FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Falcons earned a victory over the Saints in Week 14 in large part because they were able to stifle their opponent's dynamic ground game. To win on the road this weekend, Atlanta will need to repeat that accomplishment.
And this time, the Saints will have rookie Alvin Kamara back in the fold.
New Orleans entered its Thursday night matchup against Atlanta boasting the No. 3 rushing attack in yards per game, averaging 142.6, and the top run game in terms of yards per play, averaging 4.97. The Falcons effectively shut down the Saints on the ground in their 20-17 win, allowing just 50 rushing yards and 3.3 yards per carry.
The loss of Kamara on the Saints' first drive of the game undoubtedly altered what the game plan was for New Orleans coming into the game, but it's important to remember that Mark Ingram is still the team's starting – and more traditional – running back. Kamara is extremely dangerous, but he's arguably a better receiver at this point in his career.
Ingram remains the Saints' leading rusher with 1,045 yards and 11 touchdowns on 204 carries, and he was largely ineffective against the Falcons, rushing 12 times for just 49 yards.
Atlanta's ability to stop New Orleans' rushing attack fueled a defensive effort that held the Saints to season lows in both yards and points. If the Falcons are to beat the Saints on the road this weekend, they will to have similar success against the run.
In today's After Further Review, we'll take a look at how the Falcons stopped the Saints' ground game and what they need to do to replicate that on Sunday.
Controlling the line of scrimmage
The Falcons' defensive line played an excellent game against the Saints in their first meeting. Against an offensive line that Football Outsiders ranks as the best in the NFL in adjusted line yards – defined as the number of yards a runner gains due to the blocking at the line of scrimmage – and has the lowest percentage of runs where the running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage, Atlanta's defensive front proved too much to handle.
New Orleans' longest run of the night was a 14-yard gain by Mark Ingram in the second quarter, which occurred due to a missed tackle near the line of scrimmage. Otherwise, the Saints never topped a 7-yard gain on any rush. They had three runs stopped for no gain or a loss which equated to 20 percent of their total carries, well above their 13 percent rate of runs stuffed this season.
These numbers serve to illustrate the success Atlanta had along the defensive line to stop New Orleans' runners from getting into the second level. Defensive tackles Grady Jarrett and Dontari Poe were especially destructive in the interior of the defense.
It can often be hard to discern the impact a player had on a game simply by looking at the stat sheet or the box score, but upon reviewing this matchup, it became apparent that Jarrett and Poe truly made a difference in the win.
On the very first drive of the game for the Saints, Jarrett's speed off the line became apparent. He knifed past right guard Larry Warford to stop Kamara in the backfield before he could begin accelerating.
As soon as Kamara receives the handoff, Jarrett is there and gets and hand on him. He's not able to bring him down alone, but Jarrett's presence is enough to disrupt Kamara and allow a swarm of Falcons defenders to drop him for a minimal gain.
In evaluating the game afterwards, Pro Football Focus had this to say about Jarrett:
"Jarrett didn't get his name called often, but he quietly made a significant impact. … He had one run stop, but also beat his man a few other times to force the run away from the intended point of attack to generate clean-up tackles for his teammates."
In the second quarter, Jarrett again beat his man – this time, left guard Senio Kelemete – to cut off Ingram's angle to the hole and stop him for a 1-yard gain.
The speed and power of Jarrett and Poe have flashed throughout the season, and they have become an impactful interior duo that offenses must account for.
"The guys are very active inside, especially Dontari and Grady, not just by their stoutness but by their ability to move," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "Both of them can stunt and slant, and that's a part of our game too. In the run game the last couple of weeks, I like the firmness, staying square into their spot, and it allows everybody to know exactly where our fits are."
Getting into an opponent's backfield on run plays is the easiest way to stop a running back from building up speed and creating a big play, and Jarrett has been one of the best at doing just that for the Falcons.
"Penetration always kills the run game," Jarrett said. "Me, myself, I'd like to make that play every time, but even just disturbing a runner's path is always good. Penetration is definitely detrimental to the run game."
While Jarrett might be skilled in beating a lineman off the ball and slipping past him, Poe has shown great use of his hands and technique in his first season with the Falcons.
Late in the fourth quarter, Poe engaged center Max Unger with his hands and pressed him to create separation and not allow the Saints' lineman to gain leverage and control the block. Instead, it's Poe who controlled the block.
While Poe is in position to shed his block and defend the gap to both his left and right, Jarrett immediately sidestepped rookie Ryan Ramczyk, who has been phenomenal in his first season, and forced Ingram to cut back and look for another lane.
When Ingram realigned himself to attack the left side of the formation, Poe threw Unger aside and was there to make the tackle for no gain.
Even when the Falcons' defensive tackles were directly involved in making a tackle, they had a clear impact in defending the run. Given their ability to make plays, teams often can't afford to leave a lineman one-on-one against Jarrett or Poe.
