The New Orleans Saints defense had one of its best performances of the season in a 23-13 win over the Atlanta Falcons in week 16. New Orleans shut out Atlanta for the first 35 minutes of the game, forcing three punts and two turnovers in the process. By the end of the game, Atlanta had converted on just two of 13 third down attempts, and the Saints defense had recorded seven tackles for losses and five sacks.
Atlanta did not reach the end zone until late in the fourth quarter, after failing to score from the Saints one-yard line on two separate possessions earlier in the half. On the first attempt the Saints forced and recovered a fumble, and they stuffed running back Devonta Freeman on a fourth and goal play on the second attempt. As a result of these clutch defensive plays, the Saints were able to keep at least a two-score lead over Atlanta for the entire second half.
Here’s a breakdown of the Saints goal line stands against the Falcons.
New Orleans Saints Week 16 Film Analysis: Goal Line Stands
First Stop: Ball at the Saints Two-Yard Line, 14:13 Remaining in Third Quarter
First and Goal – One-Yard Run by Freeman
Following a Deion Jones interception, Atlanta lined up in a three wide receiver, two tight end formation with Freeman alone in the backfield. Tight end Austin Hooper motioned to the left end of the line, and safety Vonn Bell moved with him. The Saints defense was lined up with a 4-3 over nickel front, and they appeared to be vulnerable on the weak side as Freeman took a handoff to the left.
New Orleans managed to get immediate penetration despite being undermanned on that side. Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins sidestepped his blocker while Bell came through the line untouched. Freeman reacted by bouncing outside, but Hau’oli Kikaha drove Hooper towards the sideline and forced the back inside again.
David Onyemata came all the way from the strongside defensive end spot and made the first contact with Freeman as he crossed the line of scrimmage. Linebacker Manti Te’o fought off a block, and took Freeman down at the one-yard line.
Second and Goal – No Gain, Fumble by Freeman
The Falcons stacked the line while New Orleans maintained a 4-3 over nickel front, and Freeman took a handoff up the middle. New Orleans quickly plugged up any holes, and the only hope for Freeman was to try and plow straight ahead. Defensive tackle Tyeler Davison and Te’o both rammed into Falcons center Alex Mack as Freeman approached, and knocked the center backwards. Freeman ran into Mack as he went down, and Davison got his helmet on the ball to pop it loose. Te’o scrambled over Mack’s body and recovered the fumble.
Second Stop: Ball at the Saints Nine-Yard Line, 1:05 Remaining in Third Quarter
On first and goal, the Falcons used the dagger concept on the weak side of a four wide receiver formation. The slot receiver ran a deep slant while Mohamed Sanu cut underneath on a dig route from the outside. Kikaha was beneath Sanu in zone coverage as Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan scanned from right to left. As Ryan targeted Sanu, he tried to aim his pass out of Kikaha’s reach, but the linebacker managed to get his fingertips on the ball, and the pass fell incomplete.
Atlanta tried a handoff left to Freeman on second and goal. It was the same play they ran on first and goal earlier in the quarter, and the Saints defended it well again. Rankins and Kikaha moved with their blockers to the left, and Bell found Freeman’s cutback lane as he hit the hole. Bell and Rankins made the tackle and held Freeman to a three-yard gain.
On third down from the six-yard line, Matt Ryan found wide receiver Julio Jones on a hitch route to the right. Facing press man coverage by cornerback Marshon Lattimore, Jones boxed out his defender and made the catch just inside the goal line. However, Lattimore dragged Jones out of the end zone as he was still trying to control the ball. Jones was ruled just short of the goal line, and the call stood after a challenge by Atlanta.
Fourth and Goal – No Gain by Freeman, Turnover on Downs
The ball was spotted less than half a yard from the goal line for the Falcons fourth down attempt. The Saints had continued their use of the 4-3 nickel front on the previous three plays, and stuck with it again here. Freeman initially headed up the middle after taking the handoff, but New Orleans had created a dog pile where the hole was supposed to be.
Defensive end Cameron Jordan contained the strong side, forcing Freeman to make a hard cut to the left. Freeman couldn’t quite get around the pile at the two-yard line, and had to cut again. As he did so, Kikaha reached out from the scrum and wrapped up Freeman’s legs. The running back stayed on his feet, but cornerback Ken Crawley came up and shut down Freeman’s second effort short of the goal line.
Part of what makes these goal line stands so impressive is that the Saints front seven is missing several key players. Starting linebackers A.J. Klein and Alex Anzalone are on injured reserve, along with defensive end Alex Okafor. Okafor’s replacement Trey Hendrickson hasn’t played since suffering an ankle injury in week 14. Safety Kenny Vaccaro, who played a lot of snaps in the box, is also on injured reserve.
This success in short yardage situations, against a top ten rushing attack, has to be encouraging for Saints fans as the postseason approaches.