NFC South: Falcons-Saints 110209

Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

NEW ORLEANS -- Just in case you’re wondering what formation Drew Brees has been most effective out of this season, it’s the "zebra" formation -- three wide receivers, one tight end and a running back.

Brees has been great out of that formation all season and Monday night against Atlanta was no exception. Thanks to ESPN Stats & Information, we’ve got a breakdown of what Brees did out of the "zebra" on Monday and what he has done in that formation all season:

Brees In Zebra Formation
Categories Monday First 6 Games
Comp. pct. 90 69
Yds./Att. 13.9 9.3
TD-Int. 0-0 9-1
Passer Rtg. 118.8 127.9

These truly aren't the Saints of old

November, 3, 2009
11/03/09
2:06
AM ET
 
 John David Mercer/US Presswire
 The Saints are finding ways to close out games and hold on for victories.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

NEW ORLEANS -- Before I say this, please understand that my right hand is raised and my left side is hooked up to a polygraph machine.
Falcons-Saints Coverage
Monday Night Football HQ
NFC South blog coverage
Video: Sean Payton on win
Video: Trent Dilfer's analysis

All right, the New Orleans Saints really, really, really are a different football team than last year, the year before and at any point in their history.

Yeah, I know I’ve been writing for seven weeks now about how different the Saints are now that they have a real defense. And how great the offense is with Marques Colston and Jeremy Shockey and the presence of an actual running game. And how Sean Payton is a much better coach than he was even a year ago.

But the truth is, there was a small part of me that totally didn’t believe it. There was a part of me that kept waiting for the same old Saints to emerge. I mean this is a franchise that’s had far more gory years than glory years. This is a city that just celebrated Voo-Doo Fest over the weekend.

Surely, the voo-doo or the karma or whatever you want to call it was bound to surface on the "Monday Night Football" stage. Surely, the Saints would find a way to lose to the Atlanta Falcons at a time when the entire region was starting to talk about how this team could go undefeated.

But here’s where the same old story has a new twist. Everything that could go wrong pretty much did -- and the Saints still won.

“I’m just glad we survived tonight,’’ offensive tackle Jon Stinchcomb said.

The Saints defeated the Falcons 35-27. They ran their record to 7-0 and put themselves way ahead of the Falcons (4-3) in the NFC South standings. But the Saints did far more than that.

“It wasn’t the prettiest win,’’ quarterback Drew Brees said. “But we did what we needed when we needed to get a win and that’s saying a lot.’’

That’s saying a real lot. I’ll guarantee you that last year’s Saints never would have won this game. Last year’s Saints would have handed off a victory.

Remember? That’s exactly what the Saints did in a Monday night home game against Minnesota last year. They wasted two late punt returns for touchdowns by Reggie Bush and lost to the Vikings. There are dozens of classic examples through the years, but you don’t need to hear the litany right now because it doesn’t apply.

This version of the Saints kept having disaster thrown in its face, yet still was able to prevail. Let’s run through the list of near disasters the new-wave Saints avoided.

Let’s start with 8:30 left in the fourth quarter and the Saints leading 28-24. The Falcons were driving with a chance to take a lead in a game the Saints should have wrapped up right after halftime. This was when Matt Ryan threw for Tony Gonzalez near the end zone. This was when cornerback Tracy Porter stepped in and did what no past Saint ever could seem to do.

Porter intercepted the ball and the Saints marched right down the field to take a 35-24 lead.

Let’s jump now to the 1:23 mark of the fourth quarter. That’s when the Saints were trying to run the clock out on that lead and they gave the ball to Mike Bell, their most sure-handed running back. He promptly fumbled and ghosts of past disasters began dancing in the rafters of the Superdome.

The Falcons tacked on a field goal and all their hopes came down to recovering an onside kick and scoring a touchdown and a two-point conversion. The Falcons got the recovery and the perfect disaster was setting up as Ryan dropped back with 11 seconds left and threw toward the end zone. Surely, the ball would end up in the hands of an Atlanta receiver and a two-point conversion was sure to follow.

