As I did last year with each preseason game, I will post my reactions to what I saw on the field in the Atlanta Falcons preseason-opening win over the Miami Dolphins.
The preseason is a time for individual player evaluation, and I’ve looked at every snap from the game and here are my thoughts, observations, and opinions based off what I saw. Since there are so many players to discuss, like last year, I will break them down by position group.
What I Saw: Matt Ryan played well in the game, getting pulled after the opening series, a 10-play drive. He completed all of his passes. His best throw was probably his first, which saw him thread the needle to Harry Douglas on a slant pass. To no one’s surprise, it was a solid night for Ryan and he’s poised for the regular season.
T.J. Yates stepped in on the second offensive series and played through the midpoint in the third quarter for five possessions. I thought Yates showed good decision-making throughout the night, but his accuracy wasn’t stellar. There were a couple of throws where he had to make his receivers work a little harder than they needed to, but in most cases they were catchable passes. The throw to Devonta Freeman at the end of the half probably was the most glaring example where Yates could’ve had better placement. That could have been a touchdown. He almost had a second touchdown on a slant to Geraldo Boldewijn at the end of the third quarter, but I put more blame on Boldewijn there even though it wasn’t a perfect throw. Yates pocket movement was good, but his lack of ideal arm strength and accuracy hold him back. But a lot of his incompletions probably had more to do with him working with green, inexperienced receivers. If he was to work with guys like Jones, Douglas and White, he should be okay as a fill-in starter behind Ryan.
Sean Renfree played four series in the second half and made a couple of nice throws. His wheel route to Freeman for 57 yards was his best throw. He almost threw a pick at the end of the game because he stared down Freddie Martino and did not see the linebacker underneath in the throwing lane. From this game, there appears to be a gap between Yates and Renfree, which should surprise no one. Jeff Mathews did not suit up.
Conclusions: Judging solely off this game, Yates probably has a firm handle on the No. 2 job simply because he seems to be operating at a much more cerebral level than Renfree. He’s more decisive and showed better touch, timing, and accuracy on his throws, despite not exactly grading off the charts in those areas. I will be curious if the Falcons do Mathews like they did Seth Doege, who did not take a single snap last summer in four preseason games. If Mathews doesn’t get a couple of series next week, that becomes a strong possibility.
What I Saw: Jacquizz Rodgers got the start and had a pretty good night despite his yardage total being only 20 yards on seven carries. But Rodgers did a lot of little things that only show up on tape and not the stat sheets. His first run illustrates this perfectly. The Falcons pulled Joe Hawley and Jon Asamoah to the right, but Dolphins defensive tackle Randy Starks shot through the newly created gap to hit Quizz three yards behind the line of scrimmage. Quizz made a nice cut to avoid Starks and then broke a tackle to get four yards after contact. It resulted in just a one-yard gain for Quizz, but it should have been a three-yard loss.
Antone Smith also got work with the first team. His 76-yard touchdown run that was nullified by a holding call was a thing of beauty. Smith showed his trademark speed on that play as well as on his 34-yard catch that was also nullified by penalty. Both plays he really destroyed any angle that a chasing linebacker or safety could get on him because of his speed. Smith did get the benefit of a penalty however, as he gave up a sack on the Falcons initial drive that should have set up a 3rd-and-17 and likely ended their drive. He simply got overpowered by Koa Misi on a blitz up the middle. But there were other times where he did his job in pass protection.
Devonta Freeman and Josh Vaughan split most of the reps with the second and third string offenses, with Jerome Smith getting a bit of action in the fourth quarter. Freeman had a nice debut, showing the ability to run north and south. The quickness that most have been raving about in camp wasn’t not really on display since he did not make that many defenders miss or get a ton of “extra” yardage that wasn’t provided by his blocking (unlike Quizz). Perhaps the lone exception was his best run of the night, which came at the start of the fourth quarter. He broke a trio of tackles on an eight-yard run, but it included 10 yards after contact because Bear Pascoe missed his block on the edge, allowing a defender into the backfield.
Vaughan was unproductive mainly because the blocking was poor in front of him. Seemed like every time they handed the ball off, there was a defender waiting to meet him in the backfield. Vaughan whiffed badly on a block once in pass protection, but other than that was competent in that realm. Freeman made a nice cut block on a blitzing defender off the edge that opened up a window for Maurice Hagens on his first catch of the night.
