This is part two of my breakdown of all 82 Atlanta Falcons players that made an appearance against the Miami Dolphins in the 2017 preseason opener. Now I’m taking a look at the play in the trenches after looking at the offensive skill positions: quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end, in part one.
Let’s look at the performances along both the offensive and defensive lines.
Pretty solid performance from both pair of starters, although to be honest I wasn’t paying a ton of attention to them. I noticed one play where Cameron Wake made right tackle Ryan Schraeder look silly, but that basically is a given when you’re facing Wake. Schraeder and Jake Matthews aren’t under much scrutiny. They’ve started each of the past three seasons as bookend tackles and have proven without a doubt that they can get the job done when fully healthy.
The key concern at this spot centers on the depth, or possibly lack thereof. While there were flashes of solid play from the reserve tackles against Miami, overall there wasn’t enough to mollify anyone that is severely worried about this position. But there remain three more preseason games that could help in that regard.
Of the backups, Daniel Brunskill showed the most promise of the group. Concerns about his playing weight were somewhat mitigated as he appeared well above his listed weight of 260 pounds. I’d wager he was probably somewhere closer to 290 against the Dolphins. Given his lithe frame, one expects that Brunskill can move and he did not disappoint in that regard.
While beaten on several occasions, particularly when facing first-round pick Charles Harris, Brunskills’ smooth feet and fluidity were showcased in other instances. He struggled at times with his punch, unable to prevent Harris from turning the corner in his attempts to ride him deep in the pocket, wide of the quarterback. Brunskill moves well but struggled to create push in the run game at the point of attack on multiple occasions. Yet all those traits can be honed as I can’t help but be reminded that Schraeder himself didn’t knock my socks off in his first summer in Atlanta.
It was surprising to see D.J. Tialavea get the second-string reps at right tackle, given he had only officially made his move to the position a week before the game. He looked very raw, but athletic at times. He had some positive moments, including a key block on Terron Ward’s three-yard touchdown run. However there were times where he was put on skates into the backfield as a run blocker and occasionally seemed a bit lost in regards to his assignments when he was supposed to make reach blocks on the second level.
He is no doubt a major project at this point, but it is promising that the team thought highly enough of him that he leapfrogged others on the depth chart.
One of those others was Andreas Knappe, who more than held his own working as the third-string right tackle. Knappe’s size is impressive and he has solid feet. There were a few too many times where he got too deep on his pass set, giving up an easy inside move. But he also flashed power and the ability to knock pass-rushers silly with his punch so I’d like to see more of him in the coming games.
Wil Freeman and Marquis Lucas both only saw action in the fourth quarter. Freeman handled himself on his lone series of action. I’ll need to see more extensive reps before I can relate anything meaningful about his play.
Lucas is credited with giving up the game’s lone sack to Cameron Malveaux on the third down that ended the Falcons final possession, but it wasn’t really his fault. Instead of chipping the pass-rusher, running back Kelvin Taylor released inside instead of outside, effectively chipping Lucas and knocking the latter off his pass set to give Malveaux an easy edge and path to finish off Alek Torgersen.
Overall, the offensive tackle group remains a work in progress. The young players flashed developmental potential, but didn’t perform well enough to inspire a ton of confidence that any of them might be ready to replace an injured Matthews or Schraeder as early as September if need be.
Like Matthews and Schraeder, I didn’t waste much time watching left guard Andy Levitre. With roughly 130 career starts, Levitre is a proven commodity. The only notable thing that occurred in regards to him was that he was the victim of defensive tackle Jordan Phillips’ hold on the Falcons’ first play of the second series. Levitre was trying to make the second-level reach block against a linebacker, but because Phillips held him, that player was able to make a stop on Tevin Coleman in the hole for a loss of one yard. However the penalty gifted the offense five yards.
