As I did a week ago, here is my review of every single Atlanta Falcons player that saw playing time in their preseason win over the Cleveland Browns this past Thursday.
I’ll apologize for this breakdown coming a few days later than expected due to my procrastination when it came to finishing my review of the second half of the game.
I’ll try to not to delay the next one to make up for it.
As I showed last week, I also made note of the team’s “actual” depth chart based off the deployment of players during the game on offense, defense and the major special teams units. You can click on the image to get a closer inspection:
Now let’s get into the position-by-position breakdown of every Falcons player:
What I Saw: Of course Matt Ryan got the start and played much better than he did last week because he was able to complete a pass. Most of the Falcons offense during the three series of work that Ryan saw was a lot of running and short, quick passes.
Probably the most notable play Ryan’s first pass attempt to Mohamed Sanu on the second play from scrimmage, when he tried to hit Sanu on a quick hitch route. Ryan (correctly) threw outside away from an oncoming defender (Justin Gilbert) but Sanu stopped his route and was expecting the pass to come directly to him. But with the ball going to his outside shoulder, Sanu wasn’t ready for it and the pass was incomplete.
This play was notable because it signals that Ryan and Sanu still need more time to get their rapport and communication right. These things take time and we’ll see how much it grows as the season wears on.
Matt Schaub came in and finished the first half with two series. It was not as strong a performance as we saw from him against the Washington Redskins, but he played fine. His placement was a little off on a couple of throws. Yet he probably should have had a touchdown throw on a fade to Austin Hooper, but the rookie tight end couldn’t reel in the contested pass.
Matt Simms got the bulk of the work in the second half and played well, because like Ryan, he too was finally able to complete a pass. Simms clearly has the strongest arm of the Falcons’ four quarterbacks and he made a couple of good throws. His touchdown pass to Devin Fuller at the end of the game was an excellent throw with good accuracy, leading Fuller on a post in the back of the endzone. Simms got hit on that throw and there were a couple of “money” throws that he made in the game in which he had pressure in his face and was forced to throw around or over a defender.
The biggest blight on Simms’ performance was a sack that he took on the play just before his touchdown pass. There really wasn’t an open receiver although he potentially could have tried to force a throw to J.D. McKissic, but I don’t mind him not risking throwing a pick in the red zone given the Falcons struggles with that last season. However the best decision would have been to throw it away out of the back of the end zone rather than taking the sack. Fortunately, he redeemed himself with a perfect throw to Fuller on the next play.
Sean Renfree played mop up on the final possession, just handing the ball off to the team’s various running backs to run out the clock.
The real question at this position is whether Simms or Renfree play well enough to compel the Falcons to keep a third quarterback on the roster with the mindset that they could potentially be a long-term No. 2 option since Schaub could retire next year. Simms definitely played well enough to give the Falcons something to consider and both he and Renfree have shown enough to merit a spot on the roster. We’ll just have to see if that continues over the next two weeks.
What I Saw: Devonta Freeman looked to be in midseason form and his vision, lateral agility and burst are ready to go.
Tevin Coleman was a little less stellar and Matt Waldman did a good job outlining the differences in the vision of Freeman versus Coleman on a pair of runs on his website. I recommend checking it out because I came away a little less than impressed with Coleman’s visiion and running. That’s notable because that was the biggest issue with Coleman last year moreso than the fumbling. Ball security (or lack thereof) is infinitely more coachable and correctable a problem than if a running back does not adequately see plays develop. Given much of the hype with Coleman’s improvement this summer, it would be nice to see it better reflected on the field. But I should also note that five carries isn’t a large enough sample size to be too judgmental.
Brandon Wilds continued to impress with a solid run on his 32-yard touchdown, where he showed some nice power. He also had a nice blitz pickup on a third-down conversion in the second quarter.
But this game was really a coming out party for Cyrus Gray, whose first action as a Falcon was a really strong performance. Gray showed excellent vision on several runs, finding daylight and showing excellent lateral agility and balance to sidestep or shake defenders almost every time he faced a one-on-one situation in space. Even when he was squaring up a defender in the confined spaces in a hole, he managed to break a number of tackles, running hard and showing a lot more power than you’d initially expect for a back with a thin, 206-pound frame.
Gray’s best run was probably the 11-yarder he had on the team’s opening possession of the second half, where he did a great job pressing the hole and bouncing the run to the outside and then broke two tackles and nearly a third. It was reminiscent of the type of runs that we’ve seen Freeman have over the past 12 months.
