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Tabeek: Falcons’ biggest problems against Saints began, ended in the trenches

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NEW ORLEANS – It didn’t take long for the vitriol towards Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan to rear its ugly head Thursday night. The shots on Twitter from angry Falcons fans were flowing at a healthy pace midway through the third quarter.

And Ryan wasn’t the only one. Dan Quinn and Steve Sarkisian were also targets of the fans’ disdain following the Falcons’ 31-17 loss to the Saints, their third straight defeat over an 11-day span.

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I totally get the frustration that comes from losing to the hated Saints on Thanksgiving Day, but the problems hardly stem from Ryan, Quinn or Sarkisian for that matter.

No, Atlanta's biggest problem was that Ryan spent most of the night running for his life (or on his back) and the offense couldn't gain critical yards when they needed them most.

What’s that old saying, that a quarterback’s best friend is a good running game? Feast your eyes on some of these stats.

The Falcons ran the ball 16 times for just 26 yards. When you take away the yards Ryan gained on his two scrambles for 16 yards, then Atlanta’s runners amassed only 10 yards on 14 attempts.

The Falcons’ run-game woes against the Saints were especially evident during critical short-yardage situations.

Twelve different times the Falcons needed just 1 or 2 yards for a first down and they converted only three, gaining a total of 9 yards. Three of those 12 plays were runs that gained 3 yards – two were stopped for no gain, the other was a 3-yard run by Mohamed Sanu.

So, for all intents and purposes, there was no running game and the only way Ryan and Co. could move the ball against the Saints was through the air. And just like the Cowboys did four days earlier, the Saints pinned their ears back and came after Ryan.

Ryan has been sacked nine times over the last two games – six courtesy of the Saints. For comparison’s sake, Drew Brees has been sacked a total of 10 times all season long.

The Falcons’ struggles in the trenches were evident on the other side of the ball, too.

While Falcons running backs could only manage 1.4 yards per carry on Thursday, Saints running back Alvin Kamara was averaging 6.4 yards per rush and finished with 89 yards on 14 carries. The Saints combined for 150 total yards on the ground.

“They were able to stop the run [and] we didn’t do enough defensively to make that a factor in the game,” Quinn said.

Making matters worse, the Falcons turned the ball over four times – three in the red zone.

That’s a lot of points potentially left on the field. If the Falcons scored touchdowns on all three of those red-zone turnovers, it would have resulted in 21 additional points.

Falcons owner Arthur Blank summed it up best in a postgame interview with ESPN.com.

"I thought it was pretty obvious tonight: We had a few turnovers, which are always brutal," Blank said. "To have four of them, it's nearly impossible to win. And we couldn't run the ball tonight, couldn't stop the run. That's the story of the game."

That was indeed the story, and it began and ended in the trenches.

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