I’m breaking down all 82 players that made an appearance in the Atlanta Falcons’ preseason-opening loss to the Miami Dolphins.
Unlike past years, I won’t place this all in one massive article since I figured those became overly daunting and too intimidating to read. Instead I will break this up into three parts to make it easier on you, the people. The first part will deal with breaking down the performances of the offensive skill positions: quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end. The second will take care of the trench players (offensive and defensive lines) and the third will handle the rest: linebackers, secondary and special teams.
For this first part, I have to say that the starting unit only played a series and looked relatively solid at least as far as the skill positions go. There were some concerns along the offensive line, but I’ll get into those in the next part.
Let’s break it down, position-by-position…
With only a series of work, Matt Ryan did his job pretty well. I’m not sure what else needs to be said. Ryan executed the offense as it was called, which he has done every summer as far back as I can remember. The fact is that Ryan is so predictable in the summer, that whenever he does make an uncharacteristic mistake, it becomes headline-grabbing news.
With just half a series of work, Matt Schaub replicated what Ryan did and executed the offense well. Having nearly a decade-and-a-half’s worth of experience means that Schaub is well-versed in how the preseason works. Since he’s not in danger of losing his roster spot, he connected on a pair of passes with ease and was done for the night. Get in, do your job, get out.
Matt Simms got the bulk of the work under center against the Dolphins, finishing the first quarter and remaining in the game for the entirety of the second and third quarters. It was for the most part an up and down performance. He was held back somewhat by erratic blocking up front, which led to him being pressured often early on. That compelled him to be a bit quicker on the trigger since he didn’t seem to trust his blocking. Occasionally Simms was being a bit too quick to tuck it and scramble, but for the most part he did a nice job using his legs to buy himself more time to throw.
My biggest issue with Simms’ performance on the night was inaccuracy. Too many throws were off-target and forced his receivers to work harder than they needed to. On a number of occasions this left yards on the field, particularly on a handful of third downs that led to punts or field goals on stalled drives.
It was a mostly middling performance that didn’t help Simms make a convincing first impression to a team unlikely to keep three quarterbacks.
Rookie Alek Torgersen suffered from some of the same issues that plagued Simms in regards to unreliable pass protection. Torgersen only wound up playing two series in the fourth quarter. Thanks to poor blocking, he spent the bulk of his first series scrambling for yards. He was clearly playing “fast” for that reason and his inexperience showed as there were numerous plays where he stared down his initial read. If/when that receiver did not get open, he tucked it and ran. At least when he did scramble, he showed good wheels. Torgersen’s mobility is such that offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian even threw in a read-option play on his second snap.
On his second series, he did a better job playing under control, finding checkdowns in addition to making a pair of nice designed throws. However it was too small a sample size to really glean much. Hopefully he’ll get an increased workload next week against the Pittsburgh Steelers and will also get more help from his blocking to give him a greater opportunity to impress.
Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman effectively alternated on the first series, with a pair of snaps for each before giving way to the other. That led to Freeman being on the field for the touchdown, which was a well-executed play-action rollout on fourth down. Dolphins linebacker Neville Hewitt bit hard on the run action and Freeman leaked out of the backfield and went untouched for an easy 15-yard scoring reception.
Coleman got one more rep on the next series to give each back a trio of snaps. That play was nullified by a defensive penalty, but Coleman showed better balance by avoiding penetration on a stretch run. It’s probably silly to try to glean much from such a limited sample size (two runs), but it at least showed a glimmer of hope that his balance and vision, two of the weaker areas of his game, might be improved in 2017.
Terron Ward and Brian Hill got the bulk of the remaining carries for the next two-plus quarters. Ward looked sharp, showing good burst and vision on a couple of runs. His 26-yard gain and three-yard scoring run were two that stood out. It was a solid performance from him, as he needed to get off to a good start given that he is no lock to win a roster spot.
Hill was curtailed by poor blocking, as there almost always was one or more blockers getting knocked back into the backfield each time he took a handoff. He did a solid job trying to create for himself, showing power and shedding tacklers. There was a play on the second series of the third quarter where rookie left guard Sean Harlow was knocked several yards deep into the backfield by rookie defensive tackle Davon Godchaux. Hill did a nice job turning that into a two-yard gain when it could have easily been a two-yard loss.
Kelvin Taylor got the bulk of the reps in the fourth quarter and too was held back by underwhelming blocking up front. He flashed elusiveness and some power, avoiding defenders and dragging others in his attempts to make something out of nothing.
B.J. Daniels did not play.
