain to you why even in Drew Brees' worst performance as a Saint, the Falcons were still lucky to survive on that fateful Sunday.
In the interest of full disclosure, though I'm a contributor to a Saints blog (among others), I'm a born and raised Atlanta native. In fact, I'm a season ticket holder who's been to every Falcon game since the 2006 season. I've been through the dramatic fall, and been witness to the genesis of one of the best run franchises in all of football. It's as though I know what it's like to be an Indianapolis Colts fan through the Peyton Manning era. 9 out of 10 times, I feel when I step foot inside the Georgia Dome on Sunday's, more than likely I'm seeing a Falcons victory. So that's why I feel as though I might be the most credible person in saying; when the Saints are on the schedule I feel as though that one time will almost certainly rear its ugly head!
I agree with that aforementioned Scott Shanle quote above, the Falcons are the Saints little brother, and their style of play -and mantra - are directly related to the success of the New Orleans Saints. After going 13-3 in the 2010 season (and subsequently losing in the first round of the playoffs), the Falcons' mantra preceding the 2011 season was "Explosiveness!", and you couldn't go more than a day without hearing it on radio and TV. The Falcons weren't happy being one of the best ground & pound teams in the league, they wanted to change their identity to be like the Arizona Cardinals, Green Bay Packers, and most importantly, the New Orleans Saints. They wanted a scheme centered around a high-grade pass attack. And by all accounts, little brother has achieved that.
But as we know, no matter how big or successful a little brother gets, big brother is always watching and waiting on the chance to put them back in their respective place. Their first meeting of the 2012 season was big brothers way of re-establishing the pecking order in the family.
Off the strength of a nearly 300-yard, three touchdown day from Drew Brees, the Saints fought off an even more impressive aerial display from Matt Ryan (24-53 for 411 yards, 3 TD's and 1 int) and his equally impressive set of pass receivers. The Falcons were finally able to show big brother they too could put on a masterful show through the air ... and they still lost!
The problem being, Atlanta forgot to bring both their defense and run game. Running back Michael Turner was held to 15 yards on 13 carries! While a 56-yard TD run by Saints running back Chris Ivory may have been the play of the day. If not, it was certainly a tone-setter for the Saints who were down 10-0 at the time. In all, the Falcons totaled 46 yards rushing to the Saints' 148 in a 31-27 Saints triumph, showing that big brother always has a trick up his sleeve.
Obviously I've seen every game the Saints and Falcons have played since both of the current regimes took over. What has separated the Saints from the Falcons thus far, has been the Saints' ability to put together a more complete game. To achieve that one must have a more complete team.
It usually seems as though the Falcons are missing something. They started out being a rushing based attack, with a pretty good defense. A real smash mouth type team - with a nasty and vicious offensive line. But they lacked the ability to come from behind due to their rather mundane passing scheme and personnel. In their quest to be explosive, they went out and drafted possibly the best young receiver in the NFL in Julio Jones and paired him up with a pass first offensive coordinator in Dirk Koetter. When you combine him with one of the best overall receivers in the league in Roddy White, as well as a future Hall-of-Fame inductee in tight end Tony Gonzalez, you have possibly the best set of pass catchers in the league from a talent standpoint. But like I said before, it always seems as though the Falcons are missing something.
As they've become explosive, the Falcons have become rather soft in the trenches. Concentrating on getting the ball down field has exposed a weakness at offensive and defensive line. The O-line no longer created the type of space they used to before their scheme changed, leading to a dramatic dip in run production. Most blamed it on aging running back Michael Turner, but a thorough study of the game film revealed he was only part of the problem. In addition to that, the Falcons D-line struggled to create pressure on opposing QBs, and looked to be one of the worst in the entire league at stopping the run. I can see the run game picking up slightly with the addition of veteran Steven Jackson, but the O-line might be even worse with the retirement of stalwart center Todd McClure and the idiotic release of the best lineman they had in right tackle Tyson Clabo.
