While Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were hashing it out in the first of three presidential debates, the Falcons and Saints waged battle in the Big Easy. The game carried added significance to the Saints, who were celebrating the 10-year anniversary of their dramatic return to New Orleans following the devastating events of Hurricane Katrina.
Monday’s game was a shootout but not the kind you’d expect from two gun-slinging teams like the Saints and Falcons. The winning quarterback, Matt Ryan, threw for just 240 yards, his lowest total of the young season.
Ryan happily took a backseat for this one as the Falcons rode their running game to a 45-32 win that looks much closer on paper than it was in real life. At one point, the Falcons visited the end zone on five straight possessions as the Saints’ talent-starved, injury-ravaged defense handed out yards in large helpings. It was like Thanksgiving dinner—everyone grabbed a plate.
Nobody feasted harder than Devonta Freeman, who turned 19 touches into 207 yards from scrimmage. He was especially dominant on the ground, steamrolling the Saints for 152 yards on 14 carries. That’s the highest rushing total in the league this year, topping the 143 yards DeAngelo Williams rushed for in Week 1.
Similar to an old man trying to send back soup at a deli, Freeman was angry on Monday. His violent running led to a number of chunk gains including a 48-yarder that sealed the game late in the fourth quarter. Four of his 19 touches went for at least 20 yards. Freeman’s lone touchdown came on a 13-yard swing pass down the left sideline. True to form, the Saints’ defense was nowhere to be found.
The Falcons’ running back tandem has frustrated fantasy owners this year but Monday we were all winners. While Freeman was gobbling up yards, his backfield mate Tevin Coleman was rewarding fantasy owners with a steady diet of touchdowns. Coleman entered Monday with just two career touchdowns but bettered that mark with three scores in Week 3.
Monday represented an interesting role reversal for the two backs. During the first two weeks, Freeman functioned as the Falcons’ early-down bruiser with Coleman handling most of the passing-down duties. Monday Freeman led all Falcons receivers with 55 yards but it was Coleman who got the glamour touches, flexing his muscles with a trio of goal-line touchdowns. Of course, Coleman wasn’t just limited to cherry picking. He spanned 42 yards on 12 carries while adding three catches for 47 yards.
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Running back committees are quite common in today’s NFL but Atlanta’s backfield is different. The Falcons don’t use labels like “workhorse,” “passing-down specialist” or “change-of-pace back.” Those designations apply to players with different skill sets but Freeman and Coleman share many of the same traits. They’re even similar in size with both players checking in at around 210 pounds. Coleman is regarded as the bigger home-run threat but Freeman impressed with plenty of big plays in Week 3. It’s a tough backfield to predict on a weekly basis, but on Monday night, Freeman and Coleman were both heroes.
The Saints also emphasized the run, at least early in the game when the lead was still within reach. Mark Ingram, who was essentially a forgotten man against the Giants in Week 2, resurfaced with 77 yards on 15 carries. That represented his biggest workload since Week 9 of last season when Ingram handled 22 carries in a loss to Tennessee. Well-known for his contributions to the passing game, Ingram supplemented his rushing total with four catches for 30 yards and a touchdown.
It was an unusually quiet night for top receivers with Julio Jones and Brandin Cooks both playing limited roles. Matched up against undrafted corner Ken Crawley, Jones had a chance to wreak havoc on the Saints’ secondary but squandered that opportunity by reeling in only one-of-seven targets for 16 yards. Jones has been battling ankle and calf injuries, so it’s fair to assume he wasn’t at 100 percent Monday night. Cooks doesn’t have an excuse for his no-show. He should have had a field day with Willie Snead (toe) sidelined but only managed two catches for 13 yards despite seeing eight targets from quarterback Drew Brees.
Brees has been a friend to tight ends throughout his career, paving Jimmy Graham’s path to superstardom while fanning the flames for Ben Watson’s breakout year in 2015. We assumed the same fate awaited Coby Fleener upon his signing in New Orleans this offseason. Fleener labored through a difficult first two weeks but finally found the light in Week 3, torching the Falcons for 109 yards on eight catches. He got his touchdown out of the way early with Drew Brees getting the Falcons to bite on play-action for a two-yard score on the game’s opening possession.
