Down by four points with just more than two minutes remaining, Smith was forced to decide whether he had a better chance of winning by trusting his tattered offense to protect his quarterback against New Orleans defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s blitz — or by putting faith in his beleaguered defense to stop Saints signal-caller Drew Brees‘ offense on three consecutive plays.
Smith entered the season with Super Bowl hopes buoyed by running back Steven Jackson and the wide receiver duo of Julio Jones and Roddy White on offense, and defensive ends Osi Umenyiora and Kroy Biermann leading the defense.
Thursday’s game ended with special teamer Antone Smith producing the Falcons‘ longest run from scrimmage. Undrafted rookie free agent Darius Johnson hauled in six passes while White was an afterthought. The leading tacklers on defense were undrafted rookie linebackers Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu.
That certainly isn’t the way Smith drew it up in the offseason. His team will spend the rest of the season trying to remain competitive before owner Arthur Blank opens his checkbook to fix the offensive line and defensive front in the offseason.
Here’s what else we learned in Thursday’s game:
1. Saints tight end Jimmy Graham showed once again that he’s a physical marvel unlike any player in the NFL. After dragging Falcons safety William Moore into the end zone on a 44-yard touchdown, Graham knocked the goal post off kilter — Daryl Dawkins style — with his slam-dunk celebration. Graham and running back Pierre Thomas then went on to stiff-arm Falcons defenders for back-to-back big plays in the third quarter. Graham’s sixth 100-yard game of the season tied Joe Horn for the franchise record and matched Tony Gonzalez for the single-season record among tight ends.
2. When in need of a key play, the Saints often turn to Thomas to bail them out — whether it’s a tough run, a swing pass or the best backfield screen game in the league. He’s been among the most reliable situational players in the NFL for years. Thomas moved into fourth place on the Saints‘ all-time rushing list, passing Rueben Mayes and Chuck Muncie. Not bad for a part-time player.
3. Drew Brees‘ 352 touchdown passes now are second only to Peyton Manning‘s 399 through the first 13 seasons of a career. Brees also passed Warren Moon to move into fifth place on the career passing yards list (49,566), behind just Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Dan Marino and John Elway. By the time his career is over, Brees will be acknowledged as the best free-agent signing in history — better even than Hall of Famer Reggie White with the Packers.
4. Running back Steven Jackson looked as good as he has all season. His longest run went for eight yards.
5. White managed just two catches for 24 yards after saying last week was as good as he’s felt in a season where he’s been battling nagging hamstring and ankle injuries. Between 2007 and 2012, he had 24 yards or fewer in seven games. He’s already done it five times this season.
6. Saints defensive ends Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks dominated an overwhelmed Falcons offensive line, combining for four sacks. Jordan added 2.5 sacks and four quarterback hits to an already strong All-Pro resume in a breakout season.
The playoff picture
7. The early returns on Corey White as the replacement starter for injured Saints cornerback Jabari Greer were not positive. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan picked on White early and often, leading to a 31-yard pass interference penalty and a career-high five catches and 65 yards for wide receiver Darius Johnson by halftime. The Greer injury could come back to haunt the Saints in the playoffs.
8. How bad is Atlanta’s offensive line? Last year’s second-round draft pick, Peter Konz, recently lost his starting center job to Joe Hawley. Konz was moved to right guard last week, only to be replaced by Garrett Reynolds after Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy toyed with him last week. Konz was forced back into the lineup Thursday after Hicks repeatedly beat Reynolds on the interior. Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff has twice won the Executive of the Year award, but his draft picks on the offensive line have been a disaster.
The latest “Around The League Podcast” previewed “Thursday Night Football” and “stuck a fork” in three unlucky teams.