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Week 17 Game Recap: New Orleans Saints 20, Atlanta Falcons 17

What you need to know

New Orleans Saints

New Orleans’ 7-9 season ended positively with a win over the division-rival Falcons. An efficient passing attack led by Brees’ underneath passing was sparked by him spreading the ball around to eight different receivers. It was a functional offensive day amongst a season fraught with an uncharacteristic presence of dysfunctional games. The main storyline heading into New Orleans’ offense will be the futures of head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees. The team seems prepared to allow Payton to shop around various coaching vacancies around the league, while Brees’ upcoming $30 million cap hit would be a concern to any franchise. On one hand, it’s tough to envision this duo moving on after all the success they’ve had in New Orleans, along with the fact that they’re still very much in demand at their respective positions. However, on the other hand, anything can happen in what seems like an instant in the modern NFL, so it would be far from a surprise if both parties were in different uniforms to open the 2016 season.

Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta played better on offense, but the unit still had problems that plagued them all season. The good begins with Devonta Freeman, who earned 1000 yards rushing this season—its first 1000-yard rusher in four years. Atlanta also found success against New Orleans’ zone looks by running a lot of trips sets in this game and took advantage of the weak pass unit. When it wasn’t in trips, the Falcons used a lot of play action bootlegs and stretch plays. Matt Ryan was able to generate big plays to Julio Jones, Roddy White, Jacob Tamme and Tony Moeaki n the first half. Between the two teams there was only one punt in the first half. But Atlanta continued to have issues that they’ve experienced much of the year. There was a bad snap and awkward exchanges and the unit also tried too hard to run stretch plays in the red zone where the defense has an easier time shutting down these plays with a compressed field in their favor. With the team’s running backs trading untimely fumbles inside the opponents’ five yard lines late in the game tied at 17, the game came down to Matt Ryan throwing an interception at Atlanta’s 25 with 1:42 left that gave the Saints an easy drive capped off with a field goal to win it.

New Orleans Saints

QB Drew Brees, 68 offensive snaps, Pass: 32 - 42 - 323 - 1 TD / 0 INT, Rush: 3 - -5 - 0
Brees’ Saints started off the day conservatively, with a pair of handoffs and underneath checkdowns. One first down was picked up, but a punt was forced after only five offensive plays. More success was found on New Orleans’ second possession, as Brees connected with Travaris Cadet and Ben Watson on two plays that combined for 58 yards before relying on the legs of Tim Hightower to guide the offense into the end zone and take a 7-3 lead late in the first. Similar offensive firepower was achieved on the following drive for New Orleans, with Cadet continuing to play a large role out of the backfield. Brandon Coleman and Brandin Cooks pitched in, as well, before Watson grabbed a touchdown on a wheel route up the left sideline to make the score 14-10. Brees looked to be leading his offense right back down the field before halftime by continuing to kill Atlanta slowly with checkdowns to his RBs. However, once in the red zone, the Saints rolled the dice on fourth-and-two with a pick play to Willie Snead before an Atlanta defender made a dynamic break and tackle to force a turnover on downs, leaving the score 14-10. An eleven-play drive preceded a successful 41-yard field goal attempt to tie the score at 17 solidly into the third quarter. Brees’ attack continued to rely on underneath passing with the exception of Willie Snead’s 22-yard deep crosser, but it proved effective enough to put points off the board and take five minutes off the clock before Atlanta’s defense stiffened up when backed against the wall. Early in the fourth quarter, Brees and Co. embarked on a 16-play drive that elapsed eight minutes of the game clock. The successful ball-control attack involved spreading the ball around to all members of the offense, chiefly underneath the teeth of Atlanta’s defense. However, an attempted no-huddle run on Atlanta’s three yard-line ended in a lost Saint fumble, allowing a sure three points and a possible hard-earned seven slip through their fingers in the form of a continued 17-17 tie. Three plays without a first down forced New Orleans to punt on their following drive, as an incompletion to Ben Watson up the left sideline seemingly sealed the Saints’ fate as they opted to punt the ball back to Atlanta with under two minutes left. However, New Orleans got the ball right back after their defense forced a clutch interception. Tim Hightower ran off the last bit of clock by picking up a critical first down to set up a game-winning field goal. Brees ended his season much like several games throughout the 2015 campaign: efficiently. He led his offense down the field several times with completion after completion, mostly taking advantage of Atlanta’s usually soft defensive coverage. This won’t go down as the veteran QB’s best season, but, on a list of reasons why this team didn’t end up reaching the playoffs, his right arm doesn’t belong.

