The Saints didn’t play their best game of the season Thursday, but they’re happy to be back home with a 9-2 record
“They were coming off a short week as well, so (the winner) was the team that was really going to dig down deep and just fight and get that victory.” PIERRE THOMAS, Saints running back
Their play wasn’t always pretty, but considering the circumstances, the Saints felt like their win at Atlanta on Thursday night was a thing of beauty.
Coming off a physical victory against San Francisco only four days earlier, they ran when they needed to, stopped the run when they needed to and made big plays on defense throughout to beat the reeling, injury-riddled Falcons 17-13 and pull within a game of Seattle for the best record in the NFC.
Ten days away from the pivotal Dec. 2 Monday night game at Seattle, New Orleans coach Sean Payton said he liked what he saw in Atlanta.
“We’ve been a little bit better defending the run and a little bit better running the football, which were things we pointed out at the bye week (after a loss to New England left the Saints 6-2),” Payton said Friday. “We have some real good opponents coming up, but from that standpoint, I’ve been encouraged.”
With Darren Sproles sitting out because of ankle and knee problems, Pierre Thomas caught five passes for 57 yards and rushed for 73 yards on 10 carries, including a 16-yard burst that allowed the Saints (9-2) to burn off all but the final five seconds on its last drive. The team ran for 103 yards, its third consecutive week above 90 yards after failing to rush for 80 yards in six of their first eight games.
“Pierre was outstanding last night in some big conversions and really stepped up and played well,” Payton said. “He’s steady. He’s very versatile. He knows what to do, and you see it both in the screen game and the running game. What goes unnoticed unless you watch film is how good he is in pass pickup and how strong he is at the point of attack.”
The Saints held the Falcons to 91 rushing yards (32 in the second half) — their third consecutive game limiting an opponent below 100 after getting gashed by the New York Jets for 198 yards.
Although Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan went 30 of 39, the Saints sacked him five times; he did not throw a touchdown pass for the first time in 17 games; and his longest completion was 22 yards.
“We’re not worried if they complete a lot of passes, as long as they’re not those deep balls that go over your head for a touchdown,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “None of them were devastating. None of them went for scores. We can live with that.”
Atlanta (2-9) had lost its previous four games by the combined score of 133-61 and had given up 33 or more points in its last three games, but the Saints did not care about the close margin Thursday. Their task was to recover from their physically and emotionally taxing last-second win against San Francisco and get out of the Georgia Dome with another victory.
“We had bumps and bruises, and a lot of guys were hurt,” Thomas said. “Coach (Payton) took care of us on the short week with the quick turnaround. It was more mental than a physical type of practice during the week. The game against San Francisco was a hard-hitting game, and we knew Atlanta was going to be the same thing. They are our rivals, and every time we play them, they always put their ‘A’ game at the table.
“They were coming off a short week as well, so (the winner) was the team that was really going to dig down deep and just fight and get that victory.”
Defensive end Cam Jordan had no problem dealing with the short week, sacking Ryan 2½ times to increase his team-leading total to 9½. He also deflected a pass.
“His effort is phenomenal,” Jenkins said. “He’s one of those D-linemen that can play literally every down of a game and not get tired. Now with everybody else adding to the pass rush, we’re seeing Cam win all those one-on-one battles and make those plays. We knew he was going to have a big year.”
By beating Atlanta, the Saints stayed on track for a big year as well. Payton had little time for nitpickers who might point out they scored only 17 points (their second-lowest total of the year), gave up 22 first downs and benefitted from a dropped interception in the end zone before scoring an early touchdown to tie the score at 7.
The bottom line is, they improved to 9-2.
“I don’t think there were a lot of things I didn’t like,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that at all.”