I only have two criticisms for Gray in this game. First, there was one play that stood out in which he got overpowered in pass protection, which matters because the third running back’s best pathway to seeing reps on offense will be on passing downs (which was the case with Terron Ward last season). Secondly, his vision was good but he had a tendency to “freelance” by abandoning the design of the run early in the play by not following his blocks and improvising. Now it should be noted that this worked out for Gray a lot more than it didn’t as he continually was able to find and locate daylight, despite underwhelming blocking at times and gained yardage that was not blocked for him. This is a skill that Freeman has mastered and as noted earlier, Coleman really hasn’t yet. But there were one or two runs at the end of the game where Gray might have done better had he just taken what was given to him. But considering he was so successful earlier in the game freelancing, I can’t really blame him for continuing to do so.
Gus Johnson also played well, but his strong play was paled by what Wilds and Gray were able to do. The problem with Johnson is that he only gets the yards that are there and hasn’t shown the wiggle or burst that he seemed to display last summer with the Dallas Cowboys.
Conclusion: Hopefully we get to see more from Coleman over these next two weeks and he looks a little sharper. It’s tough seeing every Falcon running back having success against a bad Browns defense except the team’s third-round pick from a year ago that has been getting a lot of hype this summer.
Wilds has played well this summer, but Gray was a revelation because of his vision. Wilds is a bit too straight-line and despite his larger frame, isn’t that powerful. It’s also notable that Wilds has seen no work on special teams coverage units, while Gray is a well-established special-teams contributor. But this is a battle that is likely to come down to the final snap against the Jaguars.
Johnson is on the outside, but he still should have opportunities to close the gap between him and the other reserves. As for Ward, he needs to get healthy and have a monster performance against the Jaguars. If he has anything going for him, he’s a known commodity as far as his ability as a pass-protector and special-teams contributor.
What I Saw: Patrick DiMarco played well. Not sure if there needs to be anything else said as like Freeman, DiMarco is ready to go for the regular season. Will Ratelle didn’t show significant improvement this week although he was slightly better at hitting his blocking assignments as a lead blocker. Unfortunately, he still had issues showing the pop, power and explosion you want to see on those few instances where he located the correct assignment.
Conclusion: Ratelle might be able to survive the initial 75-man cut because the team is unlikely going to want to risk DiMarco getting hurt against the Jaguars. But his chances of sticking on the team are next to nil at this point. Hopefully he can elevate his play over the next two games to change that opinion, but I’m not very optimistic. The next Darrel Young, he is not.
What I Saw: Julio Jones got two series of action and caught a nice pass for a 20-yard gain. Besides that one play, the Falcons seemed to purposefully design a lot of offense away from him to preserve him from undue exposure to injury.
As mentioned earlier, Mohamed Sanu had the miscommunication with Ryan early in the game, but thereafter performed better. He had the nice big play on a 32-yard gain where he was able to show off his ability after the catch upon slipping past linebacker Demario Davis, who blew a zone coverage assignment. That was the biggest takeaway from Sanu’s performance: with his toughness and power with the ball in his hands being on display thanks to the dink-and-dunk passing game of the Falcons.
Justin Hardy continued to be used almost exclusively as an outside receiver as we saw last week. I did however count one solitary snap in the slot on the second series with Sanu on the field. Hardy’s blocking was more impressive than anything he did as a pass-catcher thanks to both of his receptions being short, quick throws. Going back to his work last year as a rookie, he’s consistently been one of the team’s most reliable blockers with locating and executing his assignments, even more so than Jones.
Aldrick Robinson continues to get work behind Jones as the team’s “X” or split-end receiver. Robinson didn’t repeat the monster performance he had against the Redskins with only two targets, but did a nice job adjusting to a pass thrown behind him from Schaub.
Nick Williams continues to get a lot of time in the slot when the team utilizes their three-wide receiver sets, seeing the brunt of his reps along with Hardy and Robinson during the second quarter. Even though he had a notable drop on third down to start the second quarter, I don’t think he’s as much on the bubble as many others might think. Williams continues to see regular work on the second unit with Hardy and Robinson over other potential challengers suggests a lot about his status on the team, seemingly indicating that he’s firmly entrenched as the team’s fifth option.
While I think the fact that he rarely gets work on the outside is a limiting factor in Williams’ potential to contribute given the wealth of other viable slot options ahead of him, that doesn’t appear to be an issue for the coaching staff. Other than that one drop, most of what Williams did against the Browns in the passing game was very positive.