I expect the defense to remain below average as well, as they didn't really get any better in the talent department despite releasing the best defensive piece they had in defensive end/outside linebacker John Abraham. Losing two of the top three cornerbacks won't help either. Anyone picking the Falcons to 'easily' walk away with the NFC South's crown has not been paying attention to the personnel department.
The Saints on the other hand have unique versatility. Despite being the league's most explosive passing attack since 2006, the Saints have kept a stable of capable running backs and have leaned on them quite a few times, even finishing within the top six in total rushing a couple of seasons.
And the juxtaposition of how both teams find talent couldn't be anymore fascinating. The Falcons have a starting offense stacked with talent drafted in the first round. Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Steven Jackson, and left tackle Sam Baker were all high draft picks. A quick glance at the Saints' equally stacked lineup reveals three. Running back Mark Ingram, tight end Ben Watson, and guard Ben Grubbs were all first round picks. But only Grubbs is a lock for the starting lineup. The Saints have a roster full of late round picks and undrafted free agents that have been coached up to first round talents. This develops depth. Something the Falcons don't have on either side of the ball. As much as these teams might be brothers, they certainly aren't twins, to say the least.
Looking back at the second game between the two teams. I believe the pressure of trying to right the Saints' ship permeated Brees from a mental and mechanical standpoint. Brees knew that he probably had to match the Falcons play for play and score for score, due to the results of the first matchup - when he probably could've orchestrated a more ball controlled approach and pulled one over on the Falcons again.
After a perfectly constructed opening drive by the Falcons, Brees and his band of brothers set out to even the score - literally and figuratively.
As we can see, the Saints are looking for one of their patented explosive plays with only two eligible receivers. Running this type of play on this down and distance (1st & 10) is genius in itself, especially when you consider the personnel grouping being '20' set. Meaning 2 running backs, 0 tight ends, and 3 receivers. This is a unique set as guard Eric Olsen has reported as an eligible receiver, which really sells the play-action portion of this play. The Falcons are in a cover 4 defense - which is pretty much zone across the board. Outside linebacker Stephen Nicholas is being sent on a blitz.
You can see the perfection in the play development right away. By the time Brees whips his head around after the playaction, his receivers are already headed to the void in the zone. Both receivers Marques Colston and Lance Moore are running mirrored out and up patterns as noted in the previous screen grab. Falcons free safety Will Moore is completely fooled as his first instinct was to help with the perceived run. Strong safety Thomas DeCoud is reading Bress' eyes and headed towards Lance Moore who is the receiver on the right side of the offensive formation. The Saints offensive line is holding up well in their blocking scheme too.
Here's where I believed the game may have been lost for the Saints. If Drew Brees throws this pass right now to Marques Colston, there's no way the lone safety (DeCoud) can affect this play. The right corner Dunta Robinson was fooled by Colston's double move and DeCoud is too far over to get to Colston. Brees just needs to let 'er rip and lead Colston to the end zone and have him run under the pass. As you can see the blocking is exquisite along with the play development from the skill position. This is what Brees and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael dreamed of when they diagrammed this one up.
This view thoroughly illustrates how badly beaten the Falcons defenders were! For reasons unknown, Drew Brees double pumped and stepped up into the pocket. Brees is just now throwing the ball! He didn't trust his eyes like he normally does, and was waiting to see the play develop vividly. Brees usually imposes his will on the situation, but being too cautious - more than likely due to a bad turnover the previous week against San Francisco - worked to his detriment here. Though he waited late, a great throw would still pluck the feathers right off the Falcons.
In black is the direction the ball is going, in yellow is where it should've been thrown ideally. Though some fans like to point to a deterioration in Brees' deep ball, this particular turnover was due to poor mechanics and execution. As he hitched back up in the pocket, Brees threw this with mostly arm. Normally when Brees wants to put some mustard on a pass, he throws it from his legs up. He drives off his back leg in an effort to get velocity on the throw. Here he did nothing of the sort. Brees does not have a cannon like Joe Flacco or Matthew Stafford so he can't afford to short arm throws. Especially those of the deep variety. To think, one bad mechanical move by possibly the best QB in the league could have such a negative effect on the outcome of an entire game. But it's plausible.
