Week 1 of the 2022 NFL season is in the books and the Atlanta Falcons let a 26-10 lead slip in the fourth quarter against the New Orleans Saints. It was a harrowing 27-26 defeat for a franchise that has seen far too many similar losses in their history.
Here are my three biggest takeaways from the Saints-Falcons game:
#1. There’s something to this Arthur Smith-led Falcons offense
Atlanta’s second-year head coach has made himself unpopular with some of his statements about analytics and “home scouts”. This put him in the spotlight for a lot of people. While they obviously blew another big lead (up 26-10 with just under 13 minutes left in the game), I really liked what I saw from their offense.
There was great formation diversity, going from 21 personnel to five-wide basically from empty (if you count Cordarelle Patterson as a wide receiver). They ran gap power from under center, zone-read plays from the gun, hit deep in-breakers off play-action, plus some change-ups to their staples (like breaking back out to the corner after showing the classic deep over-post concept). It was very much like what we saw in Tennessee with Ryan Tannehill, but they have those two interchangeable inside-out pieces in a unicorn tight-end Kyle Pitts and a very talented rookie wide receiver Drake London.
Pitts was heavily utilized as a classic X receiver, but they were also able to dictate play-calling when they put him at Y in 12 personnel. If the defense matched with nickel, they’d run the ball, but if they left a linebacker on him, that was obviously a mismatch in the passing game. The protection was solid throughout the day against a good Saints D-line and Marcus Mariota looked comfortable in this system (where it’s a lot of deeper-developing concepts meant for the primary read before he can either check it down or take off himself).
As opponents study this offense, they’ll need to continue to develop, but I like what they present from a personnel standpoint and in terms of creativity.
#2. This might be the year the Saints fall off with their play in the trenches on both sides of the ball
Right off the bat, there is a bright spot for New Orleans. Mainly because they were able to turn things around in the second half (after gaining just 32 yards over the first 30 minutes, outside of their one touchdown drive powered by Taysom Hill). The Saints were able to score 20 unanswered points and win the game.
Their final three possessions of that first half ended in either sacks on Jameis Winston or him being flushed on third down. They fixed most of their protection issues after the break, which Dean Pees gave them problems with. Yet, while the negative game-script demanded them throw the ball to some degree, I didn’t see them take advantage of an unproven collection of pieces on the D-line in the running game (outside of one big Taysom Hill carry) while the guy of note in Grady Jarrett wrecked both guards at some point.
Flipping over to the opposite side of the ball, we saw Cordarelle Patterson dance around in the backfield and routinely bend runs all the way to the backside, leading to a career-high 120 rushing yards for him. Mariota also averaged six yards on his 12 attempts. Most notably, the Saints could not make the quarterback uncomfortable inside the pocket, allowing longer-developing concepts to work themselves open regularly. Mariota wasn’t sacked once and was pressured on just 10.8% of dropbacks. We’re so used to the Saints winning the battle at the line of scrimmage and the first signs are that they may not be as dominant.
#3. Atlanta’s curse goes beyond any individual players or coaches
Since the Falcons lost Super Bowl LI against the Patriots in 2017, them losing big leads and 28-3 have been running gags. While the front-office, coaching staff and player roster look completely different (as only Jake Matthews, Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones remain) they still seem to get extremely tense in these high-leverage moments. They should bring this kind of game home, and many say there's a curse on the franchise.
Here’s one of the wildest statistics on this that I’ve seen yet: Over the last three years, all the other teams in the league are 245-2-1 in games where they were leading by 15+ points in the fourth quarter – the Falcons are 5-3. So they have more losses in those settings than the rest of the league in just over three percent of such games.
Even when the refs kind of gifted them a new first down on the final offensive possession with a ticky-tack defensive hold and they got to third-and-one, Mariota let the snap from under center hit his stomach. They then had to punt the ball and their long-snapper got called for a hold, to give the Saints better field position. Then on defense, a long-time veteran in Casey Hayward completely forgot his technique and lost track of Jarvis Landry on a high-point grab along the sideline. On second and 20, with 38 seconds left, they allowed Juwan Johnson to get 16 yards untouched on a dig route, before Will Lutz hit from 51 yards out.
Mariota got the ball back with 19 seconds and three timeouts, but completely misfired twice, before following underneath completions to Cordarelle Patterson. They were gifted another dead-ball personal foul when the clocks already showed zeros on Marshon Lattimore, but had the 63-yard FG attempt blocked. The Falcons really need to do some kind of ritual to get rid of their bad juju.
Check out my piece on the full week one slate at halilsrealfootballtalk.com !