Ben Garland got the start opposite Levitre at right guard and did fine, relatively speaking. He struggled to create push against Ndamukong Suh through the early part of the game, as the All-Pro defensive tackle managed to disrupt nearly every early run that went to the right side of the line (Of course he did). Garland’s game is not a power-oriented one that is necessary to handle a player like Suh, instead he’ll need to win with athleticism and quickness much like his predecessor Chris Chester. Garland flashed those abilities on multiple plays when making effective blocks downfield.
Despite some ups and downs, Garland did little to really create any significant separation between himself and Wes Schweitzer in the battle to start at right guard.
Schweitzer also had a few reps where Suh got the better of him and my notes also feature a few other occasions where he didn’t create effective movement in the run game against other Dolphins defensive linemen. But for the most part, I’d say the fact that he doesn’t make frequent appearances means that he did his job effectively for the most part, particularly in pass protection.
It’s far too early to lean in either player’s direction in the battle at right guard, but at the very least if Garland’s status as a starter indicated an early lead, I suspect Schweitzer showed enough to keep pace and stay within striking distance. It’ll be telling if the latter earns the start this week against the Pittsburgh Steelers, as his performance then will determine who’ll likely earn starting honors in the all-important third preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals.
After those two, I’d have to say that the rest of the guard play was very disappointing. Rookies Travis Averill and Sean Harlow made frequent appearances in my notes for negative plays.
Averill appeared less so, but that is likely owed to the fact that he received significantly less reps, as the bulk of his playing time came in the third quarter as well as the final drive of the game. Harlow on the other hand, played most of the first three quarters at left guard before flipping over to right guard for a single series in the final quarter.
Harlow’s high workload led to one of the worst performances I can ever recall seeing in a professional football game, exhibition or otherwise. Harlow was frequently pancaked by a wide range of Dolphins defensive tackles and the excessive amount of pressure he gave up disheartened me so much that I stopped counting after a certain point.
Harlow really struggled with power and a series of Dolphins reserve defensive tackles frequently used it against him to knock him back and too often the Falcons rookie ended up on his backside on the turf. Rookie defensive tackle Davon Godchaux was a frequent abuser of Harlow, but Jordan Phillips, Lawrence Okoye and Julius Warmsley each took turns taking advantage.
Harlow’s debut was so disastrous that it makes me wonder if there was an injury or some other unknown distraction preventing him from playing well. He’ll definitely be someone that I keep a closer eye on the upcoming games. But without a strong rebound in the next few weeks, I think it’s increasingly a real possibility that Harlow could become the highest drafted 2017 player that may not make the final cut.
In defense of Harlow, there was at least one instance where Godchaux managed to hold his own against starting center Alex Mack on the opening series. So I can at least somewhat try to convince myself that maybe Godchaux is really, really good rather than Harlow being so bad.
Like the other entrenched starters, this game served mostly as a “tune-up” performance for Mack. Let’s move on to the reserves, shall we?
Garland got reps here as well, but the bulk of the backup center reps were given to Cornelius Edison. Compared to other interior blockers, Edison did alright in this game. As a center, he’s not put in as many one-on-one encounters with defenders so he has less opportunities to get outright embarrassed. Yet he had his fair share of ups and downs. When he looked bad, Edison looked fairly bad. But I would say there were quite a bit more competent snaps than bad ones.
Edison isn’t as smooth and fluid when trying to make blocks on the second level as other blockers the Falcons have on the interior. A big part of playing center in the team’s zone-blocking scheme is being a heat-seeking missile when it comes to finding and locating opposing linebackers. Thus Edison might be a better fit as a guard, especially in light of others, where his strength and power might be more effective and his athletic limitations less apparent. He did get some work at left guard in the fourth quarter for a pair of series. I’d like to see if he can get more in future matchups.
Larson Graham swapped in for Edison at the pivot in the final quarter of the game. His performance was fairly unremarkable with a couple of missed assignments. He certainly didn’t look as bad as other interior blockers the Falcons had in the game, but also had far fewer opportunities given his limited workload.
Like the Dolphins, the Falcons saw pretty strong performances from their interior defensive line. Starters Dontari Poe and Grady Jarrett saw all the interior reps in both the base and nickel defenses through the first series and a half (roughly 10 plays) before they were substituted out.
