NEW ORLEANS — This New Orleans Saints season is clearly not for the birds.
Four days after the Eagles were landed, 48-7, right here, the Saints shot down the Atlanta Falcons, 31-17, on the first Turkey Night home game in Saints history in front of 73,017 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to improve to 10-1 on the season.
And the Saints did not even need that much from quarterback Drew Brees, who threw for his second lowest yardage total of the season at 171, as New Orleans rushed for 150 yards. And its defense put up a season high for sacks with six of quarterback Matt Ryan, including two by end Cam Jordan, and recovered three fumbles in the red zone along with an interception for a season-high four takeaways.
“A day where he throws for under 200 yards is usually one on the other side that you sign up for,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said.
But Brees did manage to complete 15 of 22 and toss four touchdown passes, all to greenish, non-drafted free agents from lower college programs – wide receivers Austin Carr, Tommylee Lewis and Keith Kirkwood and tight end Dan Arnold – as the Saints have had injury problems at receiver. That includes Tre’Quan Smith, who missed this game with a toe injury after catching 10 passes in the win over Philadelphia Sunday. Newly acquired receiver Brandon Marshall also was not ready.
So, the Saints have been finding receivers from anywhere, including as far away as Neptune, while staging the “Drew Brees Passing Camp” for kid receivers.
Kirkwood, a rookie from Temple and Neptune City, New Jersey, caught the first touchdown of his career from five yards out for a 31-10 lead with 9:27 to play in the game. Arnold, a second-year tight end from Wisconsin-Platteville and Fargo, North Dakota, also caught the first touchdown of his career on a 25-yard pass from Brees for a 24-3 lead in the third quarter after having one slapped away in the second quarter.
Carr, a two-year pro and former Northwestern walk-on whom the Saints got off waivers from New England, caught his second touchdown as a Saint from 12 yards out for a 17-3 lead with 3:20 to go in the first half. And Lewis, a third-year Saint from Northern Illinois just activated on Wednesday, caught the second touchdown of his career from 28 yards away for a 7-0 lead at the 11:11 mark of the first quarter.
“I did not realize that (dat),” Saints coach Sean Payton said of his quarterback throwing touchdowns to four non-drafted players.
Kirkwood … Arnold … Carr … Lewis – not exactly a Mount Rushmore or Who’s Who of NFL Receivers. More like a Who Dat of NFL receivers as some Saints could be heard asking that, or dat, after each touchdown.
“I love that stat. That is actually one of my favorite ones,” said Brees, the league’s all-time passing yardage leader at 73,580 who owns various NFL statistics like so many Jimmy John’s and Walk-On’s.
And here’s an even more impressive stat from the Drew Brees Passing Camp that will surely appear on brochures soon. The Saints became the first NFL team since the 1984 Pittsburgh Steelers to have four players score either their first or second career touchdown in the same game.
“He’s going to find you no matter who you are as long as you are where you’re supposed to be,” Saints running back Mark Ingram said.
“He’s the football guru,” said camper Kirkwood after the third game of his career.
“It’s just his attention to detail,” Arnold said. “It comes down to very subtle movements and letting him know where you are going on a route. He’s very much a stickler in that he wants it his way. The best thing is he communicates that to you – the way that he wants things done, especially to younger players.”
The four touchdown campers were allowed to keep their jerseys.
Atlanta (4-7) looked like it needed to go to a camp fast. The Falcons did not find the end zone until just 22 seconds remained in the third period on a 2-yard touchdown pass from the harassed Ryan to wide receiver Calvin Ridley on fourth and goal to cut the Saints’ lead to 24-10. Ryan added a 4-yard, meaningless touchdown pass to running back Tevin Coleman with 1:51 left for the 31-17 final.
New Orleans finished with 30 points or more in its fifth straight game to tie a club record last set in 2010.
The Saints opened up clearly without that post turkey fatigue. Their seven-play touchdown drive was more like a sprint.
Running back Alvin Kamara shot up the middle for 18 yards on the first play, and the Saints would proceed to carve up the belly of the injury-eaten Falcons’ defense like turkey throughout the game, finishing with 150 yards on 31 rushes. Kamara led all rushers with 89 yards on 14 carries, and Ingram added 52 on 11 rushes. The Saints gained 57 yards on seven rushes in the first quarter for an 8.1 yards-per-carry average as Kamara had 40 on just three runs.
“Right from the start, we ran a simple power scheme for a nice gain,” Payton said. “We played well up front.”
Arnold caught a 9-yard pass after the opening Kamara run. Then Kamara broke a 9-yard run. Wide receiver Michael Thomas caught a 5- and 8-yard passes to set up the scoring pass to Lewis.
Brees, though, later threw an interception to Atlanta safety Damontae Kazee, who returned it for a touchdown, but he was ruled down at the Saints’ 39 by contact. The Falcons turned that into a 32-yard field goal by Matt Bryant to cut the Saints’ lead to 7-3 with 2:35 to go in the first quarter.
New Orleans took a 10-3 lead with 9:09 to go before halftime on a 22-yard field goal by Wil Lutz after a 71-yard drive in 15 plays.
By halftime, New Orleans had rushed 17 times for 101 yards for 5.9 yards per carry, while Atlanta had rushed eight times for 12 yards — a 1.5-yard average.
New Orleans set up the pass with the run expertly on its touchdown drive for a 17-3 lead to end the half. Kamara and Ingram each gained five yards up the middle. After an 8-yard run by Kamara over left guard, Brees found Carr amid no traffic for yards in the end zone for the touchdown.
The Falcons were without key starters due to injury – linebacker Deion Jones, formerly of LSU, and safety Keith Tandy. With the running game dominating, Brees could easily pick his spots.
But the night belonged to the defense, which held Atlanta to 26 yards rushing – the lowest by a New Orleans opponent since Carolina netted but 10 in a 24-6 loss in 2000 – amid the four takeaways and six sacks.
“All of the things that lead to winning or keep you from winning were on display tonight,” Payton said.
“When the defense plays like that, and we are getting five yards a rush, those are all great things,” Brees said. “So, for me, it’s just about managing a game.”
The Saints play a hot Dallas (6-5) team that has won three straight Thursday night at 7:20 p.m. on FOX and the NFL Network.
“Every week I hear people say, ‘They’re getting ready for the tough stretch of their schedule,'” Payton said in reference to the October road trip to Baltimore (24-23 win) and to defending NFC champ Minnesota (30-20 win) and the Nov. 4 home game against the undefeated Los Angeles Rams (45-35 win).
“The focus for us is the next game,” Payton said. “Shoot, all of these games are tough.”
But, in truth, the Saints have been turkey shooting for weeks now – 51-14 at Cincinnati, 48-7 over Philadelphia and now a 31-17 decision over the Dirty Birds that was not as close as that score looks.
The Saints are still waiting for that tough patch. Dallas looks like a challenge. Maybe.
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“Dallas is really playing well in the last three weeks,” Payton said, seemingly craving better competition like some late night cranberry sauce.
Because lately, this season has been a warm holiday.
“Happy Thanksgiving, everybody,” Brees said as he opened his press conference. “Let’s roll. I got family waiting.”
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