Clutch plays: This was a classic example of “bend but don't break” defense. The Saints gave up a decent amount of yards throughout the game, but very few points. These were their three biggest “unbreakable” moments:
Outside linebacker Keyunta Dawson's forced fumble early in the fourth quarter came at a huge time -- just as Atlanta had crossed into the Saints' red zone. As I wrote Monday in a longer post on Dawson, he made a terrific effort to chase receiver Darius Johnson from behind and strip the ball. Dawson began the play by rushing from the right edge. But when he recognized it was a screen pass to Johnson, he turned and chased the play. Saints cornerback Corey White recovered the fumble.
Defensive end Cameron Jordan had 2.5 sacks in the game -- all of which helped to stall Atlanta drives. But the biggest came with 2:34 remaining, when the Falcons had reached New Orleans' 29-yard line. The Saints only rushed four on the play, but Jordan fought his way around left tackle Lamar Holmes, using the hand movement that teammate Chris Carr raved about last week. Jordan caught quarterback Matt Ryan from behind when he tried to step up in the pocket. The 5-yard loss forced Atlanta into a third-and-15 and let to a missed 52-yard field goal attempt.
The Saints' pass coverage held up great after the Falcons got a first-and-goal from the 10-yard line late in the second quarter. Ryan threw incomplete toward a well-covered Johnson on first down, then he settled for a check-down pass to running back Steven Jackson that gained 0 yards on second down. On third down, the Saints sent only three rushers, but outside linebacker Junior Galette flushed Ryan from the pocket and forced him to scramble when no one was open. (Ryan then slid 4 yards short of the end zone, much to the displeasure of the home crowd).
Pressure packed: The Saints had a total of five sacks in the game. Fellow defensive end Akiem Hicks was dominant on two of them -- including one in the second quarter where he got away with a blatant personal-foul penalty. Hicks torched right guard Garrett Reynolds with a swim move, then he swung his big arm into Ryan's facemask as he brought him down. It was amazing that no flag was thrown, but the refs obviously just didn't see it. … Hicks also shoved Reynolds back in the third quarter to hit Ryan on the sack he shared with Jordan.
Jordan had another full sack with an assist from the Saints' coverage in the third quarter. Ryan eventually stepped up in the pocket, giving Jordan a free run at him. … And the Saints' entire front line could have shared a sack in the fourth quarter. Edge rushers Dawson and Parys Haralson shared credit for the sack, but nose tackle John Jenkins and Hicks also brought pressure up the middle on a five-man blitz.
Jordan also forced a holding penalty on tight end Tony Gonzalez at one point. And the Saints' pressure forced three incomplete passes on third downs: the pressure from Galette mentioned above; pressure from Galette and end Glenn Foster on a twist in the second quarter; and pressure from a seven-man blitz in the fourth quarter.
White-washed: Second-year cornerback White got picked on quite a bit after replacing injured veteran Jabari Greer as a starter this week. The good news is that he didn't let anything get behind him -- which helped the Saints pull off that “bend but don't break” approach. However, White clearly gave way too much of a cushion to rookie receiver Darius Johnson throughout the game. Ryan completed five passes for 65 yards to Johnson in the first half while White was in coverage -- mostly mid-range slants and comeback routes. And White was also flagged for a 31-yard pass interference against Johnson (which wasn't egregious since the ball was underthrown, causing a collision -- but White never turned to make a play on the ball).
White got lucky that it wasn't worse. White got knocked to the ground on a pick play in the third quarter on third-and-2 while trying to chase Johnson, but Johnson dropped a pass in the open field that would have gone for a big gain.
White ultimately settled in, though. He didn't give up a pass over the final 20 minutes. And he recovered the key fumble in the fourth quarter.
Pick your poison: Over those final 20 minutes, it was Falcons receiver Harry Douglas who suddenly started getting open for those mid-range passes. He had six catches for 63 yards in the second half -- mostly in soft pockets of zone defenses, but at least once in front of safety Kenny Vaccaro and once in front of safety Malcolm Jenkins.
However, the Saints did a great job of bottling up the Falcons' two biggest threats -- receiver Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez. White was targeted only twice, catching two passes for 24 yards, while being shadowed most of the night by standout Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis. Gonzalez caught four passes for 43 yards, with Jenkins primarily covering him. At one point Jenkins nearly picked off a pass intended for Gonzalez, but Gonzalez played great defense himself to rip the ball free.
Adjusting to run: The Saints' run defense struggled early, allowing Steven Jackson to break off runs of 8 yards, 8 yards, 6 yards and a 1-yard touchdown plunge on the opening drive. Then they allowed running back Antone Smith to break off an 11-yard gain on a draw play in the second quarter. The Saints didn't miss many tackles on the runs, but Atlanta consistently did a good job of blocking holes open in the middle of the Saints' defensive line.
New Orleans cleaned it up, though. Atlanta's running backs finished with just 81 rushing yards on 20 carries.