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The tale of third downs in Falcons’ second loss to Saints - The Athletic


Goober Pyle
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by Tori McElhaney for The Athletic 

 

No one would have blamed the Falcons defense if it made it to the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 21-16 loss too tired to do much. In a similar fashion to when the New Orleans Saints and Falcons met three weeks ago, New Orleans’ defense didn’t give the Atlanta offense much of a chance, but really, the Atlanta offense didn’t give itself a chance, either.

In two games against the Saints, the Falcons’ offensive statistics are abysmal: They scored on one of 23 possessions. They were 7-for-27 on third downs and 1-of-5 in the red zone.

But despite a rough first half for the defense, against which the Saints converted 6-of-9 third downs and racked up 268 yards and 14 points, that unit stuck around. But its efforts were for naught, as the Saints held on to the lead until the end as the Falcons’ offense couldn’t get anything going.

This game hinged on third down, mainly the production by the Saints and the lack of it by the Falcons. So, let’s break down some of the most detrimental third downs of Sunday’s game for the Falcons on offense and defense, what the Falcons had to say about them and what the main problems were:

The defense

1. Two-for-one

The situation: The Saints faced third-and-7 from their own 16-yard line at the 9:54 mark in the first quarter. Taysom Hill threw an incomplete pass, but Grady Jarrett was called for a roughing-the-passer penalty, giving the Saints the first down. Steven Means recorded a sack for a loss of 10 yards on the next play, but Hill hit Michael Thomas for a gain of 14 on second down to set up third-and-6 from the Saints’ 35. The Saints got 7 yards on third down as a quick pass to Jared Cook kept the drive alive.

The outcome: A Saints touchdown. Hill took off on a 43-yard run on the next play, then hit Tre’Quan Smith for the Saints’ first touchdown of the day.

2. Again, take your pick

The situation: Coming down to the wire in the second quarter, the Saints faced third-and-8 from the Atlanta 36. Hill connected with Emmanuel Sanders for 18 yards. After the Falcons stopped Hill on consecutive quarterback keepers, the Saints had third-and-3 from the Atlanta 11.

The outcome: Another Saints touchdown. Hill connected with Cook for an 11-yard touchdown as Cook slid in front of Darqueze Dennard and to the side of Ricardo Allen.

3. Just the one but just as costly

The situation: The Saints were having no trouble moving the ball on their opening drive of the second half. But when Hill missed Sanders on second down, the Falcons had their opportunity to come up with the stop. On the Atlanta 31, New Orleans needed 7 yards for the first down. Hill easily connected with Cook (see a pattern?), and he picked up 10 yards.

The outcome: Yep, you guessed it: a Saints touchdown. From the Falcons’ 21, the Saints handed the ball off to Alvin Kamara twice. He picked up the 21 yards on two runs. He pushed his way into the end zone on the second.

Falcons commentary

• “That was definitely the game (the Saints) wanted to play: Control the time of possession and control the ball so they can keep the game close and run the ball with the quarterback situation they have going on. All in all, we played the game they wanted to, which we did not want to do. But we were still in position to win the game.” — Grady Jarrett

• “We didn’t do enough on either side of the ball, offense, defense or special teams, in order to win this football game. When you come out and play in these types of games, you have to do more everywhere. … I was proud of the bounce back and how we were resolved and how we were able to get back in that thing, but you like to get these things in a better fashion.” — Raheem Morris

• “I am expecting to play like that now (with a potentially lopsided time of possession). … I think our defense has that mentality now that if the offense plays well that’s a plus, but we’re going to be expecting to go out there and play all game. I think it does well for our defense when we adopted that mentality, not putting everything on the offense.” — Foye Oluokun

The defense’s consensus

As poor as the defense’s first-half performance was, the unit did start to settle in. After the Falcons made some adjustments after halftime and played a bit more aggressively, it wasn’t all bad for the defense.

Oluokun said the group needed to do a better job in the first half of owning its details in the rush and in coverages. The players were allowing too much separation, especially when plays got extended. They needed their coverage tighter, “plaster them more,” Oluokun said.

Jarrett said the Falcons afforded the Saints too many opportunities to keep drives alive. But both Oluokun and Jarrett agreed things took a turn for the better in the second half.

“We wanted to win, and they could not score anymore,” Oluokun said. “We put that in the air and made sure we went out there and gave it our best effort. That was the standard: They were not going to score anymore.”

