That was what stood in the way of the Falcons taking the lead against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.
In the end, the offense fell just short in a 23-17 defeat. Matt Ryan was intercepted on a 4th-down pass attempt to clinch the loss, but what happened on 3rd down was much more controversial. Newly-acquired running back Steven Jackson looked to have the game-winning touchdown pass in his grasp, but the ball caromed off of his hands, and when Ryan’s toss on 4th-down fell into the arms of Roman Harper, that was that.
It would certainly be unfair to blame Ryan or Jackson for this defeat, and frankly, the offensive “goat” on Sunday was the entirety of the offensive line. Rookie right tackle Lamar Holmes will likely take most of the public scorn for his performance (he was woeful), but it was a team-wide effort in allowing Matt Ryan to be sacked 3 times, and pressured over and over again during the second half.
Defensively, it was a solid performance for the Falcons, and they were led, unexpectedly, by their young trio of defensive backs. Drew Brees and the Saints managed 357 yards through the air, but much of that damage came with empty yardage, and there were flashes of brilliance from the secondary. Desmond Trufant, Robert McClain, and Robert Alford each made at least one play of consequence in the first half, and Alford’s play stood all day, including the team’s only interception. It was a positive showing for the back-end of the defense (especially in the absence of Asante Samuel), and that’s a positive to take away.
Elsewhere on defense, Atlanta was able to clamp down (relatively) on all-World tight end Jimmy Graham for most of the night, but alas, the former Miami Hurricane scored what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown. Against the run, the Falcons showed very well, allowing only 78 yards on 29 carries, but it will also be interesting to see how the front 7 fares against an offense that is fully capable of running the ball effectively.
On the other side of the ball, the numbers looked solid for the Falcons, but 17 points against 2012′s worst defense leaves a lot to be desired. Matt Ryan performed well, throwing for 304 yards and 2 touchdowns against just 1 interception, but the running game was held under 90 yards (14 carries for 88 yards), and Roddy White was completely neutralized. White was visibly injured, but it is never a positive sign when Harry Douglas leads this dynamic receiving corps in yardage, but he did just that with 93 yards on 4 catches.
Positively, there was a potential “danger zone” play early in the game that turned out to be nothing but a scare. Saints rookie safety Kenny Varcaro smashed Matt Ryan with a late hit in the 1st half that sent Ryan wobbling to the sideline. Fortunately, he didn’t miss a single play, and within a few moments, it was clear that he was fine and ready to continue. However, this was a simple reminder of just how unsettled the backup QB situation is, and if Ryan misses any time, things could go off of the rails in a hurry.
The Falcons didn’t play a horrendous game here, but there is much to work on for Week 2 at home against the Rams. The offensive line wasn’t a disaster from the opening bell, but as the game wore on, their lack of depth showed through, and both tackles (Lamar Holmes and Sam Baker) had documented issues, including the worst game in nearly 2 years from Baker. Defensively, it’s hard to take a lot of negativity away from holding the dynamic Saints to 23 points in their home stadium, but next week will bring a more “normal” test.
Stay tuned for updates throughout the week leading up to the home opener against St. Louis.