With Gleason in house, blocked punt stirs emotions, lifts Saints
The memory of Steve Gleason's blocked punt against Atlanta in 2006, and the emotional, spine-tingling, ear-splitting, drink-spilling pandemonium that accompanied it, has always been a special and personal one for current Saints linebacker Michael Mauti.
Mauti was a New Orleans-area high school football player and part of the crowd that jammed the Superdome for its reopening after Hurricane Katrina, and he'd celebrated the Saints' victory over the rival Falcons that night.
A decade later, with Gleason watching from the sideline, Mauti blocked a punt against -- of all teams -- Atlanta, then scooped it up and scored to help the recently reeling Saints rebound with a stunning 31-21 upset of the previously unbeaten Falcons on Thursday night.
"I was a fan of Steve Gleason. He's a special-teams guy, and my dad played special teams," Mauti, said, referring to his father, Rich, who also played for the Saints. "To do this is a dream come true. I'm going to meet (Gleason) as soon as a I can. He's one of my heroes."
Gleason, now paralyzed by ALS, but world-renowned for the way he lives with his condition and his efforts to improve the lives of those similarly afflicted, was watching from his motorized, computer-equipped wheel chair. He reacted to Mauti's big play with this Twitter post: "Hey, Falcons. (hash)NeverPunt."
"The cool thing was that Steve was here to see that," said Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who was Gleason's teammate and remains his good friend. "It brought back some good memories. Obviously we got to add to that tonight as well."
Mark Ingram scored on a pair of short runs for the Saints, and Watson added a fourth-down touchdown catch.
The Falcons (5-1) were left to wonder why their punt protection broke down against New Orleans (2-4) when such plays seemed routine in their five previous games.
"The mistakes were ones we executed before, so why did they come up tonight?" said first-year Falcons coach Dan Quinn, speaking for the first time after a loss. "For us to have those come up tonight is hard. I'm going to give a lot of credit to New Orleans, just in terms of the effort they played with. We knew it would be a battle."
Some things we learned from the Saints' surprising triumph over rival Atlanta:
BETTER BREES: There have been questions about the extent to which a Week 2 throwing shoulder injury to Brees was affecting his performance. His efficiency against the Falcons -- 30 of 39 for 312 yards, one TD and no interceptions -- should quiet such talk going forward, particularly with the Saints having about 10 days until their next game at Indianapolis. Brees summed up the performance of the Saints' offense as "validation," adding, "For it all to come together like that, it just gives us a glimpse of what we can be."
MR. JONES: Receiver Julio Jones continues to play through a nagging hamstring injury, and also continues to look a bit diminished relative to the torrid start he had before the injury. Falcons QB Matt Ryan threw to Jones 10 times, but four of those passes fell incomplete. He finished with a respectable six catches for 93 yards, but did not have a touchdown or any truly pivotal plays.
RUSHING RYAN: The Saints have struggled to mount a pass rush much of this season, but with a multiple-score lead and the crowd behind them in the second half, New Orleans went after Ryan with abandon and sacked him five times. Defensive end Cameron Jordan had three sacks, including a strip and fumble recovery.
FREEMAN'S FORM: Second-year running back Devonta Freeman once again turned in a solid performance. He gained 100 yards on the ground, highlighted by his 25-yard TD early in the fourth quarter. He also finished with a team-high eight catches for 56 yards, including a 13-yard touchdown. His performance was overshadowed by teammates' mistakes, including a lost fumble by fellow running back Tevin Coleman on the New Orleans 9, then another on a bad snap by James Stone at the New Orleans 17.
BIG BEN: Tight end Ben Watson, now more active in the passing game since Jimmy Graham was traded away, gained a career-high 127 yards receiving while tying a career-high with 10 catches. The 12th-year veteran also had a touchdown catch on a fourth-and-goal play late in the third quarter. "Either his number was called or he was just getting open," Brees said of Watson. "He was getting some opportunities and, man, he made the most of it."