November 11, 2012

Defending November: Saints Upset Falcons 31-27

The Saints entered November with a twelve game win streak in the month, and would need a top performance all around to keep their dim playoff hopes alive against the undefeated Falcons.  The Saints would find an inspired goal line performance by a clutch Saints defense, who bent all day but did not break at the end of the game with a thrilling goal line stand to secure the 31-27 nailbiter win.

The 4-5 Saints (3-3 conference, 2-1 division) are suddenly relevant in the NFC wildcard playoff spot hunt.  The 8-1 Falcons lead the NFC South by a wide margin but are no longer undefeated, their win streak snapped in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.  The Saints have now won four straight against their archrival Falcons.

On a day when the two former basketballer tight ends would be the primary weapons for their quarterbacks, Tony Gonzales and Jimmy Graham combined for 268 yards receiving on 18 catches and four touchdowns.  But it may have been the Saints' surprising three-headed run attack, which ran up 149 rushing yards, led by mid-season surprise Chris Ivory, who made a tremendous highlight run from 56 yards out to put the Saints on the board in the first quarter.

Playing again without Darren Sproles, all four Saints runningbacks combined for 231 all-purpose yards, including 63 from rookie Travares Cadet.

Finding zero success on the ground, longtime Saints nemesis RB Michael Turner finished the game with 13 carries for 15 yards, including just two carries in the fourth quarter for -1 yards.  46 of the Falcons' total rushing yards were gained on one 18 yard rush by backup Jacquizz Rodgers in the fourth quarter.  The one-dimensional Falcons offense rolled up 411 passing yards and three touchdowns, but also notched their first loss of the season.

The Falcons' first step went backwards, with former Falcon MLB Curtis Lofton and back-healthy SLB David Hawthorne blitzing up the middle and stopping RB Michael Turner for a two yard loss.  But Matt Ryan helped the Falcons overcome that defensive momentum with a first down strike to Roddy White on 3rd and 10, a 19-yard strike to a wide open TE Tony Gonzales, and a 49-yard bomb down to the Saint 1 to White, who beat CB Jabari Greer and FS Malcolm Jenkins.  Two plays later, Ryan hit sixth-lineman eligible T Mike Johnson for an easy score at the 11:43 mark in the first quarter.

The Saints' offense couldn't have started worse.  Split wide right,  WR Marques Colston and Devery Henderson ran short patterns to the sideline.  Brees' pass was too far for Colston in the slot and too short for Henderson.  Neither Saint receiver seemed to know who the pass was intended for, but that didn't matter to CB Asante Samuel, who made a diving fingertip interception at the Saint 25 yard line.  Samuel got up and was tackled by Colston at the Saint 12, but he was flagged for excessive celebration after the catch, moving the ball back to the Saint 27.

The Saints defense, called on to make a big play, created a tackle for loss on 3rd and 1 from the Saint 19, forcing a field goal.  It was a small victory for Lofton and rookie CB Corey White on the Saints' defense.  Down 10-0 less than six minutes into the game, Brees came back on the field.

That's when the Saints showed their renewed enthusiasm for the running game with four runs to two passes on the next drive.  Ingram picked up decent yardage, breaking past the line each time, and Pierre Thomas picked up a tough two and a first down.  On the sixth play of the drive, Brees handed off to Ivory wide right.

Ivory swept right, shrugged off a tackle at the line, outraced a defender to the sideline, broke containment and reversed field to the left, running across to the opposite front corner of the end zone. Delivering a vicious stiffarm on CB Dunta Robinson at the Falcon 10, Ivory completed the 56-yard career long touchdown run with a dreads-a-flying spike in the end zone to a thrilled Superdome crowd.

Ivory's highlight reel run made the Falcons defense look like fools but also the Saints' interim coaching staff - how has Ivory been a healthy sit all season long?  It also bodes well that the Saints are running well to the right, behind substitute starter Charles Brown.