Notably Poe played exclusively as a three-technique over the guard’s outside shoulder, while Jarrett played the one-technique over the center. For the latter, that was the same role he spent most of 2016 playing for the Falcons. But the addition of Poe seemingly signalled that the team would kick him over to his more natural three-technique role. There, Jarrett’s quickness and disruptive potential could become more effective. Poe’s size and bulk would make him more naturally suited to holding the point of attack against centers, keeping inside linebacker Deion Jones and others clean from reach blocks.
Although it’s worth noting that Dan Quinn indicated Poe would see time as a three-technique this year, it was unexpected to see him exclusively there in this first preseason game. We’ll have to wait and see if that holds true in subsequent weeks or if the team is simply cross-training both Poe and Jarrett for evaluation purposes.
Ra’Shede Hageman and Joe Vellano replaced Jarrett and Poe, respectively, off the bench in the base defense. Courtney Upshaw saw the majority of second-team reps alongside Hageman in nickel sets.
Hageman had a very strong debut, consistently showing his disruptive capabilities as a one-technique. Dolphins blockers Anthony Steen and Jake Brendel were often overwhelmed and had comparable struggles blocking him as Harlow and Averill had blocking their teammates.
Against the better quality blockers early on, Vellano was relatively quiet. But he really started to flash as the second quarter came to a close and came alive in the second half against Dolphins blockers lower on the depth chart. He was disruptive both as a run defender and pass-rusher, often overmatching veteran blocker Kraig Urbik with his burst. Vellano isn’t a player that I’d normally describe as “explosive” but proved more than effective enough to beat the slower-footed Dolphins guards with speed to harass reserve passer David Fales throughout the second half of the game.
Upshaw created meaningful pressure on the interior on a number of occasions in the second quarter, but seemed to struggle to maintain his balance and close on the quarterback to truly be disruptive. There were multiple occasions where he seemingly had backup Brandon Doughty dead to rights, only to slip when trying to bend or turn, giving the passer enough time to get rid of the ball.
Tani Tupou also flashed multiple times on his initial series to start the second half, but then was relatively quiet afterwards. Although a lot of that might have had to do with Vellano’s strong play simply overshadowing his. But Tupou’s positive plays mostly came when he was able to be disruptive early against the run.
Upshaw and Brooks Reed earned the starts in the team’s base package at strong and weak-side defensive ends, respectively. Reed managed to wreak havoc as an edge-rusher in the nickel as well, including a wicked spin move he put on veteran left tackle Sam Young to deliver a hit on Doughty that caused a high throw that was nearly intercepted by linebacker LaRoy Reynolds.
Vic Beasley saw a pair of reps at his usual left defensive end spot in the nickel on the opening series. Else he was playing strong-side linebacker in the base defense, which I’ll touch upon in the next part. Neither play gave Beasley much of an opportunity to showcase his pass-rushing talents, although he proved disruptive on the second play from scrimmage against the run.
Adrian Clayborn played opposite him in the nickel sub-package and he too was nondescript in his performance. Much like the starters on the offensive line, Clayborn is a proven veteran that doesn’t need to do much in the preseason to showcase his value.
Derrick Shelby replaced Upshaw as the strong-side defensive end with the second unit and saw a significant amount of reps in the second quarter. Although it was against Dolphins reserves, Shelby looked very impressive and seemingly isn’t suffering any ill effects from the Achilles tendon he tore last October.
While his impact as a pass-rusher was relatively minimal, Shelby proved very disruptive working against the run versus Dolphins right tackles and tight ends. He did much to alleviate any concerns that his recovery would slow him this season.
Likely thanks to the injury to rookie Takk McKinley, undrafted rookie J’terius (J.T.) Jones saw a ton of reps throughout all four quarters of the game. Due to his numerous opportunities, there were several instances where Jones showcased his athleticism and pass-rush potential. His swim move to beat left tackle Jesse Davis was critical to preventing the two-point attempt in the fourth quarter from being converted. That pressure caused a high throw to an open receiver in the back of the end zone.
