It was a total team effort and a total team win.
In the tape breakdown of the Sunday's thriller, the Saints provided a lot of things to get excited about and just enough teaching points to correct.
It was not a perfect game but it did result in a win and that's all that matters.
Let's break it all down.
1.) The Final Play
Deja vu all over again. For the second straight year, the Falcons faced fourth and goal. For the second straight year, the Saints defense rose to the occasion.
It started with the rush. The Saints had three guys standing up at the line and dropped eight players in coverage. Despite the three-man rush, it was still effective. Curtis Lofton got around on the edge and Cam Jordan was able to collapse the pocket. The rush forced Matt Ryan to hurry through his progressions. He was left with no other choice but to essentially try to drop it in to Gonzales.
Kenny Vaccaro exploded to the ball and got a hand on it and Roman Harper was fortunate enough to snatch it off the tip.
The final play was a well-designed defensive call to drop eight players, a sensational effort by the front three to get pressure and exceptional execution by Vaccaro to find the ball and make a play.
2.) A for Effort
The final play was a culmination of a solid day for the new-look Saints defense.
What else can you say? Three sacks, two turnovers and 3-11 on third down.
That's winning defensive football. And it's miles ahead of where they were a year ago.
Kudos to Rob Ryan who after the game looked like a kid in a candy store. He was smiling from ear-to-ear. Ryan had a sound game plan against one of the best offenses in football. He mixed up personnel packages and gave several pre-snap looks. But their success came from their ability to consistently provide pressure with just four guys.
The Saints picked their spots when they blitzed and it produced mixed results. By my count,ten times they sent the extra guy. Two of their sacks came on a blitz, but it was more of a delay blitz by the linebacker as opposed to an all-out blitz off the snap.
On the other eight times, Ryan went six for eight for 82 yards and a touchdown. One of those incompletions was a drop that could have been a BIG gain.
I credit (Rob) Ryan for having the overall plan to not blitz. But despite the success (Matt) Ryan had against him, the Saints were right to mix a few in. A quarterback as smart as Ryan will pick up on the same things over and over.
3.) Deceptive Success in Run Game
The final stat line in the ground game can be misleading. I myself fell for it at first glance. 29 carries for 78 yards doesn't scream success. But while the production wasn't there, the commitment was and it paid dividends in the second half, particularly in the fourth quarter.
Their longest run of the night was only 11 yards. That run was their only first down converted by rush. They had three negative runs, all three came from Mark Ingram (who we will talk about below). What you saw was a lot of nickel and dime gains, gains of two, three and four yards. That production was just enough to keep the offense balanced and forced the Falcons to honor the rush.
It stood out most in their second-to-last offensive drive. It's rare that I say a drive that barely crosses the 50-yard line and ends in a punt is a good one but it was. The Saints got the ball at their three yard line and ran ten plays.
They passed and ran five times each and chewed up just over five minutes on the clock. The drive stretched from the third into the fourth quarter. When they punted the ball away, the Falcons regained possession at their own nine-yard line. That swing of field position and time consumption was a hidden factor in the ultimate success of the game.
4.) Subpar offensive line
One of the most disappointing aspects of Sunday was the play of the offensive line. Part of the reason why they only had 78 yards rushing was because of the play of this unit.
Jahri Evans had one his worst games as a Saint. He was called for back-to-back holding penalties and got away with another. He also was responsible for a sack when he let his defender blow by him.
On the fourth and short, fans love to blame Ingram, but if you watch the play he had no chance. Zach Strief was pushed back on the snap. 4th and short essentially became 4th and three at the snap.
Charles Brown wasn't much better. He whiffed on a block on the Saints first drive that caused a quick errant throw by Drew Brees. He also gave up another sack later in the game.
On the other two Ingram negative runs, Ben Grubbs was pushed back at the point of attack.
This unit has to get better next week.
5.) Rookie Report
Of the team's ten rookies who made the final roster, seven got significant playing time on Sunday.
Kenny Vaccaro played EVERY defensive snap and short of the personal foul penalty, played well. As for that penalty, it's not good but I bet it's something the Saints are willing to take with him because of his physical nature.
Kenny Stills is going to be scary good. I think he can be better than Devery Henderson was in that field-stretching role for his consistency in catching the football. Stills had two catches for 86 yards but could've had three more had Brees given him a better throw. Once these two get their chemistry, big things will happen.
John Jenkins got plenty of snaps on defense. Tim Lelito, Josh Hill, Kevin Reddick and Rod Sweeting all got special teams snaps on Sunday.
One rookie we did not see was Terron Armstead. Armstead was inactive, which I think is a clear sign of where he is in his development. He is simply too raw right now to be counted on and the backup tackle will be Bryce Harris.
It didn't take long for the Mark Ingram haters to come out after Sunday. Ingram only had nine carries for 11 yards. On four of those runs, there was at least one defender in the backfield when he took the handoff. Those were not his fault, but the other five were on him. I charted all of his runs and what I've noticed is there are two areas where Ingram really struggles. One, he can't break tackles. On his last run of the game, he had a nice hole to run through. Out of nowhere, safety William Moore shot in and delivered a hit, not a tackle, but a hit. But Ingram essentially lost his feet based solely on the impact of the shot. I think Pierre Thomas breaks that tackle. As I watched the development of the play, had he broke that tackle, he may have scored. NFL running backs must be able to break tackles. Ingram can't consistently do that. Two, he is impatient when he hits the outside. He overruns his offensive line on stretch plays and doesn't have a good feel for the cutback. That play is designed to string it out laterally then cut it up or back. Ingram doesn't have a good sense of timing with his offensive linemen to let them set up the block and him to explode behind them.
Marques Colston: so steady, so underrated. I have no more words to describe my respect for him. His consistency is remarkable and as I 've said many times, no one takes more direct hits for his quarterback than Colston. I still cannot understand how a guy who has caught for over a thousand yards in seven of his eight seasons has yet to make a Pro Bowl.
Kudos to Parys Haralson. He recorded one sack and was stout against the run. Haralson was an excellent pickup for this defense.
My preseason prediction of Cam Jordan being a Pro Bowler is steadily getting closer to a reality. He is an absolute beast on the defensive line. He, like Vaccaro, played every defensive snap. Jordan may eventually go down as Payton's best first round pick.
Penalties were a problem all game, particularly on special teams. Two penalties on punts cost the Saints 38 yards in field position
The Saints were determined to not let Tony Gonzales beat them. While he did have the one touchdown that came off an improv roll out by Ryan, he was pretty much contained all game. Take the Falcons last touchdown for example. Ryan hit Julio Jones for the score. On the play, the second Ryan raised his arm to throw, two defenders rushed to Gonzales. This left Jones wide open. The Saints let one of the best young receivers in the NFL in man coverage to cover a 37 year old tight end. That's how much they respect Gonzales.
Drew Brees was most effective Sunday out of the shotgun. He completed 16/25 for 281 yards and one touchdown when he was in that formation.
Speaking of shotgun, the Saints added a new wrinkle to the offense. Darren Sproles got a few runs out of the pistol formation.
While we'll always remember the fourth down, the Saints actually got a little bit of luck on third down when Steven Jackson dropped the pass at the goalline. Ramon Humber was a step late getting there, had Jackson caught it, he likely would have scored.