Matt Ryan moved the Falcons to midfield with a couple of first down throws, but faced a 3rd and short after a quick receiver screen to Julio Jones came up a yard short.  Jones appeared to be injured on the play.  Ryan tossed his first incomplete pass on the play and the defense forced a punt.

Backed into a hole at his own 9, Brees got five yards from a surprisingly-hard running Ingram up the middle, 13 to Jimmy Graham and 19 to Lance Moore up to the Saint 47.  Two short runs by Thomas and Ivory, the Saints faced 3rd and 4.  That's when Brees went to Mr. Third Down, picking up seven with a out left.

Travares Cadet, the team's replacement kickoff returner with Darren Sproles (fractured left hand) still out, became the fourth runningback to the touch the ball for the Saints, taking in a screen designed for wide receivers and dancing forward for a 10 yard gain to the Falcon 30.

Ingram picked up a first down by himself on the next two carries, following Jed Collins, who made a fantastic block around left tackle, for an 8 yard gain on second down.  G Eric Olsen, now the designated sixth lineman for the Saints', was flagged 15 yards for jumping on the pile after that run.  No worries, two plays later, Brees found Graham running wide open down the seam.  The Saints' power forward shrugged off the secondary, walked into the end zone, and dunked the ball over the goal posts.

Brees-to-Graham put the Saints on top 14-10 with 13:33 left in the second quarter and extended Brees' streak of games with a touchdown pass to 52, extending his league-history leading record.

Ryan picked up 12 yards on 3rd and 7 to keep the next drive alive, a play after Roman Harper dropped an easy interception on a Ryan throw behind Roddy White.  Ryan picked up another 13 on a rollout pass to Gonzales, then found White wide open at the Saint 15 with Harper far behind in tow.

DE Cam Jordan got his helmet ripped off while blocking on the next play, but unphased, chased down RB Michael Turner for a one yard loss.  It helped fire up a home crowd that was watching the defense yield huge chunks of yardage again. Two plays later, on third and 6, Ryan found Gonzales running at Saint one yard line, stopped there by Lofton.

With a fresh set of downs at the Saint 1, Ryan tried the fade to Gonzales at the back corner of the end zone, which was well broken up by Roman Harper.  On second down, defensive tackles Brodrick Bunkley and Tom Johnson were there to submarine and stop Turner for a one yard loss, forcing 3rd and goal from the 2.

But another fantastic goal line stand wasn't there for the Saints.  After an Atlanta timeout, Tony Gonzales boxed out Malcolm Jenkins and made the catch at the goal line, with a desperate Jenkins all over him.  The Falcons were back on top 17-14 with 6:27 left in the first half.  The veteran Gonzales has been doing Jimmy Graham's shtick for a long time, and that was his 100th touchdown catch.

Brees nearly found a long completion to Devery Henderson, just inches off of the receiver's gloves when he was open after play action.  A false start on Jimmy Graham on the next snap turned a 3rd and 4 to a 3rd and 9, then Graham dropped a potential first down catch.  The Saints were forced to punt, Ryan took over again with 3:54 left in the half.

The Saints stopped Turner for a short gain, then Ryan had his arm hit to force an incompletion to set up 3rd and 9.  Ryan escaped the pocket but stumbled and fell trying to run, touched down by Martez Wilson for a no-effort sack and a three yard loss.  The defense had its first three-and-out, and the Falcons punted just before the two minute warning.  It would be the Saints' only sack of the day on Ryan, though the Saints were successful in applying pressure all day long.

Another deep pass by Brees was underthrown to a wide open Lance Moore after he was put under duress by John Abraham.  Moore had broken free on the out and up but Brees but harassed and had to side step left, lofting a fluttering, dangerous pass that Dunta Robinson had a good chance at intercepting.   On 3rd and 6, Brees found Graham in the left seam for an 18 yard gain, and two plays later did it again, picking up 15 with Graham.