This type of influence showed up early in the game, on the Saints' opening drive. On a first-and-10 at the Falcons' 12-yard line, the Saints ran an inside run play with a lead blocker in front of Ingram to clear the hole.
Initially it appears the design below was how New Orleans sought to block Atlanta's defenders, although only the players and coaching staff know for sure. Still, by doubling Poe with Unger and Warford, then having Warford climb to the second level to block Kemal Ishmael, the Saints' fullback, Zach Line, would only need to block Deion Jones to seal off a running lane.
Instead of climbing to the second level and blocking Ishmael, however, Warford and Unger stay on the block with Poe, and Unger moves into a position to help Kelemete against Jarrett. The Falcons' two defensive tackles occupy three offensive linemen, leaving an extra linebacker free to attack the hole.
Success at the line of scrimmage often creates a positive ripple effect for a defense. When an offense has to assign more guys at the first level, the second-level defenders are free to move around unimpeded.
"It makes it a lot easier," Falcons safety Keanu Neal said of playing behind Jarrett and Poe. "They do a great job driving the offensive linemen, and it makes our job a lot simpler."
"It's kind of what the position entails," Jarrett said. "When you've got two guys playing at a really high level, it's what you sign up for. Without a doubt [I take pride in making multiple linemen block me]. That's how you take your game to the next level and figure out how to still win when you've got two guys on you."
While they played a major role in limiting the Saints' run game, Jarrett and Poe weren't the only defenders making a difference at the line of scrimmage.
Stopping a runner from reaching the open field requires great gap discipline and each player understanding his role and the technique needed on any given play.
Late in the first quarter, defensive end Brooks Reed identified a reach block from tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, which often indicates the direction a play is designed to go and is used to seal off a defender.
Once Reed sees the reach block, he fights against it in the direction of the block and keeps his inside arm free. Due to a good push from the right side of the Falcons' defensive line, Ingram is forced to maneuver to the backside of the play where Reed is there to make the tackle.
Without much success running between the tackles against the Falcons, the Saints tried in the third quarter to get speedy receiver Ted Ginn out in space on the perimeter by calling a jet sweep.
Prior to the snap, quarterback Drew Brees sends tight end Josh Hill in motion to the opposite side of the formation. As Hill crosses the field, Neal follows him, identifying man coverage by the Falcons' defense.
With the Falcons in man defense, Ginn should be able to out-leverage the defender assigned to cover him – Brian Poole, in this case – and come free on the other side of the field with the other defenders preoccupied with their assignments and Poole fighting through traffic to keep up.
It's a play that could have resulted in a big gain and possibly a long touchdown if not for a heads-up play by Neal. The Falcons' defense may have signaled a "jump" call on this play, meaning an assignment switches from an out-leveraged defender to a player in better position to cover a man in motion just prior to the snap, but it's also likely that Neal's preparation before the game allowed him to identify the jet sweep.
In either case, Neal wastes no time in leaving his man and sprints directly up the field to stop Ginn's progress and allow his teammates to clean up the tackle.
This can be replicated on Sunday
While many are quick to point out the absence of Kamara when discussing the first meeting between these two rivals, there are reasons to believe the Falcons can have similar success against the run even with the rookie in the mix.
For starters, Kamara's role this season for the Saints has been primarily as a versatile option out of the backfield. He's a talented runner between the tackles, but Kamara is averaging just 8.3 carries per game, excluding the game against Atlanta, since he became a consistent part of the Saints' offense in Week 6.
Kamara will be at his most dangerous as a receiver in space and in the screen game, two ways in which the Saints primarily like to get him the ball. Before he left the game against the Falcons, Kamara had just one carry for 2 yards, but he caught three passes for 25 yards.
"He's one of the key pieces to what we do," Saints coach Sean Payton said of Kamara. "We've got good balance with he and Mark. There's sometimes where they'll both be on the field, and there's time where there's a rotation based on what we're trying to do. But he's healthy and an important part of our offense."
Regardless, given the way the Falcons' defensive line controlled things against the Saints in their first game, it likely wouldn't have mattered which running back had the ball. Atlanta showed both power and speed on the defensive line in their win against New Orleans, which is something that can certainly show up again on the road.
What they must be prepared for on Sunday is the screen game and passes to the backs out of the backfield, which can tire out a defensive line. Of course, tackling will also be of great importance. As mentioned earlier, the longest run play for the Saints in the last game between these two teams was the result of a missed tackle in the hole.
Only one game separates the first and second meetings between the Saints and Falcons, meaning there isn't much new film to watch or added wrinkles to prepare for.
New Orleans will certainly have a plan ready to achieve more success in the run game on Sunday, but Atlanta largely imposed its will on an offensive line that is among the best at opening up holes for its running backs. For the Falcons to earn a sweep against the Saints this season, the defense will need to prove stout against the run on Sunday. After what happened the first time these two teams played, just two weeks ago, there's no reason to believe they can't.