RB Tim Hightower, 33 offensive snaps, Rush: 16 - 66 - 1, Rec: 5 - 41 - 0 (5 targets)
Hightower started New Orleans’ offense off predictably, with a run off right guard for two yards. He received a few relatively uneventful carries before becoming a major part of his team’s red zone attack on their second possession. After having one touchdown nullified by a holding penalty, Hightower made an impressive cutback off right tackle for 11 yards before plunging for a one-yard touchdown on the next play. Hightower stayed involved to begin the second quarter, utilizing play-action to find space over the middle of the field for a 12-yard checkdown. He snuck out of the backfield again two plays later with a screen to the left flat for three yards. Midway through the second period, Hightower again found ample space in the middle of the field as a checkdown option in the form of 21 easy yards. He followed it up on the very next down with an aggressive run off right tackle for five yards. His busy receiving day continued two plays later with a shallow wheel route for two yards, directly followed by a swing pass to the left flat for three more. Hightower opened the second half for the Saints with a decisive run off right guard for ten yards. The veteran RB kept his offense on schedule with modest gains through the teeth of the defense through the majority of the fourth quarter, including several first-down conversions. After a clutch interception on the other side of the ball, Hightower was tasked with setting up New Orleans’ game-winning field goal. He overachieved this goal by picking up a first down on three running plays against a loaded box. He continued to ably carry his team’s ground game for the third straight week as a consistent, if not explosive rushing option. He figures to remain a capable NFL ball-carrier going forward, likely in a committee, but his future in New Orleans is largely up in the air given his head coach’s fluid situation.

RB Travaris Cadet, 30 offensive snaps, Pass: 0 - 1 - 0 - 0 TD / 0 INT, Rush: 3 - 6 - 0, Rec: 6 - 77 - 0 (6 targets)
Cadet was busy out of the backfield on Sunday. His role began with what appeared to be a designed dump-off on New Orleans’ second play from scrimmage for nine yards. Cadet’s first carry began his team’s second possession, a rush off right guard for seven yards. He won inside leverage with an option route out of the backfield on the following down, winning his matchup with a Falcon LB for 36 yards. An inside handoff for his third straight touch ended up losing a yard. He continued to gain yardage out of the backfield on their third drive with a reception while matched up with an Atlanta DE in the left flat for eight yards. Lining up in the slot two plays later, Cadet ran an out-route to the left sideline for a quick six yards against the Atlanta blitz. Early in the second half, Cadet continued to win inside leverage on option routes with a nine-yard reception. Cadet’s next touch didn’t come until it was fairly late in the final quarter, but he won his individual matchup on a LB out of the backfield on an arrow route for nine pivotal yards. However, on the very next down, he tried to show power as a runner through the middle of Atlanta’s defense, but ended up coughing up the football for a costly fumble on Atlanta’s one yard-line. Cadet served as a plus playmaker out of the backfield by consistently winning his individual matchups, and seems capable of doing just that as a depth option going forward.