Eric Weems got some limited reps on the final possession of the first half. In the second half, Devin Fuller and Jordan Leslie got the bulk of the workload. Fuller did a solid job with a team-leading four catches including a touchdown and a nice fourth-down conversion on a blown coverage assignment.
Leslie also made a pair of nice grabs showing good hands. While he lacks explosiveness, his strong hands and excellent work as a blocker have stood out in both preseason games.
J.D. McKissic, David Glidden and Corey Washington also got work late in the game. McKissic made a nice grab and got decked by Browns safety Rahim Moore on his one big catch of the night. Glidden didn’t see a target and Washington had a nice 11-yard grab on a comeback where he got a very favorable spot from the officials. Washington also got his leg rolled up on from behind on a run by Gus Johnson late in the game, but fortunately was able to return to the lineup after missing only a few plays, suggesting any injury was very minor.
Conclusion: The depth chart seems to be pretty established based upon playing time with Jones, Sanu, Hardy, Robinson and Williams sitting atop as the team’s top five options. Weems, Fuller, Leslie and McKissic would be next on the pecking order based off their deployment this past week. Due to their superior size and/or speed, both Leslie and Fuller offer a lot more potential to contribute on offense over Weems and McKissic. Both the latter two are really only going to stick purely because of their ability to produce on special teams.
Fuller’s performance definitely helps him sticking even though he too is mostly tied to his ability on special teams, but it certainly will give him an advantage should any “tie-breakers” arise. Leslie’s play should give him an advantage in terms of sticking on the practice squad, but he’ll be really hard-pressed to make the actual 53-man roster despite solid play through two games.
It’s very clear that the Falcons don’t envision Weems being much of a factor offensively this year, which I continue to believe is a signal that they see him as expendable, but I’ll go into further detail there with my conclusions about the special teams later on.
Unfortunately due to lack of size, Glidden seems to have too limited upside as anything more than a slot receiver. And as noted earlier, there’s really no room beyond Williams for an “extraneous” slot-only receiver. Unlike McKissic, who also projects solely to the slot, Glidden doesn’t have the ability to prop himself up with extra value on special teams.
Washington’s size makes him an intriguing project but he simply hasn’t had enough stand-out moments offensively. He’ll need to have one or two soon if he wants to leapfrog Leslie as a better practice-squad candidate.
The Falcons appear to have solid depth at this position (which is seemingly a first in a very, very long time), but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of “upward mobility” for guys at the back end of the depth chart to carve out roles on the roster. However I do think there’s a better-than-average chance that the Falcons might decide to keep multiple receivers on the practice squad in addition to the six expected players that should make the 53-man roster. McKissic and Leslie appear to be the front-runners for those two reserve spots, but I believe Washington is also within reach if he can showcase the upside that his size and length offer in the red zone over the next two weeks.
What I Saw: Five of the team’s tight ends got work in the first quarter with Ryan still in the game, which is a strong indicator of the glut of competition at this position. Both Jacob Tamme and Austin Hooper are locks to make the team, barring injury so they are safe.
Tamme saw two series of action and there’s an alternate universe where he might be on the bubble, but fortunately for him and unfortunately for the fan base, Hooper hasn’t shown out enough to push him out the door. If Hooper had been dominant thus far this summer, there was a possibility that the Falcons could have decided to cut the veteran Tamme in favor of giving the youngster the starting spot and freeing up more than $2 million in cap space.
Hooper hasn’t been dominant, but that shouldn’t indicate that he’s played poorly. His been a more effective blocker than my scouting report of him probably suggested he would be, but he’s been inconsistent there to say the least. It all probably balances out to him being competent as a blocker, at least to the degree that he looks like he should be more effective there than Tamme was last year.
He had an opportunity to make a touchdown on a contested throw into the end zone, but the ball bounced off his hands. There was another throw to him in the end zone in the second half, but Matt Simms underthrew him and it was nearly picked off by former Falcons and current Brown safety Sean Baker. Had he managed to score on both of those passes, the conversation about his performance this summer would be much, much more positive and I guarantee you there would be talk this week about Tamme not being so secure in his status. That shows you just how much two plays can make a big difference in the perception of players, particularly in the preseason.
While Hooper’s blocking has been just okay, D.J. Tialavea’s blocking has been very good, at least relative to the other tight ends on the roster. Tialavea’s blocking hasn’t been to the degree that puts him in the pantheon among the top blocking tight ends in the NFL, but he’s consistently been able to hit and execute his blocking assignments.