Conclusions: Rodgers, Smith and Freeman each bring something a little different. Given that the Falcons run-blocking was unspectacular throughout the night, Rodgers is probably the best option because he’s the most capable of getting the extra yardage that the blocking doesn’t provide. Smith obviously has home-run abilities, but Freeman may be the best option purely as a “volume” tailback. Meaning he’s probably best suited for getting a large number of carries because he’ll consistently get positive yardage, even if it’s only two yards at a time. Rodgers is clearly the best pass protector, and Freeman was solid throughout the night there as well. Smith really needs to improve there, but he may simply always have a limited ceiling because of his limited size. Right now, I’d say all three are better suited to being change-of-pace backs rather than someone that can tote the load in Steven Jackson’s absence.
What I Saw: Patrick DiMarco looked like Patrick DiMarco. He made a nice block on Quizz’s touchdown run. He also played some on special teams, but otherwise didn’t stand out. Maurice Hagens made two nice grabs as a receiver, showing natural hands. He had a nice key block on a 14-yard run by Freeman midway through the third quarter. He also got flagged for a holding call in the fourth quarter. Hagens played well enough to make me believe this is a battle that could potentially come down to the wire.
Conclusions: DiMarco remains the front-runner simply because he’s a more proven commodity. It will be interesting however to see if the Falcons give Hagens some first-team reps in the coming weeks, as that will be a strong indicator that he’s truly challenging for the job.
What I Saw: Roddy White did his thing with the first unit. Douglas had a single catch. Devin Hester worked solely the slot, but only had one play where he was really targeted. They gave way to Jeremy Ebert and Courtney Roby with the second unit, with Bernard Reedy manning the slot. If not for the push-off, Ebert would have had a nice high-point catch along the sideline. Other than that, he was quiet. Roby had a couple of nice catches, but his potential on offense looks limited as he doesn’t do a great job separating. But he did a much better job in that regard than Geraldo Boldewijn, who garnered a lot of reps with the backups. Reedy looked good, showcasing his speed on his two receptions.
Boldewijn’s size reminds me a lot of Michael Jenkins, but he was a bit slow and lumbering coming off the line and when he was trying to make his breaks. Not sure his hands are great either as there were a couple of drops that hit him in the hands. But his size is nonethless intriguing. Julian Jones also got plenty of reps too, but did little with it. He flashed a couple of times with his blocking.
Tramaine Thompson, Jabin Sambrano, and Freddie Martino also got reps late, but none really popped besides Thompson. He showed good speed, blowing past the slot corner on his lone reception.
Conclusions: The starters are who we thought they were. Reedy showed promise off the bench. Boldewijn showed enough that he could garner a practice squad position, although his upside may be limited if he doesn’t show stronger hands or physicality in the coming weeks. Roby looked the best of the rest, but only serviceable. The rest will need to play better in subsequent games to push for a roster or practice squad spot. As it appears now, depth is very shaky once you get past the top four.
What I Saw: Levine Toilolo had a pair of nice catches, showing good hands. With the starters, he played mostly inline, but did spend a good deal of snaps being flexed out into the slot with the backups. So much for the Falcons getting rid of the “F” tight end position formerly held by Tony Gonzalez, as there were several instances where one of their tight ends was flexed out wide. Bear Pascoe missed a couple of blocks and drew a flag on a blatant pick play, making for an unimpressive debut for him. Mickey Shuler fared a little better, making two nice grabs and doing a decent job as a blocker. Or at least I didn’t notice any times where his blocking was especially poor. Jacob Pedersen and Brian Wozniak both got reps late, but did very little with it.
Conclusions: Toilolo looked good when the team targeted him, using his size and hands to make routine grabs. The big question with him is whether or not Ryan is going to show trust in him when the season starts to make contested grabs in critical situations, or will he do what he’s done in the past: lock in on White or Jones. It’s hard to tell from this game, since for the most part, Ryan was locked onto White. Based off this game, Shuler may be closing the gap for the No. 2 spot since Pascoe was unimpressive.
