Thomas terrific: Obviously Saints running back Pierre Thomas’ terrific performance didn’t go unnoticed on game day. He received plenty of well-deserved credit for his 130 yards from scrimmage -- most of which came in clutch situations. But if possible, he was even more impressive on tape.
To review, this is how clutch Thomas was last Thursday. Among his highlights:
A 13-yard run on third-and-1.
An 18-yard gain on a swing pass on third-and-3.
A 19-yard run on third-and-1.
An 18-yard run on second-and-17.
A 16-yard screen pass on second-and-15.
A 16-yard run on second-and-8 when the Saints were trying to run out the clock late in the fourth quarter.
Thomas got several great blocks along the way -- two outstanding ones from undrafted rookie guard Tim Lelito that stood out, and some from fullback Jed Collins, center Brian De La Puente and guard Ben Grubbs among others. But Thomas also created plenty of room for himself.
He tormented standout linebacker Sean Weatherspoon throughout the day, twice making him whiff with sharp cuts and once breaking a tackle. The first came when Weatherspoon appeared to snuff out a screen pass, but Thomas escaped to turn it into a 7-yard gain.
Thomas also abused cornerback Desmond Trufant on the 18-yard run by juking him then stiff-arming him for extra yardage.
Graham terrific: It’s hard to believe Saints tight end Jimmy Graham played second fiddle on a night when he caught five passes for 100 yards, including a 44-yard touchdown. But, hey, Thomas’ performance was hard to top.
Graham torched safety William Moore on the touchdown with an out-and-up move. As NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock pointed out, Graham did a nice job selling the fake by looking back at quarterback Drew Brees before turning upfield. Graham then finished the play by dragging Moore the final 5 yards into the end zone. ... Collins deserves credit for a great blitz pickup on the play after helping to sell a play-action fake in the opposite direction.
Graham also embarrassed the Falcons’ defense on a 35-yard catch on third-and-5 in the third quarter. Graham got wide open on a short crossing pattern when he and receiver Marques Colston ran crisscrossing patterns to tangle up their defenders in traffic. Then Graham shoved aside safety Thomas DeCoud with his own stiff-arm and ran through Moore to gain an extra 17 yards at the end of the play. ... He actually appeared to get cheated out of about 4 more yards when the officials said he stepped out of bounds, but it wasn’t worth a replay review.
Brees mostly terrific: Brees had a very good night, but it’s his own fault that we hold him to a higher standard than 23-of-33 for 278 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. The other TD pass was outstanding -- a 1-yard jump pass that was perfectly floated ahead of tight end Benjamin Watson to lead him as he crossed the back of the end zone. Watson also made a great effort to jump for the ball and hang on to it as he got hit.
Another Brees highlight came on a 12-yard strike to Colston on third-and-6 in the first quarter. The replay showed what a great job Brees did using a pump fake to make a linebacker slide over before he quickly turned back and fired to Colston in the newly created window.
However, Brees had two or three balls thrown behind receivers -- something that Mayock pointed out that we’re not used to seeing. And he was lucky to avoid an interception in the end zone on a pass intended for Colston in the first quarter when Trufant got his hands on the ball, but Falcons teammate Moore collided with him to knock it loose.
Solid protection: Maybe the reason for nitpicking Brees’ performance was because he seemed to have so much time in the pocket to take his pick throughout the night. There were a couple of hiccups in pass protection, including one sack by tackle Peria Jerry against Lelito. But for the most part, Brees had ample time in the pocket for most of the day.
Same with the run blocking. There were one or two snafus for each of the big men in the middle of the line (Lelito, Grubbs and De La Puente each had a low moment that helped stall a drive). But they were mostly very good when it came to run blocking.
Ingram hit and miss: Running back Mark Ingram had one outstanding play, when he gained 10 yards after side-stepping penetration in the backfield. And he had some other decent gains, finishing with 32 yards on nine carries. But there were at least two examples where he gained zero yards after choosing not to follow Collins into potential holes. Ingram has shown signs of improvement in recent weeks, but his consistency is still a work in progress.
For those asking whether he got jobbed by an early whistle on a zero-yard gain in the fourth quarter, it was hard to tell. His forward progress had been stopped for about 2 seconds, and the whistle blew just as he was shedding a tackle. But the Falcons' defenders also stopped when they heard the whistle, so it’s possible he would have been wrapped up soon after.
Getting aggressive: The 18-yard play-action pass from Brees to receiver Robert Meachem on second-and-6 late in the fourth quarter was the kind of aggressive play that so many people were demanding when they accused coach Sean Payton of going too conservative in a loss at the New England Patriots earlier this season.
However, two incomplete passes thrown on third-and-1 earlier in the game were more questionable decisions -- especially since the Saints are running the ball so well. The first was dropped by rookie tight end Josh Hill. The second was a play-action fake out of a jumbo formation where neither Graham nor Watson was able to get open.