Especially in comparison to Levine Toilolo, who struggled against the Browns. Browns edge-rusher Paul Kruger seemed to own him on multiple plays where they went head-to-head, with Kruger driving Toilolo back several yards into the backfield. Fortunately for Toilolo, Falcons running backs were able to gain significant yardage on a few of those plays to make his lack of execution a lot less noticeable.
This is notable because Tialavea filled in Toilolo’s role as the de facto No. 2 guy in the Falcons’ preseason-opener against the Redskins and also got work in Toilolo’s normal roles on special teams. So it’s clear that the Falcons coaches could envision Tialavea filling a Toilolo-sized void on the roster this year.
The Falcons used a lot of two tight ends with the starters on the field with 12 of the 21 offensive plays (57 percent) on the first three series utilized multiple tight ends. Ten of those 12 plays were either run plays or play-action passes by my count. So at least against the Browns, roughly half of the team’s game plan was built off the idea of having effective blocking tight ends on the field. So blocking ability should not be underrated as a decisive factor in who will make the team. Especially given Tamme’s subpar blocking and Hooper’s inconsistency in that same arena, you can bet your bottom dollar that Tialavea’s “plus” blocking ability is going to really stand out to the coaches.
Josh Perkins actually saw snaps earlier than Hooper against the Browns, which is also a strong indicator that the coaches want to see more of what he can bring to the table. Perkins is probably the team’s least effective blocker among the top five tight ends, which is understandable given his smaller stature. He saw a lot more snaps than the others lined up at H-back or flexed out in the slot, which makes sense due to his superior pass-catching skills. Perkins made an excellent back-shoulder grab to get the team out of bad field position when they were backed up against the goal line at the end of the third quarter.
Arthur Lynch got plenty of action on the last two series as a blocker and there were just too many breakdowns for him to help his long odds of sticking. Understandably given his later start with the team, there’s a sizable gap between him and the other five blockers and he’s essentially being used for mop-up duty late in games.
Conclusion: Without significant improvement in Toilolo’s blocking ability, it’s hard to imagine the team keeping him over Tialavea. As noted before, blocking is such a significant factor in the team’s offensive scheme and Tialavea is so much better than everybody else on the team that it would be a major upset at this point if he doesn’t stick. But Toilolo has two more games to close the gap and at least has three years of work to back him up. Toilolo was certainly serviceable as the team’s blocking tight end for much of last year, so he probably doesn’t have to actually outperform Tialavea to get the benefit of the doubt when it comes down to the wire.
If Perkins continues to show his ability as a pass-catcher, he should get a long look as a fourth tight end on the roster. He certainly should be considered among the strongest candidates for one of the ten practice-squad spots at the very least.
With Tamme set to be a free agent next year, it makes sense for the Falcons to have a bit of forward-thinking in terms of trying to keep Perkins around. One can imagine a scenario where next year’s trio of tight ends are: Hooper, Tialavea and Perkins sliding into Tamme’s vacated role as the pass-catching specialist.
What I Saw: Given the Falcons overall rushing success (224 yards), of course the offensive line performed very well. The starters were highly efficient in executing their blocking assignments with all five players performing well.
The interior three probably looked the most effective with right guard Chris Chester showing up in my notes the most with positive blocks. He alternated series the first four series with Wes Schweitzer before all of the remaining starters were pulled ahead of the fifth possession.
Center Alex Mack and left guard Andy Levitre also did well, although Mack had a few minor breakdowns with a holding penalty being the most notable.
Tackles Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder also did their job, although with Schraeder I noticed a number of plays where he wasn’t doing a great job getting initial leverage as a run blocker. There were a few too many times where Browns defenders were able to get leverage against him because they were the initiators of contact rather than Schraeder.
That only stands out to me because I compare it with long-time Falcons right tackle Tyson Clabo from yesteryear because I see him and Schraeder as similar players. Neither of them are overly powerful or supremely athletic, but are effective at using their immense size and frames at getting position and essentially getting in the way of defenders. Blocking for backs like Michael Turner in the past and Freeman now, that works because a blocker just needs to often get in the way of the defender to give those guys the space they need to create on their own. The thing about Clabo was that he was fairly consistent and reliable using his hands to be the aggressor in most of his conflicts with defenders, which allowed him to compensate for the fact that he was often the lesser athlete in those battles.