What I Saw: Sam Baker played well, hitting his blocking assignments and not giving up much pressure. Jake Matthews fared well when he was matched up against Cameron Wake, but did give up a hit to Philip Wheeler when he was flagged for roughing the passer. His run-blocking was subpar against the Dolphins starters, but he looked better when he was working against the lesser second string defenders for a series. The two penalties were problematic and overall it was a less than impressive debut for Matthews. But he certainly showed flashes that he’ll be a good blocker in the future, if he’s a bit more consistent and disciplined.
Lamar Holmes and Ryan Schraeder played the rest of the game. In both players cases, they were adequate. Holmes’ issues remain on the technical side as he’s not overly powerful with his punch. He had a couple of missed blocks in the run game, and D’Aundre Reed’s speed off the edge gave him some fits. Schraeder may be out to prove he’s the toughest S.O.B. upfront besides Hawley, but it wound up drawing a penalty for playing well beyond the whistle. He also had a couple of issues in pass protection, giving too much ground. He doesn’t quite know how to redirect the edge-rusher wide of the pocket to allow the quarterback to step up into it. Instead, he is susceptible to the bull rush which allows defenders to collapse the pocket and work him back directly into the quarterback. He too had a couple of missed blocks in the run game too. Terren Jones did not play.
Conclusions: Baker looked like the good version of himself. Matthews went through some growing pains, but the fact that he had no real issues working against Wake makes me very optimistic about his future. The run blocking is a concern since that was never a strength of his at Texas A&M, so it’ll be interesting to monitor any growth he may or may not have this summer. Both Holmes and Schraeder have upside, but still need significant work to be done on polishing their techniques. Judging from this game, there would be a significant drop-off if either were forced into the starting lineup.
What I Saw: Justin Blalock gave up a pressure to Jared Odrick on Antone Smith’s big catch that was nullified by a penalty. Otherwise, he had a solid night, showing some things when asked to pull and cut block. Jon Asamoah had a relatively quiet night, which for an offensive lineman usually means he’s doing his job. Mike Johnson supplanted Blalock and Harland Gunn worked behind Asamoah with the second unit. Johnson didn’t look as physical and aggressive as I would have liked to see. He also gave up a pressure at one point. Gunn looked solid when he was asked to pull. He gave up a pressure once getting bull-rushed into the quarterback, but for the most part was solid in pass protection and as a run-blocker. Adam Replogle replaced Johnson in the fourth quarter at left guard. Replogle was aggressive and showed some things as a run blocker. He still needs work in pass protection, as I saw one time he got away with tackling a defender. But those things are to be expected for a player with such limited experience using his hands.
Conclusions: After this game, I’d say Johnson’s grip on a roster spot is in question and Gunn looks to be the team’s top guard. Replogle may be destined for a practice squad as he has tools to work with, but showed he’s a long way away from being game-ready.
What I Saw: Joe Hawley had some positive moments, and had some negative moments. His best block might have been when he pulled on a four-yard run by Quizz, nailing a defender to spring Rodgers. He also did a nice job getting downfield on a screen pass and cutting a defender in space. His worst block may have been on Quizz’s touchdown run, where Earl Mitchell drove him several yards into the backfield. There was another instance where he completely whiffed on a block against Starks, who completely blew up a run play in the backfield. Peter Konz replaced him and was okay. He was far less effective when being asked to pull, but there were probably a half-dozen plays where he was asked to do so, and he hit a decent amount of his assignments.
James Stone got work in the fourth quarter, and was effective except for two high shotgun snaps when he had a nose tackle lined up over him. That’s common, as he did fine on one particularly shotgun snap when he was completed uncovered. His blocking was nothing to write home about, as for the most part he was working double teams with either Gunn or Replogle.
Conclusions: Hawley has always been better when asked to block on the move than be an inline road-grader, and that was the case against Miami. Konz was effective, but nothing spectacular. The Falcons pulled their guards and centers quite a bit on the night, and it was clearly not a strength of Konz. It never has been and that could potentially become problematic if pulling centers is going to be a regular feature of the offense and Konz is pressed into duty. Being unable to reliably snap the ball could wind up killing Stone’s chances of making the practice squad, since that is the most important job of a center.