Brees posted his usual gaudy stat line (376 yards on 36-of-54 passing) but it felt emptier than usual. His night was overshadowed by a pick-six that extended Atlanta’s lead to 20 with 13:37 remaining in the fourth quarter. That ended Brees’ streak of 305 consecutive passes without an interception, the fourth-longest in league history. If it’s any consolation, the pass was intercepted and returned for a 90-yard touchdown by rookie linebacker Deion Jones, a New Orleans native who played his college ball up the road at LSU.
The Saints will try to notch their first victory next week in San Diego while the Falcons will head back to Atlanta in Week 4 for a meeting with Cam Newton and the Panthers. Last year Atlanta defeated Carolina in Week 16 to end the Panthers’ perfect season.
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Quick Hits: Greg Hardy was arrested for possession of cocaine on Sunday night. Police stopped him for failing to use a turn signal and found a small bag of cocaine in his wallet after searching his vehicle. Hardy’s career was already hanging by a thread. This arrest should be the final nail in his coffin … After attempting a brief comeback, 49ers Anthony Davis has decided to retire for the second time. Davis took last year off before returning to the Niners this summer. He suffered a concussion in his first game back and hasn’t played since … 49ers coach Chip Kelly acknowledged that Colin Kaepernick could reclaim the starting quarterback job when he returns to full health. The Niners’ current starter, Blaine Gabbert, ranks 30th out of 32 qualified quarterbacks in passer rating this season … Michael Floyd has been placed in the league’s concussion protocol. Floyd has gotten off to a slow start this year with just nine catches on 24 targets … Chiefs coach Andy Reid said “there’s a chance” Jamaal Charles (knee) will make his season debut in Week 4. Charles has been practicing for the last three weeks but hasn’t gotten the green light yet … Vikings coach Mike Zimmer says Laquon Treadwell is “still thinking too much.” The first-round receiver was a healthy scratch in Week 3 and has only played two snaps this season … Dez Bryant underwent an MRI on Monday after tweaking his knee in Sunday’s win over the Bears. Dez was limited to three catches in that game, though one of them went for a 17-yard touchdown … Jeremy Langford will miss 4-6 weeks with a high-ankle sprain after being carted off in Sunday’s loss to Dallas. Fifth-round rookie Jordan Howard will lead the backfield during his absence … The Cowboys have placed LG La’El Collins on injured reserve. He’ll need 8-10 weeks to recover from a sprained big toe … Ankle stiffness limited Ryan Mathews to eight snaps against the Steelers in Week 3. He should be back after the team’s bye week but coach Doug Pederson said the Eagles will continue to use a running back committee featuring Mathews, Darren Sproles, Kenjon Barner and Wendell Smallwood … Zach Ertz (ribs) is expected to return after the Eagles’ upcoming bye week. Trey Burton has filled in during his absence … C.J. Spiller is scheduled to work out for the Jets on Tuesday. If Spiller signs, he’ll be reuniting with OC Chan Gailey, who coached him in Buffalo for three years … The Jets claimed Austin Seferian-Jenkins off waivers on Monday. ASJ was cut by the Buccaneers last week following a DUI arrest … Shane Vereen has been placed on injured reserve with a torn triceps. Vereen leads the Giants with 147 rushing yards this year. At least it looks like Rashad Jennings could return for Week 4 after missing Sunday’s game with a thumb injury … The Raiders released long-time fullback Marcel Reece on Monday. The four-time Pro Bowler just finished serving a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance enhancing drugs … The Dolphins are expected to be without Jordan Cameron (concussion), Arian Foster (groin) and Mike Pouncey (hip) Thursday against Cincinnati. Tyler Eifert (ankle) could make his season debut in that game. He began practicing on a limited basis last week … Thomas Rawls is expected to miss several more weeks with a hairline fracture in his fibula. Christine Michael will continue to serve as the Seahawks’ workhorse … Russell Wilson exited Sunday’s game with a sprained MCL but coach Pete Carroll is confident he’ll be ready for Week 4 against the Jets. Wilson has been battling a high-ankle sprain since Week 1 but has yet to miss a game … DeAngelo Hall will miss the rest of the season after tearing his ACL against the Giants in Week 3. Hall was starting his first full season at safety after spending the bulk of his career at cornerback … Manti Te’o tore his Achilles in Week 3 and will be sidelined for the rest of the year. Te’o is in the last year of his contract, meaning that Sunday’s game may have been his last in a Chargers uniform … According to the Union-Tribune San Diego, Antonio Gates (hamstring) “wasn’t close” to suiting up against the Colts in Week 3. The tight end is likely looking at a multi-week absence.