Season over. Pride tarnished. The chance to put a dent in the Super Bowl hopes of their biggest rivals gone in a storm of Drew Brees passes and Alvin Kamara bolting right through the defense.
The story for the 2018 Falcons can be told pretty well in their 31-17 loss to the Saints at the Superdome on Thanksgiving Night, dropping them to 4-7 on the year. Holes all throughout a decimated defense. Red zone ineptitude. Coaching errors in the consistent use of a three man pass rush to allow Drew Brees to pick them apart.
If it wasn’t already obvious, the gap between the Falcons and Saints now resembles the Grand Canyon, and it’s time for Atlanta to turn their attention towards trying to beat the Saints in 2019. Here are five issues the Falcons had in New Orleans to work on next year.
1. Red Zone Struggles
There’s really only place to start. Atlanta moved the ball down to the 3-yard line while trailing 7-0, but Matt Ryan fumbled the ball on his drop back and Marcus Williams. The Falcons again squandered a red zone opportunity after Damontae Kazee intercepted Brees, being forced to settle for a Matt Bryant field goal. Between the early Ryan fumble, and two red zone fumbles by Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, Atlanta ended up with 17 total points after taking the ball inside the 20 six times.
"When you have one it feels like a lot," said head coach Dan Quinn. "But when you have three down there, I thought that was the real story of the game. We knew that would be a factor coming in, and it was.”
2. Offensive Gameplan
Steve Sarkisian saw what happened to the Atlanta defense in their 43-37 loss to the Saints at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in week three, and wanted to try to take the shootout element away by running the ball and using clock.
It didn’t work.
“It made it challenging for sure," said Quinn. "We knew we would have to have some passes to set up the run in this game, but they played so well against the run but not to get that part going was a factor in this game.”
The Falcons never got the running game going, failing to even get into positive yardage on the ground until the second quarter. The final rushing stats favored the Saints 150-26.
In a game the Falcons knew they would need to score early and often to have a chance to keep up with the high-flying Saints, Sarkisian spent too much time attempting to establish the run.
3. Third Down Defense
If the Falcons are going to have a chance next season against the Saints, the defense is going to have to be able to get off the field at a better rate. New Orleans went 7-14 on third downs in the September meeting, and added to that Thursday with a 5-9 clip.
“We see him twice a year so we know him as an opponent," said linebacker De'Vondre Campbell about Drew Brees. "He’s just a great player and he made a couple great plays.”
Overall, the Saints finished the year at a 57.1% conversion rate on third downs vs. the Atlanta defense across the nine periods of football they played this season.
4. Offensive Line Disaster
The difference in the sacks across the two games says it all. The Saints led the sacks stat 3-1 in Atlanta, and a whopping 6-2 in New Orleans. Not only did the Falcons let Matt Ryan take nine sacks against the Saints, but they only managed to sack Brees three times.
“We’ll go back through it [film] hard and look at it," said Quinn. "Nothing will stop us from what we need to do to get the job done."
5. End Of Half Possessions
The four halves of the Atlanta-New Orleans games this season ended with the Saints kicking a go ahead field goal, the Falcons failing to score with a chance to win the game, a Julio Jones red zone fumble, and the Saints kneeling out a comfortable home win. Atlanta blew their chances at the end of both halves at home, and Jones had a critical fumble with the Falcons down 14 on the road.