Run defense issues highlight total breakdown for Saints
By GUERRY SMITH
NEW ORLEANS (AP) Atlanta's Calvin Ridley raced around left end for 19 yards on the first play Sunday against the Saints.
That's how fast the game against the Falcons developed a different feel from New Orleans' six-game winning streak, which was stopped by a surprising 26-9 loss at home.
Ripley's wide-open sprint set the tone for Atlanta. Although the Falcons did not run all over the Saints, they finished with 143 yards on 34 attempts.
The Saints had held five consecutive opponents below 100 yards rushing, limiting Dallas, Chicago and Arizona to 45 yards or fewer.
"We did a poor job of setting the edge," coach Sean Payton said. "There were two or three runs that just went right around our support, whether that was in the secondary or a linebacker or the front. There were too many runs that went uncontested 5 to 10 yards into our defense, so we weren't real sharp and got what we deserved."
That was the consensus Monday. The Saints (7-2), who lead the NFC South by two games over Carolina, were not shying away from the reality of their lackluster performance coming off their bye week.
Even a normally dominant strength - run defense - was sorely lacking as the Falcons halted a six-game skid.
"We see a lot of little things here and there that we need to correct, things we were doing previously to the bye and rolling," defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said. "It's technique, fundamentals, toughness, everything. We'll get back to that this week, and then we'll be ready to go next Sunday."
After Ridley's burst, Atlanta had runs of 9, 12, 7, 15 and 10 yards against a defense that held Dallas's Ezekiel Elliot to 25 yards on 18 attempts earlier this season. The Saints, who also allowed a season-high six sacks, did not stand up physically on either side of the ball, but they trailed only 13-9 at the start of the fourth quarter.
The lack of a finishing kick may have bothered quarterback Drew Brees the most.
"In that fourth quarter, we missed on three fourth downs or something like that," he said Sunday. "Come on, that's not us. We're better than that."
The key is to make sure the uncharacteristic performance doesn't turn into a trend.
"It's a long season," cornerback Eli Apple said. "It can be a roller-coaster ride sometimes, but we know it's on us. We have to come out better and more aggressive. They drove it down our throats on the first possession. That can't happen again."
Michael Thomas is in hot pursuit of Marvin Harrison's NFL record of 143 catches in a season. His 13 receptions against the Falcons raised his total to 86 through nine games and put him on pace for 153. To break Harrison's mark, he will need to average 8.3 catches the rest of the way. He also is on pace for 1,826 yards, the fifth-highest total in NFL history.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The Saints racked up 12 penalties for 90 yards against the Falcons, both season highs and more than their combined total over the past three games (nine penalties, 85 yards). They were flagged 11 times in back-to-back games against the Los Angeles Rams and Seattle in September but appeared to have corrected the issue until Sunday.
Despite not getting much help, linebacker Demario Davis had a stellar game. He took over sole possession of the team lead in tackles (63) with 11 stops, registered the Saints' only sack, made three of their four tackles for loss and deflected a pass.
After missing two games with ankle and knee issues, normally electric running back Alvin Kamara did not look 100% healthy. He stumbled on third-and-goal just as Brees was about to throw to him on the Saints' opening series, leading to a sack that prevented a touchdown. Kamara finished with four rushes for 24 yards and eight catches for 50 yards.
13+: The Saints, favored by nearly two touchdowns, became the largest favorite to lose an NFL game this year.
New Orleans continues its four-game stretch against NFC South opponents with a trip to Tampa Bay on Sunday. The Saints return home the following week against Carolina before facing Atlanta again on the road.
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Updated November 11, 2019