Over the last few seasons, the Saints and Falcons matchups have become some of the best the NFL has to offer. The two teams became one of the more intriguing rivals as each took turns fighting Carolina for the NFC South Division title. Each team features a high-end quarterback and the contests frequently evolve into shootout-style affairs.
The first 2017 meeting between New Orleans and Atlanta on Thursday didn't resemble any of the contests we're used to seeing from these teams. It was just the second meeting since 2014 featuring these NFC South rivals combining to score fewer than 40 total points. Instead of touchdowns, big plays and flashy highlights, this iteration of Saints vs. Falcons gave us mistakes and puzzling decisions across the board.
The Atlanta Falcons will draw their fair share of criticism for their lackluster performance on offense. Matt Ryan tossed three interceptions, including a ghastly one to Marshon Lattimore. However, the quarterback on the other side of the field deserves a fair deep critical glance after Thursday's night performance.
New Orleans' dynamic rookie running back Alvin Kamara took his final touch of the game early in the first quarter. He already looked primed for another big game, hauling in all three of his targets for 25 yards early on. Entering Week 14, we already knew the rookie back was quickly becoming one of the NFL's star players. In addition to his work as a perfectly designed pass-catcher for the Saints, Kamara has developed into the toughest back in the league to bring down.
Coming into Thursday night, Kamara gained an average of 5.04 rushing yards after defenders closed within one yard of him, leading all backs with 70-plus carries. As the chart above shows, he saved his best work as the year wore on, heating up with higher in-game averages with each passing week. If there was any doubt of his value to this team, Thursday night's results provided a solid and convincing case.
Without Kamara, the Saints looked far closer to an average offense than one ready to storm through the playoffs. The team totaled just 50 rushing yards with Kamara out of the mix for the vast majority of the action, setting a low mark for the 2017 campaign. Their previous season low of 60 came all the way back in Week 1 and the team averaged 166.9 rushing yards per game since Week 6, which of course followed the Adrian Peterson trade.
Perhaps most troubling was the play of their quarterback with the lack of a dynamic rushing attack. Drew Brees operated a painfully conservative passing attack against Atlanta, throwing on average minus-2.6 air yards short of the sticks. His completed passes traveled just 4.9 yards through the air.
Brees also struggled mightily when throwing into tight windows against the Falcons' defense. He completed just one of eight such attempts and threw an interception for a 0.0 tight-window passer rating. Hitting those high degree of difficulty tosses has been an issue for Brees all season. The future Hall of Famer has a 55.1 passer rating on tight window throws this year, which ranks 21st out of 40 quarterbacks with 100-plus pass attempts on the year.
The Saints' offensive line has been dynamic all season and Brees was only under pressure on three passes tonight. He completed just one of those attempts for four yards. On the season, Brees' 66.0 passer rating under pressure ranks 14th-lowest and he's yet to throw a touchdown while under duress.
Without Kamara to act as an outlet receiver in the passing game, New Orleans failed to find complementary receivers to wideout Michael Thomas. To his credit, the second-year wideout was outstanding while operating in a condensed pass attack against the Falcons. Thomas averaged three full yards of separation on his targets despite the Falcons giving him just 4.7 yards of cushion off the line. Atlanta's attempts to disrupt the talented receiver utterly failed, as he cleanly got off the line and into his routes.
Thomas reminded us that he has elite ability as a wide receiver, we just haven't seen it as much because the Saints so consistently count on their run game as the engine of their offense. Week 14 saw Thomas inhale a 54 percent share of Brees' intended air yards while no other Saints receiver or tight end earned more than three targets.
As New Orleans looks to close out the 2017 with momentum and a high playoff seeding, their loss to the Falcons casts a disturbing shadow. Kamara had truly become the story of this team in the second half of the season. Without him in the mix, New Orleans looked ordinary on offense, to put it kindly.
Ordinary is about the last word anyone would have used to describe the Saints' scoring attack in the Drew Brees era. Yet, the aging quarterback's inability to offer up a counterpunch in the absence of his star rookie begs many questions regarding the status of this unit and its longtime point guard. The Saints will need Kamara to return and far better play from Brees if they wish to cap an accelerating 2017 season with a deep playoff run.