This is only a concern with Schraeder because he’s entering a contract year and really needs to be on point this year especially given the premium competition he’s likely to face (e.g. Von Miller, Justin Houston and Khalil Mack) on a weekly basis. As I’ve said already in this breakdown, it’s a preseason game and I shouldn’t make a mountain out of a molehill. But the small details of the position are going to be even more important for him this year than ever before and it would be nice to see that in action this summer.
As for Schweitzer, he basically worked with both the starters and reserves and saw a ton of reps. This allowed the team to get a longer look at him than they did a week ago, and unfortunately it also allowed some of his flaws to get exposed a bit more. He was a beat a couple of times in pass protection because of ineffective punching and slow feet. His run blocking was comparatively better, but there were numerous times where he struggled to create push, particularly when he was facing Carl Nassib, who was unblockable at times for Schweitzer and right tackle Bryce Harris at times.
Like Schweitzer, Harris fared much better this week as a run blocker but continued to struggle in pass protection when he had to deal with speed.
Tom Compton got work at left tackle and he along with left guard Mike Person were both solid. Fortunately Person had far less plays where he stood out due to missed blocks or assignments than last week.
Center Ben Garland also was better, although he still can have issues with bigger nose tackles like the Browns feature with Danny Shelton. Garland also still had a couple of off-target snaps when the team went to shotgun.
The third string line only saw action on the final series and basically just had to run block and open lanes as the Falcons ran out the clock. They did that fairly well. Left guard Michael Huey probably was the most consistent among the group in that regard, showing good agility and mobility on a couple of stretch plays and when asked to pull.
Right guard Jordan Walsh also had some positive blocks, but noticeably was late reacting on several snaps, likely due to his being green after being signed three days before the Browns game.
Laurence Gibson got work at left tackle while Harris continued to work on the right side with the third stringers. Gibson continues to look athletic when asked to block downfield and plays aggressively. Collin Rahrig saw time at center after playing exclusively at guard last week. He looked a bit undersized at times trying to handle the Browns nose tackles.
Center Jake Reed was released with an injury settlement on hours before the game.
Conclusion: While the third stringers have looked promising in very small doses in both games, but unfortunately haven’t seen enough extensive action to think any of them are doing more than competing for a chance to stick on the practice squad. Of that group, Huey has been the most impressive of the group from my eyes, but I also think Gibson has also done nice work.
Gibson could have the best odds of sticking on the practice squad simply because Harris has been the least impressive of the second-string blockers, to a degree that I’m not sure he’s going to make the team as the ninth lineman. I think Garland may have surpassed him in that regard, although it always should be noted that things can change over the next two weeks.
Garland’s ability to play inside is a bit more valuable long term than what Harris offers since as it the case with other positions, you have a ready-made replacement ready to slide into a vacancy in 2017 should the team decide to let go of either Levitre or Chester next year. While I don’t think Garland has a future as a starter in Atlanta, he certainly could be a competent backup with another year’s worth of development.
That gives Gibson a bit more value to potentially serve as the team’s “fourth” tackle even if that’s only on the practice squad.
The biggest issue for the team is the brewing “battle” between Chester and Schweitzer for the starting right guard. While I don’t think their performances on the field have been anywhere close to suggest that Chester’s job is or should be in danger, the coaching staff continues to give Schweitzer starting reps.
Normally I would brush it off as no big deal, but given what the Falcons did last summer in regards to Joe Hawley and Person at center position, it might wind up being something. At least then, one could make a good argument that Person was outperforming Hawley in the preseason to merit why the latter was surprisingly released. But that isn’t really the case with Chester and Schweitzer and so I continue to scratch my head why the Falcons are turning this into a legitimate competition when there really isn’t one.
What I Saw: The Falcons featured a lot more of their base defense this week with six of the first seven plays on the two opening drives featuring the base. The nickel sub-package got a lot more work on the next two series with the base only appearing once on the next 11 defensive snaps. That’s not solely done intentionally as it had a lot to do with the fact that the Browns utilize a run-based offense with a heavy dose of two tight ends.
But it did allow for the Falcons to feature certain players in their base defense a bit more this week. Brooks Reed handled the extra work fairly well, although the bulk of his positive plays came when he was working at defensive end in the nickel. He had a couple of plays where he created some pressure and also had a couple of stops in run support.
Tyson Jackson didn’t show up quite to the degree he did a week ago. Grady Jarrett made some nice plays as well, showing ability to penetrate and get some stops in the backfield.
However Derrick Shelby really struggled in this game, particularly against the run. Partially that is owed to a lot of frequent double teams he saw, especially when he was lined up inside in the nickel defense, but there were too many plays where he was easily driven downfield and was unable to shed blocks. He also bit hard on the 14-yard run by Robert Griffin III to start the second series, with the Browns running a play-action fake.
