Saints showcased depth, dynamism in clinching NFC SouthNew Orleans Saints strong safety Vonn Bell (24) celebrates with teammates after his interception against the Atlanta Falcons during the second half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Nov. 28, 2019, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis)
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- From Taysom Hill’s deflection of Atlanta’s first punt to Cameron Jordan’s victory-sealing fourth-down sack in the final minutes, the New Orleans Saints clinched their third straight the NFC South title by demonstrating how complete of a team they've become.
New Orleans’ defense combined for nine sacks and three takeaways. Hill’s punt deflection, which set up the game’s opening points, was just the beginning of a productive day for the Saints’ reliable special teams unit. Wil Lutz made all four of his field goal attempts and both extra-point kicks, while the Falcons, by contrast, missed one of each.
“Three NFC South championships in a row and this one being the earliest we’ve been able to secure it - on Thanksgiving - just says a lot about our organization,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said.
With backups filling in at both left guard and left tackle, Brees was bound to have a challenging game. But the record-setting quarterback had the luxury of throwing the ball away, living to play another series or settling for field goals because of how effectively New Orleans’ other units were playing.
Having completed 74 percent of his passes this season, Brees connected on a relatively pedestrian 60 percent of his passes (18 for 30) in Atlanta for 183 yards - 44 yards fewer than in any other full game he has played this season.
Still, that was enough in a 26-18 victory in which the Saints led throughout, and by as many as 17 points with less than seven minutes remaining.
New Orleans didn’t turn the ball over and Hill, a dynamic third-string QB who also plays a variety of roles on offense and special teams, had a 3-yard touchdown catch and 30-yard scoring run to go with his successful bid to get a hand on a Falcons punt.
“While he’s developing as a quarterback, there’s a lot of places he’s playing and we probably need to get him the ball even more,” Saints coach Sean Payton said.
Second year defensive end Marcus Davenport, a first-round pick in 2018, had two sacks and forced a fumble when he chased down Falcons QB Matt Ryan on a scramble. It is perhaps no coincidence that Davenport’s menacing play on one side of the line opened rushing lanes for Jordan, the Saints’ top pass rusher, on the other. Jordan had a career-high four sacks.
A quarter of the regular season remains and the Saints are already guaranteed at least one home playoff game. But after nearly going to the Super Bowl last season, they clearly want more.
“We’re on to bigger and better things,” Jordan said. “Every week, we’re building - and we’ve got to continue building.”
A deep rotation of defensive linemen that has helped them stay fresh and sustain pressure into the crucial late stages of a game. Jordan, Davenport, Sheldon Rankins, David Onyemata, Trey Hendrickson, Malcom Brown, Mario Edwards and Shy Tuttle all contributed to a line that not only racked up sacks, but also limited Atlanta to 89 yards rushing.
“We had a good rotation going,” Payton said. “We’ve been dressing eight and (defensive line coach) Ryan (Nielsen) has done a great job of keeping fresh players in. Obviously, at some point, it became a one-dimensional game. It’s hard to muster up that energy without a defensive rotation.”
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The “hands team” that is deployed when opponents are expected to attempt onside kicks. Atlanta recovered three straight late in the game, although the first was called back for an offside penalty that looked dubious on replay. The penalty had no affect other than to force them to recover another, which they did. That led to a late field goal and a third attempted onside kick, which they also got, forcing the Saints to make one last defensive stop to finally put the game away.
“It’s not good. It’s embarrassing,” Payton said. “We’ll get that cleaned up.”
Tuttle, a rookie defensive tackle who was undrafted out of Tennessee, made his first interception by using his extended right arm to bat down a pass and, in seemingly one instinctive motion, corral it against his body. He also kept his feet and galloped for what would have been a 39-yard return if not for Jordan’s seemingly needless block-in-the-back penalty.
“He’s a good interior player,” Payton said of Tuttle. “You get one that you can sign in free agency and is able to play and help you in his rookie year, that’s valuable because they’re hard to find.”
Cornerback Eli Apple took a step back in an otherwise strong season for him. He committed three pass interference penalties and coaches changed his coverage responsibilities during the game after he initially struggled to stay with Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley.
Linebacker Kiko Alonso left the game with a thigh injury. It is unclear whether starting left tackle Terron Armstead will be ready to return from his ankle sprain by Week 14.
8 - Number of times the Saints have earned a playoff berth since Payton became coach in 2006.
The Saints get a little extra rest before hosting San Francisco on Dec. 8 in a game that likely will influence top playoff seeding in the NFC.
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