Neither thing happened. Instead, Darren Sharper, the 33-year-old safety who is playing like he’s 23, intercepted and the game was basically over.

“It wasn’t perfect,’’ Payton said of the victory. “It wasn’t clean.’’

No, it wasn’t. There were mistakes. But no football team is ever perfect, but right now the undefeated Saints are about as close to that as you’ll find. They not only defeated their past Monday night, they also defeated their present and their future.
Ryan vs. Saints Pressure
The Saints defense brought pressure on 22 of Ryan’s 42 pass attempts and Ryan struggled to handle it. Although Ryan averaged 7.8 yards per attempt against added pressure, he also threw two interceptions.
Category Extra Standard
Comp-Att 11-22 8-17
Yard att 7.8 5.5
Sacks 2 1
TD-INT 1-2 0-1
* 3 spikes not included

The Falcons are good and they’re going to remain the main division challenge to the Saints for the forseeable future. The Falcons didn’t have a bad game against the Saints like they did in Week 7 at Dallas. In fact, I think the Falcons played about as well as they’re capable of playing. They got running back Michael Turner really going for only the second time this season and their defense actually got some pressure on Brees and made some good things happen.

That should have been enough against the Saints of old. It wasn’t enough this time and that’s because the Saints truly -- and I’m saying it once and for all -- are a different team than they’ve ever been.

They can finish games now.

“Well, it wasn’t the way we want to finish, but we got a win,’’ Stinchcomb said. “There are plenty of things to work on and it’s going to be a tough week of work.’’

Yes, the Saints have a few things to work on. But the difference is they’re working on perfecting ways to win games, instead of finding ways to lose them.

Rapid Reaction: Saints 35, Falcons 27

November, 3, 2009
11/03/09
12:15
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

NEW ORLEANS -- Ladies and gentlemen, the NFC South race is over.

Let’s go ahead and crown the New Orleans Saints division champions. Yeah, I know we’re only seven games into this thing. But it’s over.

The Saints played their first division game of the season Monday night. They won it and, therefore, they’re going to win the NFC South for the first time since 2006.

Barring some sort of major injuries or problems, the Saints already have put enough distance between themselves and the rest of the NFC South. The Falcons played them pretty darn hard, but New Orleans survived it.

That makes the Saints 7-0 and the Falcons 4-3. Look at both of their remaining schedules and you’ll see why I’m saying the race is over. Atlanta needed this game to have any chance of catching the Saints. Now, the Falcons are going to have to scramble just to get a wild-card berth.

The Saints will be playing for much more than an NFC South crown the rest of the way. They’re going to finish with double-digit wins (they only need one more win for that if you give them victories for their two games with Tampa Bay). The only real questions are if they can clinch the home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs and maybe even if they’ll go undefeated.

I’m heading downstairs for post-game interviews. I’ll be back with more in a bit.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

NEW ORLEANS -- Looks like it’s going to go down to the wire in the Superdome. Right now it’s Saints 28, Falcons 24.

I thought for a second it was going to be tied when Roddy White appeared to make what initially was called a touchdown catch. The call was reviewed and, rightly, overturned and the Falcons had to settle for a field goal.

Speaking of field goals, veteran kickers Jason Elam and John Carney aren’t having particularly good nights. I wouldn’t be surprised if this one somehow comes down to a kicker deciding it.

Praise for Saints' Greer

November, 2, 2009
11/02/09
10:28
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

NEW ORLEANS -- I know there’s been a lot of buzz about New Orleans safety Darren Sharper as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

I’ve participated in that, too. I’d give Sharper my vote right now because he’s having an unbelievable year. But I think what happened just before the half shows you another member of the New Orleans secondary who at least deserves mention as a Pro Bowl cornerback.

