2017 was such an exhilarating year as a Saints fan. First playoff appearance since 2013, outstanding rookie class yielding the offensive and defensive rookies of the year, a historically successful ground attack, and a reinvigorated defense all made for an inspired season of football. Though the postseason ended short of the team’s potential on a miracle, the regular season went from doom to boom rather quickly. With that, I’ll be counting down my top five Saints games of 2017.
Today we’re taking a look at game #3: the Saints 23-13 Christmas Eve win at home against the Atlanta Falcons
Any Falcons game in the dome is raucous. But a Falcons game with Alvin Kamra’s elf cleats, Ted Ginn Jr.’s Santa hat, and two hosted two weeks after a catastrophic bodybag game worthy Thursday night contest with playoff implications is something greater. The Saints (10-4) welcomed the Falcons (9-5) into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for one of the season’s most important games. The Falcons were coming in after having inched by the Saints in Week 14 thanks to a Deion Jones interception in the endzone and several injuries to the Saints on both sides of the ball. This game, though, was a very different tone.
If you look at the score it looks like a relatively close game. But, the Saints shut out Atlanta in the first half and only allowed three points until the Falcons’ final two possessions of the game. Meanwhile, the Saints offense was rolling.
During the first half of the game, the Falcons finally got a full helping of the Kamra/Ingram tandem. An element of the Saints’ offensive attack that they didn’t have to deal with in Week 14 with Kamara leaving early under concussion protocol. Through the first two quarters, the Saints accumulated 190 total yards on offense, 107 of which came by way of Kamara and Ingram. They single-handedly contributed 56.3% of the first half offense. The screen game and routes from the backfield were effective though Atlanta adjusted well in after halftime.
When the backfield gameplan started to get stifled a bit by the Atlanta defense, Drew Brees, who reached the 70,000 career passing yards mark earlier in the game, turned to his go-to receiver in the second half. After having just one reception for five yards in the first half, Michael Thomas added 61 in the second half, 48.8% of the second half offense which included about 2:30 of victory formation. This is the conundrum brought upon by the increasingly dynamic Saints offense. New Orleans can dominate early and then has enough weapons to change attacks once the defense adjusts.
However, one constant weapon that always gives the defense fits is Drew Brees. Brees completed 75% of his passes in this game, on his way to setting the new season record mark for completion percentage at 72%, but only had to complete 21 passes across six different receivers. His 28 passing attempts tied for the third fewest he’d had in a game in 2017. This was the last of five 2017 games in which he’d thrown fewer than 30 passes. All five were wins and he ended the season 6-1 when throwing 30 or less times.
Saints Defense Keeps Falcons One-Dimensional
There’s a lot to talk about with the Saints defense this game despite giving up 331 total yards, which actually isn’t a lot to a Saints fan considering recent years. They did give up 264 passing yards, their most since facing the Rams in Week 12. Their countered that by limiting the Falcons ground game to only 67 yards, their third best performance in run defense. That charge was lead by the defensive line and linebacker Manti Te’o. The D-Line was disruptive all game. Cam Jordan and Sheldon Rankins played a hell of a game (contributing three of five team sacks) and had the Falcons offense on their toes. At one point in the first half, the Falcons had so many mental errors that they inflicted a1st and 40 on themselves in a series that ended in Matt Ryan being destroyed by Cam Jordan.
By the time we got to Week 16, The Saints already had 20 players on Injured Reserve (22 if you count John Dorenbos and Dannell Ellerbe who were released from IR). Alex Anzalone, AJ Klein, and Nate Stupar were three linebackers that, thanks to injury, had been replaced by Craig Robertson and late free agency add Manti Te’o. The Saints initially signed Te’o, one my “Underappreciated” players of 2017, to compete as a depth linebacker and thank goodness they did. Te’o was everywhere on the field this game and made two key stops including a moment in which he completely overpowered Falcons Center Alex Mack and ran him back into Devonta Freeman at the goal line. His motor caused a fumble, which Te’o himself recovered. That play stopped the Falcons short after an unfortunate bounce lead to a Deion Jones interception and near touchdown return.
The Falcons have their own dynamic duo in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, but the Saints defense held the pair to only 48 yards on the ground. Julio Jones ended up accounting for 45% of the Falcons’ total yardage in the game. It seemed, most of the time, that they only way Atlanta could inch down the field was through the hands of Jones. But thanks to our own star on the defensive side of the ball, Jones’s yardage never translated on the scoreboard.
Lattimore Vs. Jones. Part II
Marshon Lattimore also played a great game. Even though Julio Jones, who Lattimore shadowed most of the game, came around with 149 receiving yards, he never found his way to the endzone. At the top of the fourth quarter, Matt Ryan completed a pass to Jones, covered by Lattimore at the goal line. Lattimore wrapped him up immediately and though Jones’s feet were in the endzone, Lattimore never let him get the ball across the plain. That lead to a fourth and goal run by Freeman that was again stopped at the goal line, this time by Hau’oli Kikaha and Ken Crawley. Lattimore also came through earlier with a few pass breakups and tight coverage. His biggest impact came in the first half being in the right place at the right time to make the play of the game and perhaps season as a dropped pass by WR Marvin Hall found its way on to Lattimore’s backside. The play was mostly made by Marcus Williams who dove over the Defensive Rookie of the Year, tapping the ball to keep it from rolling off of his tuchus. But it requires skill to take advantage of opportunity on the football field, particularly with your posterior, and that’s what Lattimore did. The Butt Pick put the Saints in position, with less than a minute in the half, to score on a 54 yard bomb to Ted Ginn Jr. and take a 13-0 lead into halftime and help set the course for the rest of the game.
These two teams will meet again in New Orleans on another holiday in 2018 as they’ll host Atlanta on Thanksgiving Day. It’s probably unfair to say that the team might have ruined Christmas in Georgia, but we can definitely say that they made Christmas in NOLA. This year, they’ll have the chance to spread further holiday cheer as we give thanks across the Who Dat Nation.
Check in just a few days from now to see Game #2 of the 2017 season as we keep rolling along to #1!