Photo gallery: Saints vs. Falcons _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Atlanta Falcons defensive end Osi Umenyiora (50) pulls in a Drew Brees fumble before returning it for a touchdown as the New Orleans Saints took on the Atlanta Falcons Sunday, December 21, 2014.

Sacks are far from the only indicator of how effective a football team’s pass rush is, but they give a fair idea of how adequate a defense is in that department.

The Atlanta Falcons, therefore, weren’t very good in that respect coming into their game against the Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday. Their last-ranked defense had registered an NFL-low 16 sacks in 14 games before their contest in New Orleans.

But spectators wouldn’t know it after Atlanta beat New Orleans 30-14. The Saints (6-9) surrendered five sacks, or a season-high total both for New Orleans’ offense and Atlanta’s defense in what proved to be an elimination game for the losing team because of 6-8-1 Carolina’s victory at home over Cleveland (7-8).

Atlanta (6-9) will host Carolina in a game that will produce a division champion next Sunday. Meanwhile, the Saints will play for pride and job security at Tampa Bay (2-13) the same day.

The sacks given up by the Saints weren’t the only things to blame for that reality. For instance, they weren’t to blame for a fumble Saints tight end Jimmy Graham lost at the goal line that would’ve most likely made the score 20-14 with almost the entire fourth quarter left to play, nor were they at fault for giving up a 31-yard Falcons touchdown run in which at least one crucial tackle was missed to let Atlanta go ahead 20-7 with 5:42 to go in the third quarter.

But those in charge of protecting Saints quarterback Drew Brees did not shy away from shouldering the share of responsibility they had in their team’s loss Sunday.

“They executed their game-plan well, and ... we just weren’t firm enough up front,” veteran Saints right guard Jahri Evans said.

Various factors worked against the Saints. For one, the Saints scratched starting left tackle Terron Armstead with a neck injury. In his place was Bryce Harris, a three-year backup who was making only his third career start though he’d logged more than 50 snaps in four games this season before Sunday.

A video-based analysis of the game would give the clearest idea of how Harris performed Sunday, but he had one glaring mistake: a false start on a fourth-and-2 the Saints were going for from Atlanta’s 34 while ahead 7-3 with about four minutes left in the first quarter.

Brees threw his first of two interceptions on the ensuing fourth-and-7, robbing the Saints of an opportunity for points.

“I didn’t play as (well) as I could have ... which upsets me obviously,” Harris said. “I’ll get to the tape and see what adjustments I can make to get better.”

Meanwhile, the Saints said the Falcons repeatedly defeated New Orleans’ pass protection by having their interior defensive players twist around and move behind each other.

The Saints expected that.

“It wasn’t unfamiliar,” said Saints coach Sean Payton, who’d been to the playoffs each year he coached New Orleans since 2008, the season before the franchise won Super Bowl XLIV. “It was pretty consistent with what we have seen (scouting them).”

Yet it set up one-on-one matchups in which Atlanta’s pass rushers beat Saints blockers.

One such encounter that stood out was on a second-and-8 from New Orleans’ 49 with the Saints up 7-6 in the second quarter. Rookie Falcons defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman overpowered Evans and hauled Brees down for a 7-yard loss.

“I got bull-rushed, ... (and) my leg gave out, and I wasn’t able to stop him,” Evans said.

That illustrated how the Saints struggled to provide decent enough pockets of protection for Brees inside tackles Harris and Zach Strief, he said.

The Saints recovered from Hageman’s sack to drive to a third-and-5 at Atlanta’s 31. Falcons safety Dwight Lowery waited several moments after the snap and rushed in unchallenged to sack Brees and force a fumble that Strief recovered at the Falcons’ 49.

New Orleans might have attempted a field goal had it not been for the sack, but punted.

Atlanta subsequently drove 89 yards on 15 plays to seize a 13-7 halftime lead.

A third time Brees was sacked was for minus-7 on a third-and-5 at New Orleans’ 15 late in the first quarter. The Saints punted after the sack by Jonathan Babineaux, and Atlanta booted a 50-yard field goal that made it 7-6 early in the second quarter.

A fourth time Brees was sacked pushed the Saints back to the 13, but that didn’t stop them from reaching the Falcons’ goal line early in the fourth quarter, when Graham lost a fumble in the defining sequence of the game.

All hope was gone for the Saints by the time they gave up their fifth sack. They trailed 23-14 with 13 seconds left. Brees was hit 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage and fumbled. Osi Umenyiora scooped the ball up, mockingly waved farewell in the direction of Brees and the Saints, and ran in for an 86-yard touchdown with no time left.

That image could hardly have been more bitter for Brees, but he didn’t sell his protectors out after the game, telling reporters he could’ve done more to slow the Falcons.

“There are times where (pass rushers) are going to get free, so I either have make them miss (or) have to get rid of the ball,” Brees said. “I wouldn’t put anything on those guys.”