NEW ORLEANS — Devonta Freeman practically wore out the Superdome turf with one long gain after another, Tevin Coleman wouldn’t be denied near the goal line and the New Orleans Saints hardly looked like the team that made an emotional homecoming nearly 10 years ago to the day.
Cheers turned to boos, and many fans filed out early.
Coleman rushed for three touchdowns, Matt Ryan passed for two TDs and Deion Jones returned an interception 90 yards for a score to help the Atlanta Falcons beat the winless New Orleans Saints 45-32 on Monday night.
“It was real fun. Everybody was doing their job and everybody was playing for each other,” Coleman said. “Everything clicked, and we got it done. It’s a real big win for us to beat this team here.”
The game coincided with New Orleans’ celebration of the 10-year anniversary of the Saints’ memorable return to the Superdome on Sept. 25, 2006, 13 months after Hurricane Katrina. But there would be no reprise of New Orleans’ dominant and emotional 23-3 triumph over Atlanta a decade ago.
The Saints’ depleted defense struggled to slow Freeman, who rushed for 152 yards and caught five passes for 55 yards. Coleman also was effective in the passing game out of the backfield, with three receptions for 47 yards to go with his 42 yards rushing.
“We have to stop the run better,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “They were over 200 yards in situations where you knew the run was coming, even at the end of the game.”
Ryan finished with 240 yards passing for Atlanta (2-1), which did not turn the ball over and moved into sole possession of first place in the NFC South.
Drew Brees put up his usual big numbers — 376 yards and three TDs passing — and hit tight end Coby Fleener seven times for 109 yards and a TD. But Brees’ tipped pass that resulted in Jones’ TD return early in the fourth quarter gave the Falcons a 45-25 lead that proved too much for New Orleans to overcome.
The loss dropped the Saints (0-3) to last place — a far cry from their 3-0 start in 2006.
Jones had “NOLA” written on his cleats as a nod to his hometown of New Orleans. The rookie was only 11 when the dome re-opened after Katrina. He wound up with a pivotal scoring play in his first pro game there.
“It was a great moment for Deion Jones, right here back at home,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “That was very personal to him.”
SPECIAL TEAMS BLUNDER
A cruel irony for the Saints was the way they lost the early momentum on — of all plays — a Falcons punt. A decade earlier, the Saints seized the early momentum on Steve Gleason’s punt block that was recovered for a touchdown.
On Monday night, New Orleans had raced to a 7-0 lead and forced a punt on a sack, only to turn the ball over when punt returner Tommylee Lewis was run into by teammate De’Vante Harris. After the collision knocked Lewis to the ground, the ball came down right near him. As it bounced up, Harris tried to grab it, but it bounced away from him. It was recovered by Atlanta on the 11, setting up Coleman’s first TD.
“It’s a terrible play,” Payton said, citing Harris specifically. “There’s two mistakes — runs into the returner and then tries to pick the ball up. It’s bad.”
Atlanta star Julio Jones played despite missing a couple practices during the week because of a sore calf. He did not make his first catch until the second half, on the sixth pass of the game intended for him. That play went for 16 yards and was his only catch.
The Falcons gouged New Orleans’ porous defense for 217 yards on the ground, highlighted by runs of 48, 36 and 26 yards by Freeman. That took a lot of pressure off Ryan, who praised his offensive line.
“Our offensive line was outstanding across the board,” Ryan said. “Anytime you get over 200 rushing yards, your offensive line has played well. Those guys did great.”
Falcons: Receiver Mohammed Sanu left with a shoulder injury and did not return.
Saints: Guard Senio Kelemete left with a right leg injury.