Falcons see what they have behind Julio Jones in tough loss

ATLANTA -- The best move Atlanta Falcons made Thursday night was keeping star receiver Julio Jones out of the lineup because of a shoulder injury during a 26-18 loss to the rival New Orleans Saints, a loss sure to incite more chatter of coach Dan Quinn's hot seat despite an inspired effort by his team to close the game -- including recovering two onside kicks. The last time a team recovered two onside kicks in a game was the Titans at the Colts on Dec. 5, 2004.

Although the now 3-9 Falcons had little to play for -- the postseason is now officially out of reach -- they needed to be cognizant of the future of their best player, no matter how badly Jones wanted to play through the pain. It was a game-time decision for Jones, who went through a brief warm-up under the the watchful eye of Quinn and assistant head coach Raheem Morris before being declared inactive. It marked the first time Jones has missed a game since December 2016, when he missed two games because of a toe injury.

The Falcons obviously weren't the same on offense without Jones on the field. Quarterback Matt Ryan didn't have his safety net. And the Saints could focus their defensive attention on closing down wide receiver Calvin Ridley as the primary target.

Ridley still made plays with eight receptions for 91 yards. And the Falcons got a chance to see a couple of other youngsters emerge with Christian Blake catching six passes and Russell Gage catching five, including a touchdown.

But as offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said leading into the game, no one could replace Jones. It will be interesting to see how the Falcons play it with Jones moving forward, with no real reason to rush him back to the field. But the Falcons have to think about his future.

QB breakdown: Ryan didn't have his best game while getting sacked a season-high nine times. He threw a couple of interceptions in the second half, one on a checkdown to running back Devonta Freeman that was picked off by Saints defensive tackle Shy Tuttle. Then Ryan was picked off by C.J. Gardner-Johnson on a play where receiver Justin Hardy might have broken off his route. It was Ryan's first multi-interception game since Week 2 against Philadelphia, when he had three picks. Ryan obviously missed Jones, but he missed some throws, too. Ryan completed 35 of 50 passes for 312 yards with two touchdowns and the two picks.

Troubling trend: The Falcons didn't sack Drew Brees in the game, marking the second game in a row they failed to record a sack after not sacking Jameis Winston last week. The Falcons have had six games without a sack this season. The first time the Falcons faced the Saints (Nov. 10), they sacked Brees six times.

On the line: The Falcons continued to shuffle bodies along the offensive line. First, Wes Schweitzer, back from a concussion, started at right guard ahead of Jamon Brown. Then starting left guard James Carpenter left the game in the first half because of a concussion, shifting Schweitzer over to left guard and pushing Brown back into the lineup at right guard. Unsteady play at the guard spots has been a big issue for the Falcons since rookie first-round draft pick Chris Lindstrom went on injured reserve because of a broken right foot. Quinn expressed optimism about Lindstrom returning before season's end, and there had been talk of him returning to practice the week after the Thanksgiving game. But the Falcons might want to think twice about Lindstrom's status with the future in mind.