WR Brandon Coleman, 38 offensive snaps, Rec: 5 - 81 - 0 (8 targets)
Coleman broke into the game on New Orleans’ third possession early in the second quarter with an impressive back-shoulder adjustment on a perfectly thrown ball down the left sideline for 22 yards. He stayed involved on the following drive with an easy curl-route against off coverage for 13 yards. Early in the fourth quarter, Coleman ran an out-route to the left sideline before Drew Brees dropped a pass in the bucket for 13 yards. Later on the same drive, Coleman found space in front of Atlanta’s safety with a deep slant from the left sideline to pick up 21 yards for another first down on third-and-long. He stayed involved on the following down against soft coverage as Brees rolled out of the pocket to find Coleman for 12 additional yards. His receiving day was over at this point, but he suffered a brutal drop on the following drive in wide-open field. Coleman’s big body will serve as his biggest chance to stick as an NFL contributor. He has one year left on his contract with the Saints.

WR Brandin Cooks, 57 offensive snaps, Rec: 5 - 22 - 0 (6 targets)
Cooks’ first reception occurred on the fifth play from scrimmage, a crossing route over the middle that accrued five yards but failed to move the chains. His next touch came two drives later, early in the second frame when he sat down on the sticks deep in Atlanta territory to provide an easy window for four yards and a new set of downs. Cooks lost three yards on New Orleans’ first second-half drive on a bailout pass to the left flat. A few plays later, he ran a curl route against off zone-coverage to pick up 12 yards underneath the defense. Cooks stayed active underneath the Atlanta defense early in the final period, with a four-yard crossing route attempting to regain some lost yardage. It was a disappointing day for Cooks after last week’s positive statistical day. He is locked in for at least two more years with New Orleans, but only carries volatile WR2/3 value given the questions surrounding the franchise.

WR Willie Snead, 52 offensive snaps, Rec: 3 - 35 - 0 (4 targets)
Snead’s first reception came late in the second quarter, a short pass to the left flat that went for no gain and a turnover on downs after an impressive break and tackle by Atlanta CB Robert Alford. Snead got involved early in the second half with a 22-yard deep crosser through the middle of Atlanta’s defense. Early in the fourth quarter, he won inside leverage on a slant route from the left boundary for 13 yards and a critical first down. Snead was a nice find off Cleveland’s practice squad for the Saints. The possession option has the inside track on a roster spot for next year as a reliable possession option.

TE Ben Watson, 62 offensive snaps, Rec: 6 - 59 - 1 (10 targets)
Watson’s first catch came midway through the first quarter in which he ran a vertical route up the left seam for 22 yards deep into Atlanta’s red zone. He ran a wheel route up the left boundary from an in-line position, beating Charles Godfrey to the corner of the end zone for an athletic 13-yard touchdown. Watson stayed busy as a receiver early in the second half, running a shallow stick route to the right seam for five yards to set up third-and-medium. He continued as Brees’ trusted checkdown option for seven yards early in the fourth to keep the offense on schedule. He caught a similar stick route as described earlier later on this possession for five yards to set up third-and-short. His receiving day, and year, finished with yet another dumpoff to the left flat for seven yards to precede third-and-short. Brees looked back in his direction on the following down, but a solid defensive play prevented the first down late in the fourth. Watson will hit free agency after his career year in New Orleans, but it’s also possible he hangs up his cleats and chooses retirement. The veteran tight end provided a capable seam option for various offenses throughout the year, and 2015 will be remembered as his best campaign to date.