A shot to Lance Moore for 12 and a screen to Thomas for six set up Brees-to-Graham again.  Graham shed his linebacker in coverage and angled in front of S William Moore at the goal line to make the catch just short of the goal line.  Graham dragged Moore into the end zone, then dunked the ball over the goal line for the 21-17 lead.  The two power forwards had taken over the game, with Graham and Gonzales combining for 10 catches, 145 yards and three touchdowns in the first half.

The Saints pass rush seemed to get more to Ryan at the end of the second quarter.  With just :40 left in the half, the Saints got to Ryan without the blitz, forcing a sack and a holding penalty on first down.  That pass rush dissuaded the Falcons to trying a last second drive before the half, but after Ryan had put 183 yards passing on the New Orleans defense.  The Saints had limited the Falcon rush attack to only 26 yards rushing on 12 attempts by Turner and Rodgers, but let Roddy White and Tony Gonzales run rampant in the secondary.  White had 100 yards receiving on five catches in the first half.

Brees put 152 yards passing on the Falcons, including 65 yards pass on the final drive of the half.  Even better news was the 116 yards rushing put up by Chris Ivory, Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas.

To begin the second half, the Saints went three and out with a false start on RG Jahri Evans and a third down pass to Lance Moore broken up by Asante Samuel.

Rookie CB Corey White deflected a pass intended for WR Harry Douglas on the Falcons' first play, and two plays later made the biggest play of his young career.  Running step for step with WR Drew Davis, White went up for the howitzer shot from Ryan and outwrestled Davis for the ball.  The rookie White, who has been a culprit so many times so far this season, made two great plays on that drive to kill the Falcons' drive.

The Saints took advantage of White's big play by moving the ball down the field with good running by Ingram and first down strikes to Colston and Moore, the latter a spectacular one-handed catch for a 29-yard gain.  After a 13-yard gain by Ivory on a quick screen and a bulldozing run during which he flattened Dunta Robinson, Brees quick-hitched to Colston at the goal line.  Colston dragged Robinson and S Thomas DeCoud to the line and reached over for the score, capping a seven play, 81-yard drive.

Colston's 55th career touchdown gave the Saints a 28-17 third quarter lead, tying Deuce McAllister's franchise record for touchdowns. McAllister, interviewed during the week with his team record in danger, said he would be happy to see his former teammate own the mark.

On the next drive, Corey White appeared to be injured trailing Roddy White, who made a diving catch.  Corey White had just to touch Roddy White down at the sideline, fortunate that the receiver had fallen down and short of the first down line.  On 3rd and short with White limping on the sidelines, MLB Curtis Lofton batted down a pass from his former teammate Matt Ryan, forcing a Falcons punt with 8:01 left in the third quarter.

On the next play after the punt, RB Chris Ivory was tackled for a loss by his dreadlocked hair and was lucky not to be flagged for kicking his tackler Ray Edwards.  That drive would be killed at the Saint 37 by a sack on Brees by LB Stephen Nicholas.

At the start of the fourth quarter, the Falcons were driving at midfield, and picked up a first down when Will Smith was flagged for illegal hands to the face on the pass rush.   Ryan hit Douglas for 23 and Rodgers for 15 to move the ball to the Saint 6, then hit Gonzales over the middle for the score.  Harper had the full court press on him from the snap, but Gonzales went up and over to make the catch to bring the Falcons within 4 with 13:32 left in the game.  Both Gonzales and Graham proved to be uncoverable on the day, despite good technique and position.

Up 28-24, the Saints needed a response, but Devery Henderson dropped a short crossing pattern on 3rd and 1, forcing a punt by Thomas Morstead.  The Falcons pounced right back on the Saints with a bomb to Julio Jones, who missed most of the game but returned the previous series.  Jones went up high to make the catch over Greer, for a 52 yard gain inside the Saint 10.  An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Saints interim head coach Joe Vitt moved the ball half the distance.