The difference between the Falcons’ defensive and offensive units is that the defense sensed how things were going and seemed to make the necessary adjustments. The offense, on the other hand …

The offense

1. Too many three-and-outs

The situation: Take your pick. The Falcons had four (five if you want to count the final drive, although that’s not necessary).

The outcome: These all factored into the Falcons’ 5-of-13 showing on third-down conversions and 1-of-4 on red-zone tries. Three of the three-and-outs came early. Before the final drive of the first half, the Falcons had only four first downs.

2. No finish

The situation: The Saints had taken the 14-6 lead, but Atlanta had 1:45 left in the first half to get a touchdown and keep the score within a point. With the help of a phenomenal 31-yard catch by Calvin Ridley and a few timely pass interference calls, the Falcons had first-and-10 from the New Orleans 10. But after incomplete passes on first and second down, the Falcons ran out of time.

The outcome: A field goal. With five seconds left in the half, the Falcons were forced to send out Younghoe Koo for a 28-yard field goal, unable to get into the end zone for the sixth consecutive quarter against the Saints.

3. The stop that sealed the game

The situation: With a little more than five minutes left in the game, the Falcons got the ball back trailing 21-16 and drove to the New Orleans 13. Getting a handoff on second down, Todd Gurley was stuck by Demario Davis for no gain. On third-and-2, Gurley again got the handoff, and just like before, Davis got to him, this time for a 7-yard loss.

The outcome: No points when the Falcons desperately needed them. With 1:42 left in the game, the Falcons had to go for it on fourth-and-9. Ryan tried to connect with Julio Jones in the end zone, but Jones was covered by two defenders, and the pass fell incomplete to seal the loss.

Falcons commentary

• “Todd is one of the better red-zone runners in the game, and he bolstered a really good first-down run and got a good gain. The (play on third-and-2), we would have liked him not to bounce. You want to go downhill and try to get yards and try to force a first down there to give us more turns. We were not able to do it. We gotta execute better there, do a couple of things better there to be able to win.” — Morris

• “We certainly didn’t play good enough. We needed to be more productive, particularly in the first half this week. We walked away with too many field goals and not enough touchdowns. It’s disappointing any time you play like that.” — Ryan

• “We are too good to only have one touchdown against them. We just have to take advantage of more looks and things like that. As far as this game, I will have to get in there and watch film tomorrow and see.” — Jones

The offense’s consensus

If you rewind the tape to three weeks ago, when the Falcons were walloped by the Saints (a game in which the Falcons never got into the end zone), Ryan was sacked eight times. After that game and in the week that followed, coaches and players said the protection actually was pretty good, but the Saints’ coverage was better. While Ryan wasn’t sacked nearly as many times Sunday, the Falcons still struggled to move the ball, especially early. So how much did the Saints throw at the Falcons that continued to confound the offense? According to Ryan, there wasn’t much new.

“A few wrinkles here and there from them,” he said, “but for the most part similar to what they have been doing all year.”

And that’s the problem. The Falcons offense had two weeks to prepare for the Saints defense three weeks ago. With just a week to prepare this time, the Falcons knew what was coming for them and how good the Saints really are defensively. But problems persisted. And it was difficult to tell if offensive adjustments were made at all from one game to the next.

The Falcons struggled on first and second down Sunday, just as they did three weeks ago. They couldn’t convert on third down, just as they failed to do three weeks ago. And even though he has been good, the Falcons had to send out Koo way too many times, just as they did three weeks ago. Ryan said during the week that the Falcons needed to be better on first and second down to win the game. Afterward, he didn’t believe they were.

“I think for the most part we didn’t do a good enough job of that,” Ryan said. “We needed to be more efficient in first and second down, create explosives that way. When we did, we kind of got into drives and we were moving the ball well. When we did not, it put us in tough third-down situations with one of the best third-down defenses in the league.”

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4 minutes ago, Goober Pyle said:

And that’s the problem. The Falcons offense had two weeks to prepare for the Saints defense three weeks ago. With just a week to prepare this time, the Falcons knew what was coming for them and how good the Saints really are defensively. But problems persisted. And it was difficult to tell if offensive adjustments were made at all from one game to the next.

 

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39 minutes ago, Fiercefalcon said:

It's gotten so bad that I'm actually on a hot streak of predicting Koetter's plays when he's at the opponent 45 yard line. He has blatantly obvious tendencies once he reaches that spot on the field. And that's just me casually watching. I can't imagine the guys getting paid to actually figure that stuff out.

seeing the other team's db's running our receiver's routes is a huge indicator of that. happened several times today.

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