Chris Odom saw the bulk of strong-side reps in the second half after Shelby was substituted out. Most of his positive plays came against the run at the tail end of the game. Despite significant reps coming off the edge in the nickel defense, he appeared to lack the burst to really do much damage as a speed rusher. If he’s going to show much as a pass-rusher, he’ll need to hone his bull rush and power moves.
In addition to McKinley, Martin Ifedi and Jack Crawford were held out of the game. It’s possible that had he played, Crawford would’ve seen many of the reps inside that Vellano or Upshaw received.
As noted in the first part, drawing too many roster-related conclusions from this initial preseason action is a bit foolish on my part. After all, one could easily argue that the first preseason game is weighed the least when it comes to how coaches will make their final decisions about which players are most deserving to be among the final 53.
Yet despite this caveat, I will do my best to put this first game in some context in regards to how it may effect the roster battles in the coming weeks.
The play of the reserves along the offensive line was concerning, although it seems to be an annual occurrence that the Dolphins defensive line exposes the vulnerabilities the Falcons have up front.
But given that it was several Falcons rather than a few individuals that struggled, it lends credence to my best working theory that the poor play could be blamed upon the lack of contact through the early portion of camp. The limited number of padded practices may have not prepared the inexperienced reserve blockers for the sheer intensity of competition that the Dolphins would bring.
It might be smart for Quinn to make a mental note to give Dolphins head coach Adam Gase a ring next offseason to potentially schedule a scrimmage during the early part of training camp if they don’t find themselves facing each other on the exhibition schedule. After all, recent history tells us that there is no better opponent for the Falcons to test themselves against than the Dolphins since they frequently have exposed the former’s flaws during the summer.
In regards to the roster battles, I’d probably give Brunskill the slight edge in the competition for swing tackle. But a healthy Kevin Graf and Knappe showed enough to think that whatever gap that might exist there is minimal.
If based entirely off the performance against the Dolphins, it would seem that Schweitzer might have gained a slight edge over Garland in the competition at right guard. But it’s too close to call at this point, so I’d defer until after the Pittsburgh game before making any real declarations.
As far as the reserves go, Edison seems to have an early edge over the likes of Harlow to serve as an additional backup. Edison’s versatility to play both center and guard potentially become even more valuable if it’s Garland that ultimately wins the battle at right guard. While seeming like a near-lock heading into the summer to be one of the team’s reserves, Harlow’s debut performance left a lot to be desired. As noted before, without a strong rebound performance next week, he’ll become increasingly in danger of spending his rookie season on Atlanta’s practice squad rather than roster.
Some projected Harlow as a center in the NFL given his shorter arms. I think sans a strong rebound game next week at guard against the Steelers, it would behoove the Falcons to give Harlow at least a series or two of work at the pivot before the preseason is done to see what he can bring there.
Along the defensive line, there isn’t as much competition with most of the competitors being entrenched veterans. Reed, Hageman, Shelby and Upshaw all got off to very promising starts, so any suspicions about any one of them being a surprise cut or being on the bubble are allayed.
The early returns suggest that if Vellano and Jones continue to perform at this level, either one of them might be able to sneak their way onto the roster. Fortunately both remain eligible for the practice squad. But if they continue to stand out, it may become increasingly tougher for either to clear waivers to land there.
In the end, the Falcons defensive line looked strong and the offensive line weak against the Dolphins. Hopefully the latter will see improved play this week or else we’ll have to start paying more attention to the possibility that the Falcons repeat what they did in 2015 with a sudden remake of the line just before the start of the season. However instead of revamping 60 percent of the team’s starting lineup as they did then, the team might wind up revamping a similar or higher percentage of this year’s reserves.
Time will only tell, but the offensive line opened itself to far greater scrutiny than anybody would prefer. The same cannot be said about the defensive line, and in the final part of this series, I’ll break down the performances of the team’s other defenders at linebacker, defensive back as well as take a deep and meaningful look at the oft-forgotten third phase of the game: special teams.