The New Orleans Saints 20-17 loss to the Atlanta Falcons last Thursday has become shrouded in controversy in regards to the officiating. Saints head coach Sean Payton‘s conduct in the game is currently under review by the NFL after losing his temper near the end. On Sunday, it was revealed that a former Falcons player was part of the officiating crew. Saints fans aren’t happy with this perceived conflict of interest, but there’s more to take away from this loss. New Orleans was in a great position to win, but they let Atlanta steal the victory.
With 13 minutes left in the third quarter, New Orleans led 17-10 despite injuries to key players such as running back Alvin Kamara, linebacker A.J. Klein, and left guard Senio Kelemete. However, in the remaining 28 minutes, the Saints failed to increase their lead; going scoreless on their last four possessions against Atlanta. These stalled drives included three punts and a Drew Brees pass that was intercepted on the Saints final possession.
Here’s a breakdown of key plays from the Saints final four drives against the Falcons.
New Orleans Saints Week 14 Film Analysis: Stalled Second Half Drives
Five-Yard Pass to Michael Thomas on 3rd and 11, 8:32 Remaining in Third Quarter
Despite being ahead seven points, New Orleans felt the need to stay aggressive and threw on four of the five plays called on this drive. On this play, the Saints lined up in a shotgun formation with two receivers split out to the left, and one on the right. Atlanta had tight man coverage on the receivers.
Before the snap, tight end Josh Hill motioned outside of wide receiver Michael Thomas on the left side. One of Atlanta’s cornerbacks left his assignment on Thomas and followed Hill. The other cornerback on that side shifted away from Brandon Coleman, and lined up across from Thomas.
Safety Keanu Neal picked up Coleman, but remained eight yards downfield. This extra space created by the motion seemed to set up the screen pass perfectly. Thomas took a step downfield before cutting inside, and as he made the catch Coleman blocked the cornerback. Thomas had room to run, but Brees threw the ball behind his receiver to avoid a tipped pass, and Thomas had to turn outside to make the catch.
This turn put him a step further away from the offensive line than a turn inside would have. Backup left guard Josh LeRibeus also could have done a better job of getting out in front of Thomas, and as a result he missed a block on Neal. Thomas broke Neal’s tackle, but he lost his running lane to the outside, and was swallowed up by two Falcons.
Brees Sacked on 3rd and 7, 2:13 remaining in Third Quarter
On a drive that began with a Ted Ginn Jr. run for a loss and a short pass to Mark Ingram, the Saints already found themselves in a third and long situation. New Orleans lined up with three receivers bunched on the left side, and one split out on the right. Atlanta sent a five-man blitz from an unbalanced formation, and Brees faced pressure immediately from defensive tackle Dontari Poe.
Brees had nowhere to throw as each receiver ran a long-developing route. Left guard Larry Warford couldn’t contain Poe on his own, and Brees was sacked. Since the Saints had Ingram as an extra blocker, it’s safe to assume that someone was supposed to help Warford block the 346 pound Poe. It’s likely LeRibeus or center Max Unger should have assisted, and Warford appeared to shout at LeRibeus after the play.
After the snap, Unger tried to pick up the blitzing weakside linebacker, but LeRibeus went for the same player. Unger appeared to be pushing LeRibeus away and made no attempt to assist Warford, so LeRibeus was likely supposed to step back and help with Poe. New Orleans had to punt again, and the Falcons scored a game-tying touchdown on the ensuing drive.
Brees Sacked on 3rd and 5, 8:32 Remaining in Fourth Quarter
The Saints came out in a five wide receiver formation, and Atlanta rushed only three. Brees faced pressure from the right side and stepped back in the pocket. Atlanta had extra men in coverage so there wasn’t really anywhere to throw. Thomas briefly came open on a slant route from the left slot, but Brees didn’t see him in time.
Left tackle Terron Armstead attempted to push defensive end Adrian Clayborn down as he came around the left side. Instead, Clayborn stayed on his feet and got around Armstead. Unger looked back at them since he had no one to block at that moment, but he must have assumed Armstead had Clayborn under control and looked away. It didn’t help that Brees stepped back right at that moment, and he was hit hard by Clayborn.
Atlanta kicked a field goal to take the lead following another Saints punt.
Brees Interception on 2nd and 10, 1:30 Remaining in Fourth Quarter
The Saints offense started this drive at their own 20-yard line, and made it down to the Falcons 11-yard line in just two minutes. On the first play of the drive, Thomas picked up 35 yards from a catch on a corner route. A few plays later, New Orleans passed up a field goal opportunity from the 22-yard line and successfully converted on fourth and one. An 11-yard pass to Ginn on the next play moved the Saints into the red zone.
Brees made perhaps his worst decision of the season as he tried to force a pass to Josh Hill in the end zone. That’s not to say the opportunity wasn’t there. Willie Snead ran a corner route from the slot, which lured Atlanta’s strong safety away from Hill’s route in the seam. A few things could have been done better on the play.
Hill should have been more physical on his route to stay underneath Jones, but instead Jones got inside leverage. Brees would have been better off throwing to Hill’s back shoulder, but instead tried to aim it over Jones. Instead, Jones leaped and easily grabbed the interception, greatly reducing the Saints chances of winning.
The decision making deserves skepticism here. It was only second down, and even if the Saints failed to convert on third down, a field goal to tie would still have been an option. If Brees had waited a split-second longer, he would have had Ingram open in the flat with a chance to reach the end zone. Since Brees was set on taking a shot on the play, why not target his best receiver Thomas, who faced one-on-one coverage on the left side?
This loss hurts in a number of different ways, but this play took away a great chance for New Orleans to overcome the injuries and penalties and survive with a win.