Their stats looked similar on Thursday night, but the performances of Matt Ryan and Drew Brees could not have been more different.
Brees, the seven-time Pro Bowler and former Super Bowl MVP, played like the all-pro quarterback he’s billed to be. The 13-year vet delivered when his team needed it and did all the things that don’t show up on the stat sheet, including timely roll outs from the pocket to keep plays alive and audibles that put his team in better plays against the Falcons defense.
“It’s hard [to prepare for] Drew, because he’s basically a coach on the field,” said Falcons defensive back William Moore. “He basically finds things that the defense struggled [with] previous weeks and takes advantage of them.”
As the game progressed it was easy to see what makes Brees such a nightmare for defenses. He was 23-33 for 278 yards and 2 touchdowns. His stats weren’t jaw-dropping, but his play was inspired and he showed why he’s one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks.
Matt Ryan played well in bursts, particularly his streak of 10 completions in a row on a drive late in the second quarter, but his inconsistency showed throughout the evening.
“Collectively, just too many mistakes and not enough big plays,” said Ryan. “In order to win games, especially against a good team like New Orleans, you have to do that.”
Ryan had nothing to be ashamed of; he played a very good game. The sixth-year Boston College product ended the evening 29-38 for 292 yards, and was 14-19 at the end of the first half. At one point in the second quarter, he was 12-14 passing. But he’s no Brees. Not yet, anyway. And it showed.
At the top of his to-do list will have to be leadership by example. Ryan’s decision to slide near the goal line with New Orleans leading 14-10 was the biggest play of the game. Rather than take on a defender barreling down on him from the end zone, Ryan chose to slide at the 2-yard-line on third-and-goal. It was a decision that would come back to haunt the Falcons as they settled for a 24-yard Matt Bryant field goal.
“Early in the game you’ve got to take points,” said Ryan. “You gotta make the right play, I felt like that was the right play, and you’ve got to take those three points. And then we have to trust that we’re gonna continue to get down there and continue to score touchdowns. But in that situation, I felt like that was the right play.”
They did get back to the red zone one more time, but the drive ended with a fumble by rookie wide receiver Darius Johnson. The undrafted rookie from SMU had a career night with 6 catches for 67 yards, but his biggest play of the night was the red zone fumble that was the dagger for his team.
Tight end Tony Gonzalez had high praise for Johnson, but made clear that he and the rest of the team clearly have much more work to do.
“That’s not the reason we lost the game, that turnover, but that certainly doesn’t help us win the game,” he said. “Darius played well, played outstanding, it was the best game he’s had all year. He’s got a bright future.
“But that’s what we’ve kind of been doing the last three weeks, we’ve kind of had something bad happen to us and then can’t respond to it, you know, we lose the confidence, we lose momentum, even though we’ve been moving the ball to that point. Really as a team that’s how it’s gone for us.”
The offensive line struggled as well. Though Ryan praised his big uglies afterward, they were porous during the game, allowing the Saints defense to sack him five times on the night, including two big ones on a crucial fourth quarter drive with Atlanta down 17-13.
“We’ve got to be better schematically. Entirely too many pressures on the quarterback in the football game tonight,” said Head Coach Mike Smith, who added that he would be looking at bringing some different linemen into the fold in coming weeks.
The Saints were able to put the game out of reach after the Johnson fumble. Brees led the Saints on an 8-play, 20-yard drive that iced the game and ended with Brees taking a pair of kneel downs and an 11-yard loss on fourth down that left only 5 seconds on the clock for Atlanta.
“If you hold a potent offense like that to that many points…you’re giving yourself a good shot [at winning],” said safety Thomas DeCoud. “But we’ve got to get off the field in that situation and get the ball back to our offense.”
Pierre Thomas and Jimmy Graham also put up big numbers for the Saints, Graham with 5 receptions for 100 yards and Thomas with 10 carries for 75.
The loss dropped the Falcons to 2-9 and moved the Saints to 9-2.As the last seconds ticked off the clock, Saints fans at the Georgia Dome led a raucous rendition of “Who Dat” to let the loss sink in a bit more. It was the second home game in a row an opposing team’s fans took over the Dome.
“I thought we responded to some momentum changes, some adversity, but it’s not good enough,” said Smith. “When you don’t win the football game, it’s not enough.”