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John DeShazier: How the Saints lost to the Falcons

Defense struggled in first half

OFFENSE: By the time the game concluded, the numbers looked fantastic: 32 points, 473 total yards and three players attaining milestone numbers. Drew Breesthrew for 350 yards and topped 5,000 in a season for the fifth time; all other quarterbacks combined, in NFL history, have four. Mark Ingramran for 103 yards to post his first 1,000-yard season and to become the first Saints running back to do so since Deuce McAllisterin 2006. And Michael Thomascaught 10 passes for 156 yards and a touchdown to become the Saints single-season rookie leader in receiving yards (1,137) and receiving touchdowns (nine), topping the marks set by Marques Colstonin '06. But much of that production came in the second half, with the Saints in comeback mode after falling behind 35-13 at halftime. It was a strong push (278 yards in the second half and three touchdowns in the fourth quarter) but the deficit was too steep. The Saints finished the season with the league's top offense and second-best scoring offense, but Sunday's game was one in which it needed to match Atlanta score for score until the defense gathered its bearing, and it didn't happen.

DEFENSE: The Saints defense made a ton of progress over the second half of the season, but Sunday's game wasn't one in which there was much evidence of it. The Falcons scored touchdowns on their first five possessions – they scored their first two touchdowns within their first five plays from scrimmage – and the Saints didn't force a punt until the second half. Perhaps the attrition in the secondary finally caught up (the Saints played most of the season without Delvin Breauxand P.J. Williams, the projected starters at cornerback, and safety Kenny Vaccaromissed the last four games due to suspension). Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan(27 of 36 for 331 yards and four touchdowns) wasn't pressured enough (he was sacked once, by defensive tackle Nick Fairley), receiver Julio Jones(seven catches for 96 yards and a touchdown) had a big game and Devonta Freeman's75-yard touchdown run on the fifth play from scrimmage was a serious blow. The Falcons totaled just 142 of their 465 yards in the second half, and only three of their 38 points. The Saints played better, but Atlanta could afford to take less chances (Ryan passed for 96 yards in the second half).

SPECIAL TEAMS: We now have some idea how accurate rookie kicker Wil Lutzcan be when the snap-hold-kick operation is clean, and the protection is solid. He finished out the season by making 13 consecutive field goals, including two Sunday against Atlanta. After making 28 of 34 as a rookie, he looks like he might be the keeper that Coach Sean Paytonenvisioned he would be after he signed Lutz following an outstanding tryout. Punter Thomas Morsteadhad one of his better games of the season – four punts for a gross average of 56 yards and a net of 46.3. He dropped a 55-yarder inside the 10 (it was downed at the 1) and Atlanta averaged 13 yards on three punt returns. The kick cover team was outstanding in its only opportunity, allowing a 10-yard kickoff, and linebacker Nate Stuparled the way with a tackle and an assist against his former team. Improvement was obvious for this unit.

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