Derrick Coleman only played five offensive snaps by my count over the course of the first half. He did a competent job, hitting some blocks but failing to nail his assignments on others. His usage was reminiscent of Patrick DiMarco’s a year ago, as there was at least one instance where Sarkisian motioned him out wide. It was a solid performance, but nothing special.
Tyler Renew had a pretty solid debut as he had a lot more opportunities to showcase his skills, being used as a fullback on 13 plays and also lining up as a tailback on at least three occasions in the fourth quarter. His lead-blocking was by no means spectacular, but he was able to nail a handful of his blocking assignments up the middle. As a runner, his lone carry looked to be the classic version of what it looks like when most fullbacks get the ball: head down, running full steam into the pile for three yards.
Renew also had some opportunities in the passing game late, thanks to Torgersen finding him on a pair of checkdowns in the flat.
Overall there isn’t too much to glean from either fullbacks’ performance, but both played well enough to think this battle could get interesting as the summer wears on.
Both Julio Jones and Taylor Gabriel were held out against Miami due to injury, which prompted the Falcons to start Marvin Hall at the “X” receiver spot. Technically Justin Hardy got the start opposite him at “Z” instead of Mohamed Sanu, although Sanu was on the field for the first play in the slot (or “Y”). But when the team went to a two-wide set on the next play, it was Hardy, not Sanu that was on the field.
As for Hall, it was a pretty impressive debut on offense. Despite earning the start, Hall continued to get snaps well into the fourth quarter, giving him numerous opportunities to make plays. He showcased solid hands and speed as a receiver, holding his own with the defensive backs atop Miami’s depth chart. Perhaps his best play was when he was able to successfully shield safety Reshad Jones via a crossing route on Freeman’s touchdown catch, essentially getting a key block downfield without even engaging.
As mentioned earlier, Sanu had an impressive one-handed catch on the opening series. Hardy was quiet, but both of those guys’ roster spots are secure and the Falcons know exactly what they have in them.
After them, Andre Roberts got about a series worth of work, mostly with Schaub and a bit with Simms under center. He too is a well-established NFL player that didn’t really need to do a lot on offense to make an impression. The bulk of his strong play came on special teams, which I’ll talk about more in the third part of this series.
Nick Williams, Anthony Dablé and Reggie Davis were among the first Falcons off the bench. Williams, as usual, almost played exclusively in the slot whenever the Falcons utilized three wideouts. His only target was an inaccurate pass by Simms at the start of the second quarter. While Williams is not on as firm a footing as players like Hardy, Roberts, etc., I’m not sure he has to do much this summer to make the team. Having been with the team the past two seasons, the Falcons are well aware of what he is and it’s only a question of whether they want to keep him around for a third season. In essence, Williams could potentially be held without a catch this entire preseason and I don’t think it would significantly diminish his chances of making the team.
Thus it’s more important that players like Dablé and Davis impress to show that they are more worthy of keeping. In both players’ cases, they definitely got off to solid starts against Miami. Dablé’s size is impressive and while he’s by no means a game-breaker, one could imagine that with more development, he could be a poor man’s Sanu.
Davis is more explosive and showed that on a 48-yard touchdown that was called back thanks to a holding penalty. He also popped as a downfield run-blocker, doing a good job on Ward’s 26-yard gain late in the first quarter.
Deante Burton and Josh Magee were next off the bench. Burton lacks the sort of burst and game-breaking potential of players like Hall and Davis, so he needs to show the team that he makes up for it with reliable hands. So it was disappointing to see him drop his first target on an early third down. The ball bounced right off his chest and would’ve kept that Falcons drive alive. Unfortunately he didn’t get too many other opportunities later on to adequately redeem himself.
Like Williams, Magee worked mostly out of the slot. His lone target near the end of the third quarter was a catchable pass, but tipped off his hands and forced the Falcons to settle for a long field goal. Unlike Burton, Magee at least flashed the speed, quickness and burst to think that if/when he does eventually hang onto a pass, he might be able to do something with it.
Reginald Davis III and Bra’lon Cherry got some late work in the fourth quarter and did little to stand out. Davis did snag a nice 10-yard reception on a comeback route on the final series in the fourth quarter. Both players will have to wait another week in the hopes of getting more opportunities.
So far Hall, Reggie Davis and Dablé showed enough in this first preseason action to be ahead of the pack in the running to earn the sixth wide receiver spot. They’ll have to maintain, if not elevate it, in the coming weeks to make a bigger claim. Williams of course will always remain in the mix and the others will need to show more to garner more serious consideration.
Austin Hooper worked with both Ryan and Schaub among the starters and had the team’s first reception of the game. Beyond that it was an unremarkable performance. While Hooper is still mostly inexperienced as a starter, I’m not sure he really needs to stand out in the preseason to proven otherwise. Of course more preseason targets won’t hurt his development and it certainly makes sense that among the starting units in future exhibition games, scripting a healthy amount of passes for him will help build his and Ryan’s rapport for the regular season.