The nickel front featured more of Shelby inside alongside Adrian Clayborn and Jonathan Babineaux. Clayborn also got some work on the outside, but moved inside on a couple of downs and lined up beside defensive end Dwight Freeney.
Freeney’s debut was nothing to write home about. He didn’t get much of an opportunity to really rush the quarterback, but on the few times he could pin his ears back and get after the quarterback you could see his trademark first step and explosiveness stand out among other Falcons rushers.
Clayborn had a sack on a play where he avoided a cut block and then on the very next snap did a nice job making a stop in the backfield. Babineaux was physical at the point of attack and had a nice tackle in pursuit on a screen pass.
Ra’Shede Hageman worked at end in the base and inside in the nickel. He showed his trademark power on a couple of plays and had a nice stop on a play where he collapsed the edge against tight end E.J. Bibbs.
Malliciah Goodman continues to put forth solid work off the bench, although that may partially be due to working with the third-string defense and simply looking better by comparison. But he got a couple of pressures and was able to draw a holding call that saved cornerback Jalen Collins’ butt by nullifying a pass interference penalty. Brandon Williams had a couple of solid plays in run support.
Courtney Upshaw still looks uncomfortable as a defensive tackle. Nordly Capi’s first step is still good, but he’s too much of a “one-note” speed rusher, which allows tackles to ride him wide of the pocket behind quarterback. His edge pressure would be much more effective if there was some interior pressure from the others like Upshaw and Hageman. There was one notable play where he and Tyler Starr were able to use their speed to attack the edges of the pocket, but Browns quarterback Josh McCown easily stepped up in the pocket and delivered a 30-yard pass to tight end Randall Telfer over linebacker De’Vondre Campbell.
Cory Johnson and Ife Obada got minimal work, although Johnson had a nice hurry where he showed some power. Johnson played both nose and under tackle in the team’s base defense on separate series. Obada did very little and lacked awareness on a couple of plays.
Nose tackle Joey Mbu didn’t get a ton of reps (two series worth), but made the most of it with a sack and also showed good power and ability to get leverage against the run on a couple of snaps.
Conclusion: The team’s rotation seems pretty set. The biggest unanswered questions is just going to be how guys are actually used when the regular season rolls around. It’s fair to think that some combination of Vic Beasley, Freeney, Babineaux and Clayborn are probably the team’s four best pass-rushers, with the possibility that Jarrett might also be in that conversation.
That puts Shelby in an interesting predicament because if he winds up being the sixth best pass-rusher on the team, he’ll eventually be relegated to being a base-only defender. It’s likely that the Falcons will give Shelby ample opportunities to prove his merit and live up to his contract as an every-down difference-maker early in the season, but if this preseason is any indicator, he’s merely a rotational player masquerading as a starter at this point.
Hageman, Reed and Jackson also appear safe in their roles on the team. The question is going to be how many more linemen are the Falcons willing to keep beyond those nine. It’s probable they would want to keep one more interior player.
From my perspective, Mbu makes the most sense to keep just as a guy that can get some snaps in the base defense and potentially keep Jarrett fresh in the event that later in the season the latter starts to pull serious reps in the nickel defense. But Upshaw and Goodman are also contenders.
Upshaw hasn’t looked good through two preseason games, but one wonders if the team will give him the benefit of the doubt given that he’s transitioning to a brand new position. Goodman is a bit steadier, but even should he make the team, he’s likely destined for the exact same role he had a year ago in which he was inactive for 75 percent of the season.
After that, Capi, Williams and Johnson have shown enough to merit consideration, but primarily for the practice squad. For a team starved for competent pass-rushers, I’m not sure they can afford to let Capi walk at this point and he should be a good bet to land one of those practice-squad roles. Johnson could be groomed as an under tackle down the road, as he too has flashed pass-rush potential. Obada is a long shot at this point.
What I Saw: With Vic Beasley sidelined with a shoulder injury, the Falcons got to see a lot more Philip Wheeler with the starting defense at strong-side linebacker. He really didn’t stand out with the starters and his only notable plays came late in the game when he re-entered as the third-string weak-side linebacker. He got knocked out the game when he got run over by Browns running back Terrell Watson late in the game.
Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell both started at middle and weak-side linebacker, respectively, and played into the third quarter. Jones’ only notable snap came on his very first one when he whiffed on a tackle of Isaiah Crowell on what turned into an eight-yard gain. Other than that, he didn’t do too much more that stood out as either positive or negative.