What I Saw: The Falcons had a steady mix of four-man and three-man fronts throughout the night, although I noticed more instances of the latter. Kroy Biermann and Jonathan Babineaux got the start and really didn’t do a whole lot in their two series of action. Biermann helped make a nice stop in the second quarter on a third down, but it was really Malliciah Goodman that made that play. Goodman split a double team to get penetration and clog the run lane, which allowed Biermann and other defenders to rally and make tackle.
Jonathan Massaquoi worked predominantly with the second team, but did get into the mix with the starters when the team went to a traditional 4-3 front in their base package. Massaquoi made a nice stop in the backfield on a tackle for loss. Osi Umenyiora worked exclusively with the second unit and didn’t really show a lot. The lack of a pass rush was a glaring issue with both the starters and backups. While the Falcons did get pressure on occasion, almost all of it was unblocked pressure where guys like Stansly Maponga and/or Tyler Starr got free rush towards the quarterback. Jacques Smith and Walker May also got reps at defensive end as well. Both did a couple of nice things against the run.
Conclusions: The lack of pass rush is a concern, but then again, it’s not exactly a huge surprise. It was interesting how the Falcons deployed their fronts, particularly with Massaquoi’s limited reps on the first series. But then again, there weren’t any glaringly obvious passing situations on that opening series with both third downs being 3rd-and-shorts. Goodman was probably the most impressive of the group. The rest weren’t bad, but there isn’t a lot to really write home about.
What I Saw: Paul Soliai was very effective against Dolphins center Samson Satele, consistently winning one-on-one against him and getting penetration and push into the backfield. Tyson Jackson was just okay beside him, getting pushed around and not doing a great job getting off blocks on a few plays. Babineaux and Goodman got very limited reps inside, as it was mostly Ra’Shede Hageman and Travian Robertson working with the second units inside. Hageman had a nice night, showing some burst upfield and some power. He did a nice job beating Dallas Thomas with a swim move to get a stuff late in the second quarter and then got pressure in the third quarter on a screen pass where he rushed the throw that went high. Robertson did not pop much on tape.
Cliff Matthews supplanted Robertson in pass-rushing situations in the second half and probably looked the sharpest of the rest of the interior linemen. He fared much better at the point of attack against Miami’s backup linemen than he did at any point last summer. Nosa Eguae and Donte Rumph also got work in the fourth quarter, but neither stood out.
Conclusions: Soliai was dominant against a lesser center in Satele, which is a very positive sign. Jackson needs some work, but then again there wasn’t too much to draw a firm conclusion from. Hageman had a solid debut, and it’s a solid sign that Matthews also stood out against lower competition. That was not the case last summer and at least now there is a better chance he puts up a worthwhile fight for his roster spot.
What I Saw: Joplo Bartu had some lapses on the opening drive, missing a tackle on a short throw in front of him. He and Paul Worrilow weren’t great at shedding blockers and making plays against the run and for the most part for their limited reps did not do much. They gave way to Prince Shembo and Tim Dobbins, who played the majority of the game. Shembo popped a couple of times, showing decent speed and range. His sack was one of the few instances where the Falcons got pressure by beating a block. The running back blew his assignment on the play in reality, but Shembo blew past Billy Turner to get the sack. Shembo whiffed on a tackle on Jarvis Landry’s big punt return, but then later made a nice tackle on a subsequent punt.
Dobbins got overmatched a couple of times in coverage because he’s not blessed with great speed or range. He fared better against the run, particularly when he was attacking the line of scrimmage. Yawin Smallwood and Brenden Daley worked with the third team in the fourth quarter and for the most part looked slow and sluggish. Tight hips and limited speed were exposed in both when they had to either cover or make plays in space.
Conclusions: Shembo had the standout performance of the group, but it’s not as if he had a great game. He just popped the most on tape, which was just on a few plays. The battle to start beside Worrilow isn’t over, but Shembo at least has begun to close the gap. Smallwood’s play suggests that even if he makes the team, his role will be limited solely to special teams this year. He looked like a limited athlete going against Miami’s third-string offense.