Atlanta Falcons

QB Matt Ryan, 67 offensive snaps, Pass: 24 - 36 - 334 - 2 TD / 1 INT, Rush: 1 - 0 - 0
The Falcons quarterback had several good plays in this game and a productive yardage output. In addition to finding Julio Jones on digs, crossers and deeper routes, he also hit Jacob Tamme and Tony Moeaki on bootleg action routes to move Atlanta down the field. Moeaki had consecutive receptions in the second quarter and one of them was a 42-yard score on a drag route that he took up the sideline. Ryan also found Roddy White on multiple intermediate routes but overshot the receiver a couple of times when White didn’t drop the ball. One of those drops was a perfect throw in the second half up the left sideline. Ryan also overshot Jones on some deeper routes. The Falcons line allowed one sack all game and Ryan was able to keep the game close, taking the lead with a drag route to Devonta Freeman under the zone in the second half. But after the teams traded fumbles in each opponent’s red zone, Ryan delivered a check-down over the middle to Freeman with 1:42 left at the Atlanta 25 that a Saints defender jumped for the interception. From the broadcast angle, it appeared to be an egregious error on Ryan’s part. From the overhead angle of the replay, a decent amount of credit must go to the defender anticipating the route and leaving his zone to jump the route as the assigned zone defender inside also converged. This turnover cost Atlanta the victory. Ryan’s production was once better than we’ve seen much of the season thanks implementing concepts that took advantage of zone coverage. The team still needs a second receiver capable of winning man coverage if it wants a more competitive and consistently productive passing game in 2016.

RB Devonta Freeman, 59 offensive snaps, Rush: 24 - 81 - 0, Rec: 2 - 18 - 1 (4 targets)
The Falcons runner gashed New Orleans early for gains in chunks of 7-10 yards during the first half. Most of these gains came on runs to the edges of the defense or cutbacks on plays designed to go off tackle. Atlanta’s passing game earned enough yardage on early downs to set up second-and-short carries that Freeman exploited. The Saints slowed down the Falcons ground game early in the third quarter and forced Freeman to work harder for yards. He was often up to the task, creating off difficult cut backs against penetration behind the line or finding secondary creases inside the line of scrimmage. By the end of the third quarter, Freeman was earning larger chunks of yards and making timely receptions. Despite keeping drives alive in the fourth quarter, Freeman also killed a pivotal drive late in the game with a fumble inside the Saints’ three. Despite the Saints killing a long drive of its own with a fumble inside the one, Atlanta lost the game on a pass intended for Freeman over the middle that the Saints intercepted and earned a short field to kick the game winner. When Atlanta can throw the ball and set up short down-and-distance situations on early downs, Freeman is difficult to stop. When teams sell-out against the run and aren’t afraid of the passing game, Freeman has to work harder for minimal gains.

RB Patrick DiMarco, 19 offensive snaps, Rec: 1 - 7 - 0 (1 targets)
The fullback took a short flat route for seven yards from inside the Atlanta one late in the game after the Saints fumbled away it’s 8-minute, 94-yard drive. It was his only meaningful play as ballcarrier or receiver in this game.

RB Terron Ward, 4 offensive snaps, Rush: 1 - 11 - 0
Ward got wide of deep penetration off tackle and turned what looked to be a loss off left end for 10 yards and a first down while subbing for Freeman on the first drive. It was his only significant gain of the game. Freeman was the only meaningful ballcarrier for Atlanta in this contest.

WR Julio Jones, 58 offensive snaps, Rec: 9 - 149 - 0 (11 targets)
Matt Ryan overshot a wide-open Jones on a play-action pass on a deep cross against the safety and it had a good shot to go for a touchdown. On the second series, Jones caught a crossing route for a first down. Later, he dropped a deep comeback on a play-action roll out on 2nd and 8 that hit the receiver in the hands but for added context, he had to dive opposite his momentum for the target. Two plays later, Jones reached the Saints’ 29 on a naked boot to the right. Jones got inside the two yard line from a trips set with Jones finding the shallow hole in the Saints’ zone. Late in the half, Jones left the field for the locker room after the Falcons scored with 0:26 left in the second quarter to have his ankle taped. Early in the third quarter, Jones made a quick catch at the left sideline for a first down on a short out. He let a curl at the left sideline go through his hands on 2nd and 20 during this first drive of the second half, but the Saints roughed Matt Ryan on the play and the Falcons got the first down. Jones ten caught a crossing route with 5:00 in the third quarter, but left the field after this 20-yard catch because he aggravated that re-taped ankle. Jones limped back in after a few plays and made some pivotal plays despite playing with the injury. He caught a deep corner route at the sideline for a 29-yard gain and caught his ninth ball on the following play, a deep dig to get past midfield with 4:02 left for 27 yards. Jones had an incredible season. If Atlanta can improve its pass protection and get a second receiver capable of beating man coverage routinely, Jones might see fewer receptions but also more vertical routes in 2016.