That’s Jabari Greer. He intercepted Matt Ryan shortly before the end of the first half and returned it for a touchdown. That gives the Saints five interception returns so far this season and that already ties the team record for most in a season.

Greer was signed as a free agent from Buffalo and Tampa Bay also made a strong run at him. Greer’s been outstanding in coverage all season and has shown he can be a true No. 1 cornerback on what has become a very good defense.

Grimes shows why Falcons like him

November, 2, 2009
11/02/09
9:53
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

NEW ORLEANS -- I'm not sure why the Falcons decided to switch up at cornerback on that last drive, although I did see Tye Hill, who had been getting a lot of early playing time, limp off the field after the previous drive.

Whatever happened, it’s a good thing Brent Grimes was out on the field on the latest drive. Grimes had been on the bench early in the game and he’s taken a lot of abuse from opposing receivers and from Atlanta fans this year. But Grimes just might a play that explains what the Atlanta coaching staff sees in him.

Grimes made a leaping interception of a Drew Brees pass intended for Devery Henderson. Yes, Grimes may be short (he’s listed at 5-foot-9 and probably isn’t that tall), but teammates and coaches will tell you Grimes is the best natural athlete on the team.

He’s also got incredible leaping ability, which was shown on that play.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

NEW ORLEANS -- Not sure exactly what’s been up with Atlanta running back Michael Turner this season. But he’s suddenly back to looking a lot like he did last year and that’s very good news for the Falcons.

There’s one stat that every Atlanta fan knows: Since Turner joined the Falcons last year, Atlanta is undefeated in games in which he has rushed for 100 yards. They won eight games last year and the only one he’s rushed for 100 yards this season.

So far (and I’m writing this with 7:33 left in the first half), Turner already has 85 yards on nine carries.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

NEW ORLEANS -- Wow, all the people who talk about New Orleans’ defense being the one that comes up with big plays, they just got a very strong argument from the much-maligned Atlanta defense.

The Falcons forced a huge mistake by Drew Brees, who doesn’t make many. Atlanta took a 14-7 lead when safety Thomas DeCoud blitzed, sacked Brees for a 10-yard loss and forced the quarterback to fumble near his own goal line. Defensive end Kroy Biermann picked up the ball for the touchdown.

One common theme on that play: DeCoud and Biermann both were members of general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s first draft in 2008. That class already has gotten lots of attention because of Matt Ryan, Sam Baker and Curtis Lofton. But that draft class continues to appear deeper and more impressive.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

NEW ORLEANS -- Tye Hill, the cornerback who has been pretty much invisible since the Falcons traded for him at the start of the season, is suddenly visible.

The Falcons have been playing mostly three-cornerback sets on New Orleans’ first drive and Hill has been out there just about the entire time. I’m still trying to figure out exactly how the Falcons are working this.. I’ve seen one play where Chris Houston went out, leaving Hill and Chevis Jackson as the cornerbacks and another play where Jackson went off and Hill and Houston were on the field.

This is pretty interesting because Atlanta fans have been screaming for Hill to get playing time. They’re finally getting their wish. I haven’t seen Brent Grimes, the prime target for a lot of fan criticism of the secondary, in on defense yet.

By the way, the switch didn't seem to have much of an impact on New Orleans' first drive. The Saints just tied the game, 7-7, on an 80-yard drive, in which they were able to run the ball easily and didn't do a lot of passing.

Falcons quiet dome with opening drive

November, 2, 2009
11/02/09
8:50
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

NEW ORLEANS -- The Falcons had what was pretty much the perfect opening drive in the Superdome.

They went 77 yards on eight plays to take a 7-0 lead. They controlled the ball and moved it through the air and on the ground. Michael Turner had two very nice runs, including a 13-yarder for the touchdown.