But the defense stuffed a run (Tom Johnson) and stopped a dump off pass inside (Jonathan Casillas) to force a third and goal at the Saint 2.  Ryan's pass to Julio Jones at the back corner of the end zone was incomplete. so the Falcons settled for the field goal with 9:08 left in the game, cutting the Saints lead to 28-27.

Brees converted a 2nd and 10 under duress with a scrambling strike to Lance Moore for 17 yards, before Chris Ivory fought and spun hard for tough to gain yards.  On 3rd and 5 from the Saint 42, Graham broke wide open, running the slant-and-go route perfectly.  Down the right sideline, Brees hit him in stride, and he was forced out at the Falcon 12..

But Brees faced 3rd and 11 from the Falcon 13 two snaps later, and fired for Marques Colston in triple coverage in the end zone, where the ball was knocked incomplete.  Graham's 46-yard catch and run couldn't be cashed in for a touchdown, but the Saints did push their lead back to 4 with Hartley's 31-yard field goal and a 31-27 lead with 5:56 left in the game.

Ryan and a one-dimensional Atlanta pass offense moved the Falcons coolly down the field, converting two third downs with his arm.  A run by Jacquizz Rodgers interrupted a string of nine straight passes by Ryan, and picked up 18 yards down to the Saint 10.  Ryan hit Harry Douglas to the Saint 1 yard line at the two minute warning.

On the next snap, the Saints finally won a battle with TE Tony Gonzales, with Malcolm Jenkins closing a gap and knocking away a pass on second down.  The Falcons tried to the run the ball up the middle and were predictable stuffed for a big loss by the Saints' defense, who has not allowed any traction at all to Michael Turner.

That forced 4th and goal from the Saint 2 with 1:46 left.  With Gonzales running wide open in the right flat, Ryan floated a ball off his back foot to Roddy White in the back middle of the end zone.  CB Jabari Greer closed the gap and batted the pass away, ending the Falcons' threat.  It was a huge play by a quiet Saints veteran that may have saved the season, giving the ball back to Brees at his own 2.

With 1:38 left, the Falcons used their second timeout after a run up the middle for no gain by Pierre Thomas. Same story on second down, as Ingram went up the middle for no gain and forced Atlanta's final timeout.  Taking no chances, the Saints ran the ball again, up the middle for little gain, as Morstead prepared to punt from the back of his end zone with :49 left in the game.   Three times out of six the Falcons entered the red zone and emerged without a touchdown, a game-winning stat that the Saints defense can be proud of.

Morstead, one of the best in the NFL, unleashed a 55-yard moonshot from the shadow of his goal post.  With Saints coverage zooming down the field, Morstead's punt hung in the air.  Harry Douglas was tackled on the punt return for no return to the Falcon 41, but Atlanta was flagged for holding on the return, moving the ball back to the Falcon 31.  It was a fantastic job for the Saints' special teams on the day, capped by a field-switching punt by Morstead who averaged 48 yards on five punts.

First half NFL MVP QB Matt Ryan had 69 yards to cover in :37 with no timeouts to retain his team's undefeated record.  On 3rd and 1, Ryan fired deep for Roddy White, who turned and started backpedaling after Saints S Isa Abdul-Quddus let him run by him deep.  Ryan's pass was five yards too long, but it was breathtaking and heartstopping to watch White separate late in the pattern.  On 4th and 1, Ryan's pass to Gonzales at the marker was dropped with :12 left, ending the Falcons' final threat.

The Saints started MLB Lofton, David Hawthorne at strongside and Vilma at weakside linebacker, clearly making a decision to use the three best players on the chart despite position.  The Saints even deactivated healthy OLB Scott Shanle, perhaps anticipating the Falcons' pass-heavy attack.

WR Marques Colston appeared to injure his right arm on Brees' final pass into the end zone.  Rookie CB Corey White, minutes after recording his first NFL interception, appeared to injured his knee or thigh, according to interim head coach Joe Vitt.

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