Decision Reminiscent Of A Belichick Moment

Atlanta head coach Mike Smith opts to go for it on fourth down deep in Atlanta territory vs the Saints. It was a moment reminiscent of a Patriots - Colts game where Belichick tried the same thing. But Belichick's decision didn't come during 'sudden death.' What was Smith thinking?

 ATLANTA - When the Atlanta Falcons dispatched the punt team to the field nearly four minutes into the overtime period Sunday, after having an apparent first-down conversion reversed by replay, some members of the New Orleans Saints' defensive unit momentarily allowed themselves to exhale.

   After all, with the game tied 23-23, it appeared the Falcons were seemingly ready to kick the ball away to the NFL's top-ranked offense, and many New Orleans players understandably and predictably prepared for quarterback Drew Brees to lead them on the game-winning drive.

   But the Falcons called timeout, coach Mike Smith reconsidered the original punt decision on fourth-and-inches from just shy of his own 30-yard line, and sent his offense back into the game to try to get the first down.

   And on the New Orleans sideline, which had been a bit dejected after the Saints had surrendered a last-minute, tying field goal in regulation, relief turned to resolve.

   "Anytime you stop a team on third down and force (a punt), there's probably some degree of relief," conceded defensive end Will Smith, one of the players credited for stuffing Atlanta tailback Michael Turner for no gain on a pivotal play and a decision that will be long debated in this and most other NFL precincts. "But then when you realize they're going to go for it, well, it kind of tests what you're all about. I mean, it's like they're saying, 'We're big and bad, and better than you, and we can get the (short) yardage we need.' And you're like, 'No, you're not.'"

   Said New Orleans free safety and rising star Malcolm Jenkins: "In our huddle, we all believed we were going to stop them. No way were we going to give an inch."

   And they didn't.

   On Turner's rush off left tackle, where he had four gains of 10 or more yards on the afternoon, the Saints were superior and the inside defense was stout. Turner needed roughly a half-yard to move the chains and extend the Atlanta possession. True to Jenkins' word, the Saints' defense didn't surrender even a millimeter.

   Four plays after the signature stop, the game was over, with John Kasay's 26-yard field goal propelling New Orleans to a 26-23 victory. The win nudged the Saints to 7-3 and the lead in the rugged NFC South. But while Kasay's fourth field goal of the contest provided the winning points, it was the fourth-down play that was the heart of the locker room conversation.

   In what is arguably one of the NFL's most passionate rivalries, even if it has little profile outside of the Southeast, the two franchises played a third straight game decided by three points. Six of the last eight meetings have featured a margin of six points or less. Five of the last seven have been decided by four points or fewer, with four of the last five by three points. "It's always like this against these guys," New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis said.

   "Obviously, we don't like them, and they don't like us," said Atlanta weak linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. "It seems like it always comes down to a play or two."

   On this day, it revolved around one key snap.

   On the play in question, Smith and defensive tackle Shaun Rogers were credited with the tackle. But stymieing such a simple play actually required intricate timing and teamwork by the New Orleans defense. Strong-side linebacker Scott Shanle, who was supposed to be shielded by a down-block from an Atlanta receiver, knifed off the edge. Jenkins blew through a gap and got initial contact on Turner. Strong safety Roman Harper, who had an exemplary game with 13 tackles, pressed the line of scrimmage and forced Turner slightly sideways. Rogers and Smith got great inside push and Turner, with defenders at his feet, never gained any momentum.

   "Just great 'want-to' from everybody," said Harper, whose only failure came when he muffed a would-be interception in the end zone that would have squelched Atlanta's tying field goal drive. "On plays like that, it's often one guy who gets credit for the stop. But a lot of guys played a part in it."

   It will be easy for Falcons fans, and talk-radio regulars, for sure, to skewer Smith for opting to put the game on the line with the ball just shy of his own 30-yard line, the game in overtime and his defense playing well. The Falcons' defense, after all, had stopped New Orleans once already in the extra period, and had held the potent Saints to a pair of touchdowns, both on long passes in regulation.

   But while it's convenient to criticize Mike Smith, none of his players doubted the call, nor did some Saints' players.

   The exception was Will Smith.

   "The ball's on your own 30, it's a huge game and huge situation, and it's fourth down," Smith said. "No way (do you go)."

   Still, in his 3 1/2 previous seasons as the Atlanta head coach, Smith had logged 55 fourth-down tries. That's the second-most in the league since the start of the 2008 season, and the Falcons had been successful 63.6 percent of the time, with the ratio of third-and-short conversions closer to three-quarters of the time.

   One could second-guess the play selection - it's believed the Falcons, who originally aligned in an unbalanced line, then changed the formation once the Saints called a timeout to adjust their front personnel, first called a quarterback sneak by Matt Ryan and then changed the play - but maybe not the decision.

   "It was something that I take full responsibility for," Smith said, characteristically adopting a stand-up guy stance. "It is my decision and my decision solely. ... Unfortunately, it didn't work out. It's a shame."

   Nearly as shameful for the Falcons was an inability to convert in the red zone - they thrice had to settle for Matt Bryant field goals after moving inside the New Orleans 20-yard line - or in "plus" territory in general. Atlanta had a remarkable 34 snaps on the Saints' side of the field, including 22 inside the 25-yard line and 15 in the "red zone," but cashiered just two touchdowns.
   "The 'red zone' defense was huge," Harper said.

"But because of that (fourth-down) play, I guess it was only the second biggest thing, huh?"

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