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A different way to win

The Saints don’t score another blowout victory, but they still beat the Falcons behind steady offense and some big plays on defense

Four days after Tre’Quan Smith was the breakout receiver for New Orleans in the win over Philadelphia, he missed the Thanksgiving night game with a foot injury. No matter: Even with his receiving corp depleted further, Drew Brees was consistent, but even more so, the defense and running game stepped up when it mattered and helped the Saints secure a 31-10 win.

The loss of another familiar target showed in parts of the game tonight, as some of Brees’ throws just missed receivers, for the most part likely a product of not being fully on the same page yet. (Playing on a short week didn’t help, either.) Brees was only able to target Michael Thomas six times, and two of those didn’t connect. (Thomas finished with four catches for 38 yards; he also drew a pass-interference penalty.) Near-touchdowns that Ben Watson and Dan Arnold couldn’t hang on to didn’t help, either.

Nonetheless, Brees still threw for four touchdowns, even if it was combined with “only” 171 yards. Going 15/22– a 68% completion rate– would be good for almost anyone else, but of course it lowered Brees’ overall completion percentage. He also threw his second interception of the year on a ball that sailed high– perhaps missing because Keith Kirkwood was possibly interfered with. There was no call on the play, but #18 is lined up on the left of the formation. Watch him closely and decide for yourself:

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Still, even though technically it was one of Brees’ worst games of the season, it remained impressive given the targets he was working with. No offense to Tommylee Lewis, Dan Arnold, Keith Kirkwood, or Austin Carr, but the history books don’t lie: According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this is the first time in the Super Bowl era a team has had four undrafted players catch a touchdown in the same game. It’s also the first time since the 1984 Pittsburgh Steelers that a team has had four players score their first or second career touchdowns in the same game. (Source)

The offense sputtered at times– Thomas Morstead punted three times, a season high– but the defense had one of its best seasons in the big-play department. Despite a few too many completions given up downfield, particularly in important and/or long situations– the Falcons were 4-for-6 on fourth down– the Falcons only scored one touchdown before a garbage-time drive on their final possession, in large part because the big plays the Saints made stalled or killed drives. New Orleans had six sacks and forced four turnovers, an A.J. Klein interception on a passed tipped by Tyeler Davison, and three fumbles, all forced inside the red zone, and two of them at New Orleans’ three-yard line. Without those big plays, the game is a lot closer; Atlanta could have easily scored 17 points on the three fumbled drives (the other fumble was at the Saints’ 17 near the end of the first half).

Many of those big plays were made by the secondary; even Matt Ryan’s sack-fumble was caused by a blitz by Marcus Williams, who also recovered. P.J. Williams added a sack. Vonn Bell recovered the fumble at the end of the first half after Alex Anzalone stripped Julio Jones. And Marshon Lattimore stripped Calvin Ridley as he was about to run into the end zone, with Eli Apple recovering.

Apple has been a substantial addition to the team. While he hasn’t been an elite cornerback or made a whole lot of splash plays, he also doesn’t get burned as easily, is capable of solid coverage and limiting yards after catch, and occasionally makes a big play. While it’s tough to quantify exactly how much Apple improves the defense, the defense has undeniably played better with him around:

And I like Ken Crawley, but there was a reason Apple was a top-ten draft pick. He had the physical talent and the college pedigree, and though he fell out of favor in New York, it was certainly worth a fourth- and seventh-round pick to see if that talent could still be tapped in the right situation. (In this case, “the right situation” being one with three of his college teammates on the team– Michael Thomas and secondary-mates Marshon Lattimore and Vonn Bell.)

Any highlight of the defense’s play can’t overlook the line. Cameron Jordan and Sheldon Rankins led the way. Jordan had two sacks of Matt Ryan; Rankins had one, chased Ryan into Demario Davis for a strip-sack, and had multiple other plays he completely disrupted by penetrating or blowing up the middle of the Falcons’ offensive line. Jordan leads the team with eight sacks and will likely get Pro Bowl and All-Pro consideration again, but Rankins’ seven sacks from the interior are part of what make him one of the best interior linemen in the league this year, and he shouldn’t be overlooked for awards consideration.

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Marcus Davenport returned, too; I wasn’t expecting to see him back so soon. That said, he didn’t show up much in the box score. I thought his snaps may have been pretty limited, but 37/70 (53%) isn’t terribly out of line with his typical workload. He may not have been 100%; the coaches may have deliberately limited his workload as well.

The Saints play on Thursday night next week as well, traveling to Dallas to face the Cowboys. I like their odds, even on the road: Dallas currently leads the NFC East at 6-5, but that still pales to New Orleans’ 10-1, and Jason Garrett has been a historically conservative coach, which will not work for a team that needs to try to keep up with the Saints’ offense. I’m not writing them off– any NFL team can beat another on any given day, especially at home– but I think the Saints do match up particularly well with them.

The Cowboys’ offensive line, long the team’s strength, hasn’t been up to its usual standards this year with the loss of All-Pro center Travis Frederick (who is dealing with Guillain-Barre Syndrome) and, perhaps, finally reeling from the loss of the coach who originally built the dominant unit, Bill Callahan (Cowboys OL coach 2012-14). The Saints’ pass rushers can pressure Dak Prescott, and Ezekiel Elliott, the focus of the offense, will be meeting the league’s best run defense. The Cowboys made a significant and necessary improvement to their wide receiver corp with the trade for Amari Cooper, but the Saints still match up well here, with Lattimore to cover Cooper and Apple the #2, probably rookie Michael Gallup.

And while the Cowboys defense has been pretty solid– they have a strong group of pass rushers and a lot of young, highly-drafted talent in the back seven– no defense has really been able to slow down the Saints’ attack since the Browns in week 2. (Only the Ravens have otherwise even held New Orleans under 30 points.) The Saints usually have home/road splits that indicate running their offense is measurably more difficult on the road, but that hasn’t been nearly the problem this year as it has in years past. (And a good thing, too: The Saints’ next three games are on the road.) The opening line isn’t out yet, but I suspect the Saints will be favored on the road. While I have faith in this team not to have “letdown” or “trap” games, it’s also important to remember that the road to the #1 seed in the NFC comes with having to keep pace with the Rams, who are also 10-1 and could run the table. (Week 14 at the Bears is their toughest matchup remaining.) New Orleans can do it, but they’ll have to play at a high level every week.

We’ll end with some suggested outside reading. Thanks to Friend of the Brief Daniel Smith for sharing Peter King’s great inside look at Sean Payton and the Saints’ process for his “Football Morning in America” column Monday. If you’re a Saints fan, or just someone who’d like to know more about the nuts and bolts of how coaches (and players) actually design schemes and why, and hear it told from an offensive group as good as the Saints’ coaches and quarterback are, then I’d heartily recommend it.

Oh, and one last thing before I go: Fumbles are funny, right?

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