Campbell did a bit more, showcasing his athleticism in coverage. He did an excellent job breaking up a slant to Duke Johnson but then later got beat on a corner route by Telfer on a 30-yard play. He was in pretty good position on the latter play. That coverage ability is really where Campbell stands out and should be a way for him to find playing time early at least as a situational, sub-package player.
The pair of rookies alternated the first few series with Sean Weatherspoon and Paul Worrilow. Once again, Weatherspoon saw all of his reps at middle linebacker with Worrilow playing on the weak side. Neither asserted their claim for a starting spot over the rookies. Spoon’s most notable play was the silly facemask penalty he had on a botched Browns snap. Worrilow seems a bit better as an edge-setter when playing outside rather than lining up inside, so it does seem like he should permanently stay on the weak side moving forward.
Tyler Starr worked as the backup strong-side linebacker in the second half, but most of his positive plays came when he was rushing the quarterback as a defensive end in the nickel. Ivan McLennan finished the game, but on basically one series of playing time did little to stand out.
LaRoy Reynolds looks decent as the third-string middle linebacker and was very active in space. But he had a couple of opportunities to make some open-field tackles and didn’t take advantage of them. He also had a silly illegal contact penalty on the final series. Matt Wells replaced Wheeler at the end of the game and did not stand out on a handful of snaps.
Conclusion: If the Falcons were looking for a reason to not start Jones or Campbell based off the play of Weatherspoon or Worrilow, they didn’t find it. So despite a less than stellar performance from either rookie, they lost zero ground on the fight for starting positions and potentially gained some. I’m confident at this point that Jones will be starting when the regular season opens. I’m not quite as sure with Campbell but his coverage ability certainly is going to intrigue the coaching staff enough to give him a shot.
Wheeler and Reynolds stand out among the other reserves on the team, although neither has played great football. But their extended reps on special teams makes me believe they have a firm lead on the others.
As I noted last week, Starr is a very effective pass-rusher and still remains eligible for the practice squad. McLennan hasn’t really impressed me in either game, but he has two more weeks to change my mind. I’d be surprised at this point if Wells makes it through the first round of cuts.
What I Saw: Desmond Trufant got beat on a 50-yard touchdown strike to Terrelle Pryor. That was an instance where Trufant seemed to underestimate Pryor’s speed on the go route. When Trufant turned to locate the ball in the air, he slowed down just enough that Pryor went right by him for an easy score.
Robert Alford was quiet on the opposite side of the field and did his job. Brian Poole continued to get all of the first-team reps at slot cornerback, but even remained in the game with the second-team nickel defense into the third quarter. He too had a pretty quiet game because he was not tested. He moved back to free safety in the fourth quarter.
Akeem King and Jalen Collins supplanted the starters at cornerback in the second quarter. King did alright, although I wished he would have turned and located the ball in the air on a deep pass to Jordan Payton. King was in good position on that play and fortunately Payton couldn’t secure the catch in bounds.
Collins had a pair of penalties, a late hit out of bounds (that was mistakingly called on Wheeler) and a pass interference call when he bit on a double move by Rashard HIggins. Fortunately, a holding call against Goodman wiped out that penalty and Collins was saved.
Also on the play that knocked Wheeler out of the game on the final series, Collins got dragged by Watson for eight yards before the rest of the Falcons defense helped bring the Browns running back down. Overall, it wasn’t a strong performance for Collins.
Devonte Johnson got minimal snaps late in the game as the slot cornerback. Jordan Sefon also got some late snaps at left cornerback. Neither player was really challenged and thus did not stand out.
C.J. Goodwin, Ryan White and DeMarcus Van Dyke were all held out of the game.
Conclusion: Poole clearly has a sizable lead on the competition as far as the nickel cornerback spot goes. But he hasn’t really been tested to any degree to strongly indicate if he truly deserves it. While it might be easy to conclude that his lack of targets is an indicator of how well he’s covering his man, the reality of the NFL is that every cornerback gets tested from time to time. After all by that logic, it would mean Poole is outplaying Trufant, which we know is not true.
But it doesn’t seem like either King has done enough to merit strong consideration as the team’s nickel cornerback. And Collins’ performance didn’t inspire confidence that the job would be waiting for him once he comes back from his four-game suspension.
So at this point, the Falcons’ Week One nickel cornerback is probably either going to be Poole or someone currently not on the team.