What I Saw: Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant got the start at left and right cornerback, respectively. Alford and Trufant weren’t tested on their two series, so there isn’t much to draw from. Josh Wilson lined up in the slot with the starters and spent a good chunk of the first half there. He too wasn’t really targeted at all, so therefore was fine in coverage. Robert McClain got work both in the slot and at left cornerback. He got beat by Kevin Cone on an out pattern, but was able to get a shove out of bounds to prevent the completion.
Javier Arenas and Ricardo Allen also got work in the slot throughout the night as well. Arenas broke up a pass, but his best play came at the end of the second quarter when he made a nice tackle for loss on a WR screen. Allen got beat on an option route in the fourth quarter, but also made a nice play in run support on that same series. Jordan Mabin almost had two interceptions and showed that his hands are problematic since both hit him squarely there. But it was good to get two disruptions. Devonta Glover-Wright made a nice play on a jump ball that he broke up, getting good inside position to high-point the throw.
Conclusions: The cornerback play overall was solid unlike past summers where there always seemed to be one guy that getting abused. But then again, the Dolphins backup wide receivers aren’t exactly stellar and their quarterback play was mostly subpar. It’ll be interesting to see if there are changes in other preseason games if there is an uptick in competition.
What I Saw: William Moore started and got the quick hook. Kemal Ishmael started at free safety and looked out of sorts. Seemed like he was the guy that got beat on the 36-yard pass to Rishard Matthews. All the corners were in man coverage, and if someone was supposed to man up on Matthews, it would’ve been Ishmael. But he was playing zone, which may very well be what the coaches wanted. It’s hard to know, but if so, Matthews found the soft spot of the zone behind Ishmael and Worrilow to make an easy grab. He also got caught looking on the touchdown pass. He wasn’t alone there as every other Falcon defender also bit on the play-action but since Ishmael is a safety (i.e. the last line of defense), I’ll put more blame on him. Ishmael got work with the second team at strong safety, with Dezmen Southward playing at free. Southward didn’t really do a lot, but at least showed some range and speed to come up and defend the run a couple of times.
Sean Baker replaced Ishmael and had a nice game. While not a great tackler, Baker made a couple of nice plays in run support and was active. His tackle on the screen at the end of the fourth quarter was arguably the play that won the game. He doesn’t make that stop, then the Dolphins don’t get the chance to blow it two plays later on the fumbled snap to seal the win. Kimario McFadden also got work at strong safety late in the game. Most of his impact came on special teams with two really good tackles. But he was also active in run support on defense. Tyrell Johnson looked slow in his limited action at free safety. On one particular play when working in centerfield, he let a receiver get behind on a deep pass. He also missed a tackle on the edge on a fourth down to prevent a conversion.
Conclusions: If this game was the litmus test, then Ishmael is not ready for prime time. But we’ll have to see if his play improves in subsequent games. It’s harder to evaluate safety play without looking at All-22 film, so I won’t draw too many firm conclusions here. McFadden’s play on special teams helps his chances of sticking at least on the practice squad. Baker had the big defensive play of the game, so that’s something to build off. Johnson looked rusty, and Southward did not really stand out. Which can be interpreted as a positive given usually the Falcons reserve safeties have a tendency to stand out in a negative light.
What I Saw: Matt Bryant and Matt Bosher did their duties. Bosher punted very well, showcasing his booming leg. He also had a touchdown-saving missed tackle on the punt return by Landry, slowing him up enough to prevent him from taking it to the house. Sergio Castillo did a nice job pulling double duty both as a kicker and punter. His leg strength was displayed on kickoffs and he had a couple of nice punts, but nothing that makes you think Bosher has anything to worry about. In the return game, Hester’s fumble was worrisome, but part of the territory of having a dynamic returner that is consistently looking for the big play. He’s more of a boom/bust returner than the Falcons have typically used under Mike Smith. He showed a bit of the boom on his one 18-yard punt return. Reedy and Wilson each had one nice kickoff return, and McClain did a nice job on his lone punt return. Reedy didn’t do much on either of his two punt returns because he did not do a great job making the first man miss.
Conclusions: Bryant and Bosher are safe, but Castillo showed enough that he might be in the running to get scooped up on waivers by another team. There were coverage breakdowns, which are common in the preseason when you have so many new guys working on special teams. The return game was good outside Hester’s fumble, although again part of that is because the Dolphins also have inexperienced coverage units as well.