The Saints defense isn’t a dumpster fire. Let’s just get that out of the way right now. Yes, giving up 450 yards through the air in any game is inexcusable, and yes, their tackling on Sunday was downright horrible. However, the Saints defense was made to look much worse than they are by a fairly brilliant game-plan by Mike Smith.
The Falcons weak spot on offense is their offensive line. This is well-documented. With Sam Baker going down, they were forced to put rookie Jake Matthews at left tackle in his first career NFL start. It wasn’t ideal, but Matthews is so talented that the Falcons were, at least on the surface, fairly comfortable with the move. Furthermore, Lamar Holmes was put into the right tackle spot that Matthews was supposed to start at. Jon Asamoah became the new right guard as well.
Offensive line was a huge question mark for the Falcons coming into the 2014, and they faced a big challenge in the New Orleans Saints. Cam Jordan and Junior Galette are the feature pass rushers on the Saints defense, the former a Pro Bowl end and the latter coming off of a huge extension to start his season.
So, how did the Falcons combat this duo? Simple: Don’t let them get off the line before throwing it downfield.
Note: The following times are approximations taken by hand as plays unfold. As such, some user error is to be expected
Throughout the game, Matt Ryan went to the air 42 times and was sacked once. Out of the 42 times that he threw the ball, Ryan was standing comfortably out of his 3-5 step drop 33 times. He had to step up in the pocket 4 times. He was hurried 4 times, hit once, and sacked once. However, the most telling stat is this: Ryan held onto the ball for a Mean Average of 2.64 seconds before he was releasing it. On 14 plays, he released the ball within 2 seconds of catching the snap. He held onto the ball for more than 3 seconds 8 times throughout the game.
This reflects the Falcons’ game-plan: Get it to their playmakers and let them make plays. There is no reason to run long, elaborate routes with players like Roddy White, Julio Jones and (apparently) Devin Hester. What this really shows is a problem in the New Orleans secondary, which I’ll be looking at later this week.
The defensive line, however, actually didn’t play as horribly as they appear to have. Ryan was slinging the ball almost as soon as he caught the snap, and worked almost exclusively out of the shotgun in the second half after Matthews went down with an ankle injury. The Falcons also hung with their run game, a rare sight, especially in a shootout like Sunday’s turned out to be.
Jones also showcased his importance. Jones allowed the Falcons to still stretch the field without having to let long plays develop. He is so fast, and his strides are so long, he could be 15-20 yards downfield before Ryan had even completed his dropback. Having that kind of athleticism is key to being able to create big plays, especially in an offensive game plan in which big plays will be at a premium.
With that being said, one player that I’d like to focus on is Devin Hester, a signing that many people thought would be inconsequential in the offseason, but one that tore the New Orleans defense apart throughout the game. He had 5 catches for 99 yards, just shy of 20 yards per catch, and was seemingly in the holes in the Rob Ryan zone throughout the entire game.
On this first play, Atlanta comes out in a trips formation. The normal look you’re going to see out of a trips set is a basic flood, in which the inside receiver runs a fly, the middle receiver a post, and the outside receiver an in. This works as a "levels" play in order to isolate mismatches and create 2 on 1 situations in the secondary.
The key to this play is the middle slot receiver. He dekes inside, selling the impression of a flood. This, however, is an inverted levels play. Patrick Robinson, for some reason, has bitten inside as well on Hester’s route, leaving the field behind him wide open since the safeties are under the impression that White is the primary read. This is so effective because, now, the Saints defense is sold to the inside of the field when, in reality, Robinson is now isolated on the outside with Hester.
Now Robinson is forced to play catch up, and Ryan has already looked off the safeties in the middle of the field. However, this is the crazy part: Ryan held the ball for 2.96 seconds on this play. Hester broke Robinson down with a double move and the Ryan looked off the whole defense in a matter of moments. This is a serious, serious issue on the second level, because there is nothing that the defense can do in that time, particularly with only a 5 man rush. This play would go for 35 yards (it occurred on a 3rd & 8), and the Falcons would eventually score on this drive.
This play isn’t completely dissimilar. It is another variation of the previous levels play. This time, Hester is the inside man. The fly route comes from the interior receiver, a direct inverse from the previous play. The outside receiver runs a deep in.
The Saints’ secondary runs some kind of strange Cover 6, in which they never contest the receivers coming off of the line. The Falcons receivers are downfield in ~2.3 seconds. The ball is out of Ryan’s hands in 2.9. This is another completion to Hester for 20 yards.
These cushions were rampant throughout the entire game, and they present a serious problem. There’s a difference between relying on your secondary to make plays and leaving your pass rush out to dry. They Saints secondary did not play physically in this game and they never challenged the Atlanta receivers throughout the game.
The good news? These problems are fixable, to an extent. You can’t just give people (Robinson, Corey White) talent, but you can adjust your schemes to better suit the talent that your personnel possesses. This game was difficult to watch, but it isn’t unrealistic to hope that it was a test drive. Jordan and Galette will not be held in check the way that they were in this game all year, and Ryan should be able to put together some zones that better suit his secondary (which may not have a ton of new faces, but Byrd alone gives him a skillset that he never had with Jenkins). If he can do this, it’s realistic to expect the Saints defense to make significantly more plays on every level throughout the year, and I’m sure that most people that follow the Saints expect nothing less.