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Falcons’ run defense key to winner-takes-division finale

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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — For the third consecutive game, the Atlanta Falcons dug themselves a hole against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.

But this time, the Falcons were able to dig out of their situation with some spectacular defensive play in a 30-14 road victory and set up a winner-takes-all NFC South showdown with the Carolina Panthers this Sunday at the Georgia Dome.

The Falcons fell behind against the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers, but couldn’t rally to victory. After allowing a 99-yard kickoff return and 1-yard touchdown run, the Falcons fell behind against the Saints on Sunday, but were able to shut down New Orleans’ rushing attack and slow down the vaunted passing game with five sacks and two interceptions.

“I was really proud of the way our football team came out and performed,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “They did an outstanding job. Preparation was very good throughout the week. I thought that the coaching staff – offensive, defensive and special teams – did a very good job preparing these guys.”

The Falcons defeated the Panthers 19-17 on Nov. 16, but needed a blocked 63-yard field-goal attempt to secure the victory.

The Panthers are the defending NFC South champions.

If the Falcons’ defense, which has played the run well over the past two weeks, can turn in another strong effort against the Panthers, Atlanta will claim the NFC South title and play host to a playoff game at the Georgia Dome.

The Falcons held Pittsburgh Le’Veon Bell to 47 yards on 20 carries. They followed up that effort by limiting New Orleans running back Mark Ingram to 38 yards rushing on 13 carries.

The Panthers were powered by running back Jonathan Stewart, who rushed for 122 yards in a 17-13 victory over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.

With the run game slowed, the Falcons had their best day of the season rushing the passer against the Saints with five sacks.

The pass rush will be important against the Panthers, who welcomed the return of quarterback Cam Newton. He missed a game after suffering a back injury in an automobile accident.

“We did a very good job of putting pressure on the quarterback, probably the best that we have done all season,” Smith said. “We had five sacks, two recovered fumbles, and two (interceptions).”

The Falcons have been preaching for their players to win their one-on-one matchups while rushing the passer.

“I thought that we did a good job of mixing our pressure and our four-man rushes. When we had the four-man rushes, we were getting some 1-on-1’s,” Smith said. “We talked about it. You’ve got five or six guys into protection. Some guys are going to get doubled, and when you get the one-on-one (matchups), you’ve got to win.

“We got some wins (against the Saints) on some one-on-one’s. We did a very good job on our pass rush plan and how we were going to try to move the quarterback off the spot.”

Robert McClain, who’s set to start the rest of the season at right cornerback for Robert Alford (broken wrist), had a big interception against the Saints.

“It was a big-time play,” Smith said. “He got a great jump on the ball. Robert’s continued to improve all season long. I know that some people had talked about him not making plays. He made the play when we needed the play made.”

The Falcons are hoping the defense, which entered Week 16 ranked last in the NFL, can continue its improved play against the Panthers.

“We think that we are playing with a lot more consistency,” Smith said. “We are playing with a lot of confidence. I believe that we are attacking the line of scrimmage much better over the last two weeks in terms of defending the run.

“That, in turn, allows us to transfer into our pass rush. I think that we have done a very good job. The coaching staff put together a very good plan. Mike (Nolan) and his staff did a great job.”

NOTES: Running back Steve Jackson left the game with a quadriceps injury and did not return and could be lost for the regular-season finale and any the playoffs. Smith did not provide an update Monday. … Right guard Jon Asamoah, who didn’t play against the Saints because of a back injury, will return to practice on a limited basis on Wednesday, Smith said on Monday. Asamoah was replaced in the lineup by Gabe Carimi. … Safety William Moore (shoulder) and nickel back Josh Wilson (hamstring) all left the game and did not return. Smith did not have an update on their status for the Carolina game on Sunday.

REPORT CARD VS. SAINTS

PASSING OFFENSE: B — Matt Ryan completed 30 of 40 passes for 322 and one touchdown. He finished with a passer rating of 106.5. His best pass of the game may have been his 3-yard shovel pass to wide receiver Eric Weems, which gave the Falcons a lead they would not relinquish. He got Julio Jones involved in the offense immediately and went to complete passes to nine other receivers. The average gain per pass play was 8.1 yards.

Jones tested out his hip/oblique injury and played despite not being 100 percent healthy. He caught seven of eight targets for 107 yards. It was his 19th game with 100 yards receiving or more. It was his third straight 100-yard game. Roddy White (six catches for 55) and Harry Douglas (four catches for 47 yards) were steady. Tight end Levine Toilolo caught 4-of-4 passes thrown his way for 17 yards.

RUSHING OFFENSE: C — Steven Jackson left the game with a quadriceps injury and did not return. He could be lost for the season. Devonta Freeman finished with 36 yards on five carries, including a 31-yard touchdown scamper. Overall, the Falcons rushed 22 times for 81 yards (3.7 per carry) and one touchdown.

PASS DEFENSE: A — The Falcons, who were last in the league with 16 sacks entering Week 16, registered a season-high five against the Saints. Defensive end Jonathan Babineaux, safety Dwight Lowery, outside linebacker Kroy Biermann, defensive end Ra’Shede Hageman and defensive tackle Corey Peters each had a sack. Babineaux also had two quarterback hits.

Desmond Trufant and Robert McClain came up with big interceptions. Safety Kemal Ishmael had the play of the game and an assist went to safety Dezmen Southward. Safety William Moore (shoulder), cornerback Josh Wilson (hamstring) and Lowery (shoulder) all suffered injuries. Lowery returned to the action. In addition to his interception, McClain had two other pass breakups.

RUSH DEFENSE: A — The Falcons also held the Saints to 57 yards rushing on 18 carries (3.2 yards per carry). Paul Worrilow (9 tackles), Joplo Bartu (three) and Prince Shembo (two) helped to control the Saints rushing attack. Worrilow and Bartu had one tackle for a loss. The also dropped into coverage well and Biermann had a couple of nice drops too.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C-minus — New Orleans’ Jalen Saunders took the opening kickoff 99 yards to set up the game’s first touchdown. Kicker Matt Bryant was 3-for-3 on field goals, including a 50-yarder. Punter Matt Bosher averaged 44.2 net yards on five punts and placed four inside the 20. Returner Devin Hester had a long kickoff return of 25 yards.

COACHING: A — We’re not sure what the Falcons fed the defense for the pre-game meal, but they need to make sure they eat the same thing before facing Carolina. The defense, for the first time this season, was lights out. It attacked Saints quarterback Drew Brees and had only a few missed tackles. The offense was elated that the Saints played a lot of man-to-man coverage. The Falcons were 7-for-15 (47 percent) on third-down conversions and were 1-for-2 in the red zone.


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