The drive took three minutes and 57 seconds and, at least for the moment, the Superdome has become a lot quieter than it was at kickoff. Then again, I’m not going to read too much into opening drives. I seem to recall the Falcons having a very nice opening drive in Dallas last week and, then, they were pretty much silent the rest of the game.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

NEW ORLEANS – As expected, injured linebacker Scott Fujita and defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis will be inactive tonight.

Troy Evans will start in Fujita’s place. Anthony Hargrove will start in place of Ellis and the Saints have said Remi Ayodele will start at the other defensive tackle spot in place of Kendrick Clancy.

Other inactives for the Saints are kicker Garrett Hartley, cornerback Leigh Torrence, running back Lynell Hamilton, safety Chris Reis and center Nick Leckey. Chase Daniel will be the third quarterback.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

NEW ORLEANS -- Just got word that injured Atlanta running backs Jerious Norwood and Jason Snelling will not be active for tonight’s game.

That leaves the Falcons with starting running back Michael Turner and Aaron Stecker, who was signed last week, as their only running backs.

The Falcons will activate Ovie Mughelli, who had been out with an injury, and Verron Haynes will be his backup. Haynes also could be used as a backup running back.

Also, defensive tackle Thomas Johnson will be inactive. Trey Lewis and Vance Walker are expected to share his duties.

Live from the Superdome

November, 2, 2009
11/02/09
6:43
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

NEW ORLEANS -- Mainly due to a resourceful cab driver who knew some back streets, I have made it into the Superdome much easier and earlier than I expected. By the way, the cab driver also compared the Saints to the 1985 Chicago Bears. Might be a little early on that one, but he might have a point.

It’s crazy in the streets outside and will get the same way in here once the gates open. They’re practicing a halftime show on the field right now and I won’t reveal the details of that. We’ll have much more as the game gets closer.

But, in the meantime, here is some more video of the New Orleans Times Picayune’s Jeff Duncan and I previewing tonight’s game. As most of you know, I generally avoid making predictions on games, but Jeff asked for one, so I gave it to him. I picked the Saints.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

METAIRIE, La. – Wanted to share a few interesting nuggets I just received from ESPN’s Stats & Information about tonight’s Monday Night Football game between the Falcons and Saints.

First off, I think we all realized pretty quickly that Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan was good as soon as he came in the NFL last season. But he’s at his best when he’s indoors.

Ryan is 11-3 in his indoor starts. That puts him in some pretty good company. The only two quarterbacks in history with better records in their first 14 indoor starts are Kurt Warner and Marc Bulger. They each started off 13-1.

The Falcons have only one victory in franchise history against a team that was undefeated through at least the first five games. That came all the way back in 1973. In a "Monday Night Football" game against the 9-0 Vikings, Atlanta quarterback Bob Lee led the Falcons to a 20-14 victory. By the way, Atlanta has never won a road game against a team that was 4-0 or better to that point in the season.

The Saints have a chance to equal the best start in franchise history with a victory. The 1991 team started 7-0 and finished 11-5.

Through six games, the Saints are on pace for one of the top scoring seasons in NFL history. They’ve scored 238 points. Only the 2000 Rams (262 points) have scored more points through their first six games.

Talking Saints, Falcons and 'Breesus'

November, 2, 2009
11/02/09
10:46
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas

METAIRIE, La. -- I’m counting down the hours until tonight’s "Monday Night Football" game between the Saints and Falcons, and I can tell you the entire New Orleans region seems to be totally fired up.

New Orleans fans always have been very loyal to this team, but there seems to be even more energy with the Saints undefeated. Everywhere I go, I see people decked out in Saints’ clothing and Drew Brees’ new nickname, "Breesus," is a major topic of conversation.

I’ll be live from the Superdome a few hours before kickoff. I’m heading out for a run on the shore of beautiful Lake Ponchartrain and will check in with more throughout the day.

But, first, I thought I’d start the day off with this. I sat down with my good friend Jeff Duncan of the New Orleans Times Picayune and we talked all about tonight’s game. You can see the video here.

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