ATLANTA — It’s no secret that the New Orleans Saints defense had difficulty stopping short-yardage running plays earlier this season, which was all Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith needed to know in overtime of Sunday’s game in the Georgia Dome.
When his offense needed less than a half-yard at its own 29 to keep its second possession of the extra period going, Smith sent his punt team on the field and then pulled it off — putting the game squarely in the hands of 247-pound running back Michael Turner.
But when Turner, who had already rushed for 96 yards on 22 carries, was stuffed for no gain by a swarm of defenders, the Saints needed to drive only a short distance to John Kasay’s 26-yard field goal — his fourth of the day — for a 26-23 overtime win over the Falcons.
The dramatic ending gave the Saints (7-3) a 1?-game lead over the Falcons (5-4) in the NFC South race heading into the bye week.
While end Will Smith and tackle Shaun Rogers were credited with the key tackle of Turner, safety Malcolm Jenkins and linebacker Jonathan Casillas were also in on the play that put the ball back into the hands of Drew Brees.
Many Saints credited Jenkins with sniffing out the play, one which the Falcons used earlier in the game to get a first down.
“They ran the same play earlier on third-and-1 — and converted it,” said Jenkins. “I missed the play on that one, but I kind of made a mental note and saw that (the formation) looked familiar. I recognized it and went in low and got his legs.
“It was a gutsy decision on their part,” he added, “but it shows what kind of confidence they have in Turner. If we had done the same thing, I would trust Mark (Ingram) or Pierre (Thomas) to get it. But it was a smack in the face to our defense.”
When Turner saw the wall of bodies, including the 350-pound Rogers and 330-pound tackle Aubrayo Franklin, he tried to spin away and was hit by Rogers and Smith. He eventually landed on Smith.
“I kind of pressed it and made him bounce outside,” Smith said. “I’m not sure who hit him, but I was on the bottom of the pile and he landed on me. You really need a lot of people to tackle that guy.”
“We just tried to get some penetration and some knock-back,” Rogers said.
Casillas said he didn’t know who hit who, but said the defensive line — which also included end Cameron Jordan and tackle Sedrick Ellis — was reminded that the Falcons needed only six inches or so for a first down.
“We said, ‘If we get pushed back, we lose,’” said Casillas. “They had to get a push. We hadn’t played great previously in short-yardage, so that was probably the best push we’ve had in a while. They challenged us.”
Mike Smith took full responsibility for having a change of heart after deciding initially to punt the ball away.
“I thought the ball was inside a half-yard and thought we could get it,” he said. “I did not want to give the ball back to the Saints. In previous games with them, we’ve punted the ball and they’ve gotten the ball back with three minutes to go. We never saw it again and they ended up winning the game.”
Smith perhaps forgot that the Saints’ first possession of overtime resulted in a three-and-out and a punt by Thomas Morstead.
“It was a tough way to lose the game,” Turner said. “We just didn’t make the first down at the end. Coach Smith had confidence in the offense to make the first down and continue the drive. You just have to give the Saints’ defense a lot of credit.”
“I think any coach, when it’s fourth-and-inches, feels good they that they can get it,” said Brees, who needed only three plays to position his team for Kasay’s game-winner. “But our defense stepped up and did a great job.
“Listen, you have to have some (guts) to make that call,” he added. “But that’s the type team they are, they’re a tough-running team and they thought they could make it at any time. Most teams around the league would be that way.”
The defensive gem was set up when middle linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar knocked the ball from the grasp of fullback Mike Cox, who caught a short pass from Matt Ryan.
It was initially ruled a first down, but after a review it was ruled the ball should be placed where he fumbled it — about a half-yard shy of the first-down marker.
Those two defensive plays virtually capped a wild final quarter and overtime in which the Saints got field goals of 48 and 44 yards from Kasay to take a 23-13 lead with 7:13 to play before the Falcons struck back.
They had drives of 81 and 85 yards in which they got a 20-yard touchdown pass from Ryan to tight end Tony Gonzalez with 4:13 to play and a 27-yard field goal from Matt Bryant on the final play of regulation to force overtime.
Earlier, Bryant sandwiched field goals of 36 and 29 yards around a 52-yarder by Kasay and Brees, who was 30-of-43 for 322 yards, had a 21-yard TD pass to Jimmy Graham and a 33-yard strike to Robert Meachem.
In between those two touchdowns, Ryan tossed a 21-yard TD to running back Jason Snelling to give the Falcons, who trailed 10-6 at halftime, a 13-10 lead with 5:08 to play in the third.
But it all took a back seat to the final minutes of overtime.
“When you can defensively stop someone on fourth-and-1, that’s a significant way to win a game … an emotional way to win a game,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “I’m excited for those guys — all of ’em.”