Levine Toilolo got a few reps with the starters, either when the team needed an extra run blocker or to help sell the run on play action such as on Freeman’s touchdown. His role this season will likely entail much of the same, so it was a quiet, but anticipated evening for him in Miami.
That pair quickly gave way to Josh Perkins, who was clearly working ahead of rookie Eric Saubert as the third-string tight end. But both Perkins and Saubert saw reps together when the Falcons utilized a pair of tight ends.
Perkins’ lone target came when he settled nicely into a zone on a third down midway through the second quarter, but unfortunately Dolphins linebacker Deon Lacey did an excellent job tipping Simms’ pass to prevent the completion.
As a blocker, Perkins had his fair share of struggles. Yet there were enough instances where he didn’t look overmatched, which often appeared to be the case during his rookie season a year ago. I’d have to wait and see how he performs in subsequent action before making a final diagnosis as to whether his blocking has significantly improved. His abilities as a receiver are indisputable, but he’ll need to showcase competence as a blocker if he’s going to earn significant reps off the bench as a third tight end during the regular season.
It was a rough debut for Saubert, particularly as a blocker as he was flagged twice for holding. One of which eliminated a 48-yard touchdown by Reggie Davis. Although in defense of Saubert, I will say that I enjoyed watching him get after a defensive back (former Georgia defensive back Maurice Smith) and take him to the ground. Points for effort, although the execution still needs work. But I’ll be honest and say that there weren’t many other instances where I noticed that same effort when he was asked to block throughout the night. Saubert didn’t get many opportunities as a receiver to compensate.
Darion Griswold got reps late and did little to impress. Given his superior size over Perkins and Saubert, he was on the whole a better blocker, but also had a few too many breakdowns to really impress there. Griswold is also not quite as fluid in his movements, suggesting that his upside as a pass-catcher isn’t quite on par with those tight ends ahead of him. Thus why it’ll be important for him to showcase his blocking prowess. It was mostly a nondescript debut for him and hopefully he’ll do better in future games to make a name for himself.
I only saw Alex Gray on the field on offense for a single snap. He had a few more reps on special teams however. Given his background as a rugby convert and rawness for this sport, I don’t expect he’ll see a significant increase in offensive reps for the bulk of the summer. Perhaps his best opportunity will be that fourth and final preseason game, where he’ll be more likely to see a significant amount of snaps and be a bit more poised to make an impression.
It’s silly to try and draw too much from the first preseason game in terms of roster decisions given that there are three more games that must be weighed before any conclusions can be made for the final cuts on September 2 this year. Also the Falcons are relatively settled at the majority of these positions with the starters and key reserves pretty much locked in, making any roster observations a little less meaningful at the skill positions. However that’s not going to stop me right now.
Fullback is the only position among this group in which there is any semblance of a competition for a starting role. Coleman probably remains ahead, but Renew played well enough that he could potentially close the gap before the month is over.
At quarterback, the Falcons entered the summer unlikely to keep a passer beyond Ryan and Schaub. Nothing Simms or Torgersen did in this game likely will force them to have to rethink that predisposition.
At running back, the questions have centered mostly around whether the Falcons could afford to keep another running back beyond Freeman, Coleman and Hill. But in the past month there have been increasing concerns that Hill’s grip on a roster spot is not as tight as once believed. His debut performance did little to alleviate those concerns, but as I noted above, I would put very little of that on him but rather subpar blocking. Ward showed why experience matters and at least through one game there seems to be significant separation between those two.
It’s still too early to make any sort of call, but it does seem likely that comparable to last year, the fourth preseason game may play a huge part in how the running back depth chart is shaped.
Tight end is a similar position, where the incumbent Perkins seems to have created some semblance of separation between him and the rookie Saubert.
Among this group of positions, wide receiver is likely the most contested group. The top five on the depth chart seem pretty solidified. The question remains whether the Falcons opt to keep a sixth wideout as they have each of the past two seasons under head coach Dan Quinn. Given that Roberts seems the safest bet to win the return gig this year, keeping a sixth player on the roster becomes a bit more of a luxury. So the question shifts to whether or not one of the young reserves plays well enough to merit such “extravagance.” The early returns with players like Hall, Davis and Dablé suggest that is a very much a possibility and seeing how they perform in the coming weeks will be worth watching.
For the most part, this first preseason action featured business as usual for the offensive skill positions. Stay tuned to find out if that was the case along the offensive and defensive lines in the next part of this breakdown.