DeCoud makes the easy play on the ball and the already hyped crowd (I was there of course) goes as crazy as I've ever seen to that point.
If this turnover had not happened and Brees threw a bomb on first and 10, the results of this game would have been very different. The Falcons are a front running team. When things are going well early they tend to run hot. This goes for their fans as well, a decent amount of whom seem to be pretty fair weather in all honesty. An answer to an impressive opening drive by the Saints, would have cast doubt among team and fans alike. But after that opening drive for touchdown, to have the subsequent Saints drive end in a turnover could only result in extreme positive confidence wise for all things Falcons.
In turn it really put Brees and crew behind the eight ball in a must win game, on the road, against possibly your most heated rivals. Defensively, this may have been one of the better showings by the Saints. The Falcons could only muster up 289 total yards! They looked like the Falcons of old on offense with Roddy White and Julio Jones being held to pretty much non-factors. Most of their damage came on field goals due to ideal field position. Field position that the Saints gave away in turnovers, specifically turnovers off the arm of Drew Brees.
If I were the Falcons, I'd be more alarmed at the totality of this win, rather than the loss earlier in the season. Drew Brees threw five interceptions and the Falcons could only manage 23 points off only two touchdowns. The Saints still managed to pile up 442 yards, with 101 coming by way of the ground. Theoretically, the Saints still looked like their old selves, but it was egregious turnovers that I'm almost certain won't happen this season, that allowed Atlanta to escape with that elusive Saint's win.
When I say the Saints gave away those turnovers, I don't want to seem like I'm disrespecting my hometown team. I'm actually telling the truth. I already diagrammed the first of Brees' five turnovers. The second came on a check down pass to running back Chris Ivory. Brees threw the check a little behind Ivory, who tipped it up in the air and into the hands of Falcons OLB Sean Weatherspoon. Most of the time those type of plays become innocuous in the grand scheme of things as they normally become incomplete passes. But on this day, the ball bounced the Falcons' way, literally and figuratively. This screen grab above is in relation to Brees' third turnover, which I found to be similar to his first. This would've normally been easily avoided by Drew.
Another nicely designed play action has the Falcons fooled again initially. The Falcons are in zone again, which signifies they feel they can't cover in man, and stop the Saints prolific pass attack.
This play read by Brees is designed to go from hi to lo. He initially wants to hit Colston on a deep out and if it's not there he will come back to something underneath. As you can see, the Falcons have no pressure on Brees who can make a decision under ideal circumstances.
This is the most puzzling part of this whole breakdown. Brees has underneath receiver Devery Henderson open on the lo crosser right now. If he stops, sets his feet and throws right now, the Saints more than likely get a first down moving into Falcons territory. Brees comes off that Colston read a little late due to wanting to make the big play.
And when he does finally take the underneath he throws off of his back foot. Things you would not expect from such a great player. But due to chaos surrounding last season, Brees put too much of the burden upon himself to lead his squad. Even a machine-like player such as Brees can be humanized in unique situations.
Not getting enough on the throw allowed safety Will Moore to jump the route and make the turnover. Brees wasn't fooled or anything, he just forgot some of the more basic rules when playing championship-type QB. Don't expect that this season. The Saints have had the most normal off-season since the year before they won the Super Bowl in 2009. Better believe coach Payton will be drilling these basic mechanical flaws into Brees' head.
The fourth interception of Brees was the Falcons doing. A sack from end Kroy Biermann while Brees was throwing caused the ball to go right into the arms of defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux. Brees' fifth interception came off a tipped pass from defensive tackle Corey Peters.
But even with all that noted the Falcons only slipped away with a 23-13 win despite being +4 in turnover differential, (Falcons had 1 fumble) and being at home in front of a raucous crowd. In the Saints' worst offensive showing in recent memory, the Falcons barely escaped with a ten point victory. Falcons fans (Sorry dad, and mom, and me, and...) can't use the run game as an excuse as the Falcons rushed the ball 23 times for 124 yards.
Little brother won the battle on this day. But it's doesn't bode well for the match to open the 2013 season at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome!
Look out Falcons ... big brother is coming!