NEW ORLEANS - Matt Ryan kept getting sacked Sunday in the Superdome.
It was a familiar feeling for the Atlanta Falcons quarterback facing the New Orlean Saints, and obviously not a good one.
After sacking him nine times when the NFC South Division rivals met in November 2019 in Atlanta, the surging Saints had eight more on the way to a comfortable 24-9 victory against the Falcons. Those are the two highest totals in Ryan's 209-game NFL career (playoffs included), and the latest sack party sabotaged any chance for the Falcons to maintain their recent momentum.
Atlanta had won three of its past four games heading to the Big Easy, with the only loss by a point to the Detroit Lions, who scored the winning touchdown with no time left after a clock management and scoring blunder by the Falcons. Atlanta also was coming off its open date, providing extra rest and time to prepare for an opponent that came in riding a six-game winning streak but missing its starting quarterback
"They are playing well," Ryan said of the Saints, who improved to 8-2 by dropping the Falcons to 3-7. "There's no doubt about it. Tip your hat to them."
With veteran Drew Brees out for at least three games on injured reserve, Taysom Hill filled in for the 41-year-old prolific passer by rushing for two touchdowns and throwing for 233 yards in his first NFL start at quarterback. Hill received the nod over former Tampa Bay Buccaneers starter Jameis Winston, the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner and 2015 No. 1 draft pick who signed with the Saints in the offseason.
Hill, a former BYU quarterback who started his NFL career as a utility player with the Saints in 2017, looked comfortable running the scheme coach Sean Payton designed for him. He completed 18 of 23 passes without an interception and used his all-around athleticism to run intermittently on scrambles or designed read-option plays, finishing with a team-high 51 rushing yards.
"Man, he played tremendous," said Saints receiver Michael Thomas, who caught nine passes for 104 yards. "I could see the look in his eyes. He was ready for the moment."
Hill regularly showed patience and poise while delivering accurate passes moments before impact from oncoming defenders.
"I always know that I have the ability, if things break down, that I can make a play," he said. "But my mindset was: let's keep your eyes down the field and let's find opportunities (for receivers)."
He had a considerably better day than Ryan, who finished 19-of-37 passing for 232 yards with no touchdowns and was intercepted by Janoris Jenkins and Marcus Williams. Cameron Jordan sacked Ryan three times, while Trey Hendrickson and David Onyemata had two sacks apiece.
All but two of the sacks were on third down, and one of the costliest was right before halftime. With the Falcons at the Saints' 39 and trailing 10-9, Ryan held the ball too long. Jordan dropped him for an 8-yard loss, taking the Falcons out of field-goal range.
Younghoe Koo, who had converted 51- and 52-yard kicks earlier in the quarter, stayed on the sideline while Williams intercepted Ryan's long pass at the goal line on the final play of the half.
"The sack numbers got out of whack because of how well they played in their coverage, but really it was not a lack of protection or a lack of discipline or busted assignments," said Atlanta interim coach Raheem Morris, the former defensive coordinator who took over when Dan Quinn was fired after an 0-5 start to his sixth season with the falcons.
"They were absolutely covering our wideouts. They did a nice job of playing underneath coverages and sitting on routes. They were really taking away some things we like to do."
The second half was more of the same. After the Saints scored to go ahead 17-9, linebacker Demario Davis sacked Ryan on the Falcons' first snap. Onyemata sacked him two plays later, forcing a quick three-and-out series.
Atlanta did not score again, failing to get a touchdown for the first time since Dec. 3, 2017 in a 14-9 loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
"We work hard, and our responsibility as an offense is to score touchdowns," Ryan said. "We were not very good today. We've got to be better next week."
The Falcons played most of the game without wide receiver Julio Jones, who reaggravated a hamstring injury that made his availability questionable. He had a 17-yard catch in the first quarter and a 22-yarder in the fourth but was on the sideline for a long stretch in between.
"It's hard to replace that production, and it also changes how teams defend us, but it's not an excuse," Ryan said. "We have to find a way with the guys we have out there to be productive."
New Orleans has allowed one touchdown in its past three games combined. Jordan ran his career total of sacks of Ryan to 21, the most by a player on one quarterback since sacks became an official NFL stat in 1982. Hendrickson has 9.5 sacks this season.
New Orleans also held Atlanta to 52 rushing yards on 14 carries, extending its streak of not allowing an individual runner to gain 100 yards to 53 games.
"Our idea is to pressure Matt Ryan to get him off his spot to make him feel uncomfortable in the pocket," Jordan said, noting the defense's confidence is at a "supreme high."
The Falcons reached the Saints' 10-yard line on their opening possession but settled for a 28-yard field goal. They never crossed the New Orleans 30 the rest of the way.
"We really came out and got things going like we wanted to and went right down the field, but we weren't able to punch it in, " Morris said. "You've got to score touchdowns in those situations."
Even with the Saints missing top cornerback Marshon Lattimore, they were trouble for Ryan.
The pressure on him "was key without one of our starting corners. That was impressive," Payton said.
"We did a good job of keeping it in front of us," the Saints coach added. "We contested a lot of passes. I thought we were very good on the back end."