It seemed like Matt Ryan had all the time he needed to get the ball out of hands Sunday afternoon against the Saints.
He was pressured only about a dozen times during New Orleans’ 30-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. The Saints pass rushers, despite their best attempts, often ended up arriving in the backfield well after the ball left Ryan’s hands.
The Saints blitzed about a dozen times. Nothing worked. Ryan completed 30 of 40 passes for 322 yards with a touchdown. Though it might have appeared Atlanta’s offensive line did a fantastic job against the Saints — and it did, at times — the real issue was with the man holding the ball.
New Orleans players and coaches talked all week about how quickly Ryan gets rid of the ball and the problems that presents for a defense. On a statistical level, without considering context, that was not necessarily true during the Week 1 meeting between these teams, as Ryan held the ball for an average of 2.7 seconds, close to league average.
On Sunday, the Falcons quarterback did not mess around. On average, the ball was in his hands for an average of only 2.2 seconds. Extrapolate that time over a full season, and Ryan would easily have the fastest trigger in the NFL.
It goes without saying that when a quarterback is getting rid of the ball that quickly, the defense is not going to have many opportunities to get after him and speed up his process.
The only times when the Saints generated meaningful pressure on Ryan came when the interior defensive line managed to break through immediately after the snap, as evidenced by the four pressures recorded by defensive tackle Akiem Hicks. Everyone else, particularly those coming off the edges, were often left chasing air.
But even without a meaningful pass rush, this defense did its job for most of the afternoon. It stepped up in key situations, limited the running game, and got enough stops to give the offense opportunities to win the game.
So while it might not have been the most suffocating performance the defense has put forth this year, it was good enough, and the difficult circumstances it faced should be considered when grading the tape.
Here are the grades for this week’s game out of a possible four fleurs-de-lis:
QUARTERBACKS: 1 of 4
It took almost three full quarters for this team to piece together a meaningful offensive drive. Part of the reason is that Drew Brees, despite eclipsing 300 yards, had one of his worst performances of the season. He sailed passes, threw a few behind his receivers, and then threw a costly interception with a chance to take control of the game. Perhaps the most troubling part of the performance is that Brees completed only half of his passes when facing pressure.
RUNNING BACKS: 1.5 of 4
Running game? There was no running game. It gained 57 yards on 18 carries. Perhaps this grade is a bit harsh since there weren’t many holes to run through, but ineffectiveness is ineffectiveness.
This grade jumps up a half of a point due to Pierre Thomas’ catching a pair of screen passes for 24 yards during a period in the game when the offense wasn’t moving the ball.
RECEIVERS: 2 of 4
If Jimmy Graham were being graded alone, this score would be much lower. The tight end didn’t come to life until late in the game after fumbling the ball on the goal line. Before that, there was at least one dropped pass where Graham did not look like himself. Perhaps he’s still battling a shoulder injury. But something did not look right. Kenny Stills deserves praise for stepping up repeatedly in “have-to-have-it situations” late in the game on third downs.
OFFENSIVE LINE: 1 of 4
Brees was sacked five times by a team that had 16 total sacks entering the game. That’s simply unacceptable. Two of the sacks fall on guard Jahri Evans’ head, including one where he was blown up by Atlanta rookie Ra’Shede Hageman. Bryce Harris, who was filling in for the injured Terron Armstead, also had a rough day containing his assignment.
DEFENSIVE LINE: 2 of 4
Might seem strange to give this group a two considering there was no pass rush.
But the defensive line performed well against the run, with defensive tackle John Jenkins having a handful of highlight moments.
And, as mentioned previously, Hicks had some good moments rushing the quarterback.
Junior Galette was once again limited because of his knee injury. He did not make much of an impact during his 28 snaps on the field.
LINEBACKERS: 2 of 4
Parys Haralson and David Hawthorne, who both hand a handful of run stuffs, had some quality moments during this game. However, Curtis Lofton struggled in pass coverage.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: 2 of 4
The coverage wasn’t perfect, but it’s been worse than it was Sunday. Brian Dixon and Kenny Vaccaro deserve major credit for quickly making tackles on a pair of fourth-quarter receptions at a time when New Orleans needed a stop to maintain hope.
It didn’t matter, because the offense coughed up the ball, but the defense did enough to keep this team in the game, and the secondary played a part in that.
SPECIAL TEAMS: 3 of 4
Jalen Saunders’ 99-yard kickoff return to start the game will end up on the season highlights.
Shayne Graham connected on both of his extra points but was not afforded the opportunity to kick a field goal.
Punter Thomas Morstead did his job, placing two of his four punts inside the 20-yard line.