What I Saw: Keanu Neal’s debut was unspectacular as he did not register a single tackle. He gave up a touchdown on a perfectly thrown pass to tight end Gary Barnidge, which is excusable because there is no defense for a perfectly thrown pass. But there were a few too many times where he got hung up on blocks in run support, particularly on a 22-yard scramble by Griffin off a read-option play.
Even free safety Ricardo Allen bit on the misdirection on that play, so Neal doesn’t have to hang his head too low. Allen had a fairly quiet game largely because he didn’t have to pull a ton of weight playing centerfield.
Sharrod Neasman replaced an injured Kemal Ishmael as the backup strong safety, alternating series with Damian Parms. Neither play took advantage of the opportunity. Neasman missed a tackle and got sucked inside on a would-be touchdown off a tight end screen to Connor Hamlett, who dropped the ball.
Robenson Therezie got plenty of work as the backup free safety behind Allen and too was fairly quiet.
Conclusion: Neal’s debut could have gone better, but there’s no reason to draw a strong conclusion one way or the other about it. The rest of the safety group had very few standout positive plays.
The most compelling battle seems to be at reserve strong safety because Therezie is locked in as a reserve and Poole is probably going to stick because of his ability to double as a cornerback. Based off this game, Ishmael should be breathing easier since neither Neasman nor Parms showed enough to think they are serious contenders to supplant him as Neal’s backup.
What I Saw: The absence of Matt Bryant was certainly felt due to the poor kicking of Nick Rose, who subsequently got the boot a few days after the game due to a poor performance. Unfortunately, Rose had to pull double duty in this game.
He missed a field goal, his third of the preseason and then with an injured Matt Bosher, he had to serve as the emergency punter. He shanked a 16-yard punt. It’s just been an ugly summer for Rose, who can go home and regroup to see if he wants to give professional football another go.
In the return game, I thought Devin Fuller showed some nice things largely because of his ability to make the first defender miss consistently, which is a good sign for a punt returner. With better blocking, one could imagine that Fuller can be a steady producer in that arena.
Justin Hardy had a seven-yard return on his lone punt return and could have had more if not for his lack of acceleration. He’s just not explosive enough to think he really should be a regular returner because he lacks the potential to flip field position on a regular basis. J.D. McKissic showed some niftiness on his lone kickoff return for 22 yards.
On the coverage units, the notable changes from last week on the “starting” kickoff team were Paul Worrilow and Sharrod Neasman replacing C.J. Goodwin and D.J. Tialavea.
The punt coverage team notably featured five linebackers: Worrilow, De’Vondre Campbell, Sean Weatherspoon, Philip Wheeler and LaRoy Reynolds among the “starters.” Worrilow had a nice tackle on Bosher’s lone punt of the night.
Hardy, Robenson Therezie, McKissic and Brian Poole got work as the gunners on the two punts. Hardy and Therezie were regulars in that role last season. McKissic was flagged for going out of bounds voluntarily, which is a no-no for gunners.
Eric Weems got all the work as the personal protector on punts. Notably the Falcons worked most of their reserve wide receivers on kickoff coverage with Hardy and Weems “starting” and Aldrick Robinson, Nick Williams, Corey Washington and Fuller also getting work with the “reserves.” Austin Hooper had a nice tackle on kickoff coverage but missed on another attempt, but at least he can say he was the first player downfield on the latter play.
Conclusion: As I briefly touched on earlier, I think there’s a good chance that Weems is on the bubble. The fact that nobody else worked as the personal protector is a good sign, but then again there were really only two punt opportunities in this game. The fact that a lot of the reserve receivers are getting special teams work is another indicator that the team is hoping that someone else steps up to make Weems expendable.
The ability of Robinson to step up and contribute on offense means that the team won’t feel as worrisome if Hardy is essentially asked to become the special teams “maven” in the receiver room, a role formerly held by Weems. Especially since Hardy has worked predominantly as an outside receiver, the team should feel fairly comfortable that Robinson can pull a heavier load on offense in case special teams duties wear Hardy down as the season goes on.
One thing to keep an eye on is whether not the team gives personal protector duties to some other player over the next two weeks, which will be a strong indicator that the team is looking to replace Weems.
As for the battle at returner, I believe Fuller has taken a firm lead as far as punt returner goes. It really should just be him and McKissic alternating returns both on kickoffs and punts, since there is really no other horse in that race. Hardy isn’t really a good option there just because of the lack of explosiveness and burst to create when he’s given room to work.