WR Justin Hardy, 45 offensive snaps, Rec: 4 - 34 - 0 (6 targets)
The rookie caught a shallow cross in the fourth series late in the half, setting up a third and four during the series. This came after Ryan threw a third-down skinny post behind Hardy that led to a blocked field goal. Hardy reached the 15 late in the third quarter for a curl under the zone in the flat for a first down on a third-down target. He later caught a short out inside the three at the top of the fourth quarter then a short drag route inside three minutes, but he was short of the fist down marker and a personal foul on Atlanta resulted in a fourth down for the Falcons and led to a punt. Hardy has displayed competence with getting open and catching the ball with routes in the shallow zone, but that’s all. He’s had very limited opportunities to face man coverage. He’ll have to prove that he can produce against single coverage for his career to progress beyond a small supporting role in this offensive scheme.

WR Roddy White, 55 offensive snaps, Rec: 1 - 10 - 0 (4 targets)
The veteran got open up the right flat, but he was overthrown late in the half and a connection had a favorable shot of becoming a scoring play. White caught a third down rollout to the right for 10 yards to reach the Saints 21 with 1:40 in the half. He also dropped a deep cross up the sideline on 2nd and 8 early in the second half on a perfect throw that also could have resulted in a scoring play. White’s age is catching up with him. The multiple ankle injuries have taken away White’s abilities to come to sudden stops, maintain his balance during his acceleration phase of route running, and the pinpoint change of direction. These skills made him one of the best route runners in the league who could beat man coverage and bracket coverage at will on timing routes with Matt Ryan. Now White is restricted to zone routes and he’s not consistently reaching the ball or catching it when he does.

TE Jacob Tamme, 53 offensive snaps, Rec: 4 - 61 - 0 (5 targets)
Matt Ryan threw behind Tamme on an intermediate cross and the tight end made a highlight-reel grab with one hand fully extended behind him while falling in the opposite direction during the first drive for the Falcons. It was by far the most impressive catch of the game. Later, Ryan overshot Tamme up the left sideline. The safety gets some credit for slowing down the receiver at the line of scrimmage. This led to a 51-yard field goal for Shayne Graham. Ryan converted a 3rd and 1 on the third drive with a roll to the left, tossing the ball over a shallow defender in the flat to Tamme for a 32-yard gain and a first down. Tamme also caught a curl in the flat on the third drive and earned 13 yards on a crossing route as a check-down on the opening play of the second half. A nice utility player, Tamme becomes more valuable when a team has multiple weapons in the passing game. But when he has to be a primary option or top-end secondary target, he lacks the athletic skills to consistently win plays. Atlanta would be wise to keep Tamme, but continue to add more receiving talent.

TE Tony Moeaki, 11 offensive snaps, Rec: 2 - 47 - 1 (3 targets)
The tight end was targeted during the second series on a crossing route and he took a big hit as the ball arrived. A few plays later, he caught a 3rd and 1 play-action pass that was a check-down I the right flat for a first down. The following play, he scored on a long run after the catch up the sideline from a play-action drag route for 42 yards. In theory, Moeaki has the athletic ability and football skills to become a productive every-down playmaker, but his health history has been the limiting factor. If he can stay healthy or the Falcons can develop a plan to get high-leverage usage, there’s promise to mine for 2016. It’s probably best to remain skeptical.

TE Levine Toilolo, 26 offensive snaps, Rec: 1 - 8 - 0 (2 targets)
The big, blocking tight end earned the first reception of the game for Atlanta on the opening series with an 8-yard pass over the middle. Ryan then threw behind Toilolo on a 1st and 10 route with a delayed release inside two minutes of the third quarter. Toilolo’s value comes primarily as a blocker.