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Breakdown of Falcons Preseason Week 3 vs. Titans

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Smith and coaches have some decisions to make

The Atlanta Falcons dropped another preseason game, in their third contest of the summer against the Tennessee Titans. But despite a game that ultimately goes down as a loss, there were many positives the Falcons, particularly their starters can take from the game.

As I’ve done for the previous two preseason games, I’ve got a thorough breakdown of what I saw from Falcons players in the game, and it’s broken down by position group.

Quarterback

What I Saw: The only real negative that can be said of Matt Ryan’s performance was that he was a bit too long on each of his three deep shots. It reminded me of what Ryan did prior to 2012 on his deep passes, preferring to throw long rather than risk an interception. That conservative style was a major contributing factor in why the Falcons rarely hit on deep passes. Instead, he needs to loft it up, so that his receivers can better make a play on the ball in the air since Ryan should instead trust Julio Jones (his target on all three deep shots) to go up and make a play. Other than that, Ryan looked sharp and looked excellent in the no-huddle at the end of the first half. T.J. Yates entered the game after him in the third quarter and struggled on his three possessions. Yates seemed to struggle with pressure in his face and had bouts where his lack of ideal accuracy and anticipation led to incompletions and/or sacks. Sean Renfree came in later and working on just one series where he was in the two-minute drill, looked fairly sharp. He hit on several passes, although his pass to Julian Jones in the endzone on the final play was a bit off the mark. But he fared better when trying to handle pressure and made some decisive throws and decisions. No reps for Jeff Mathews.

Conclusion: Falcons were able to generate some big plays in this game on busted coverages and broken tackles, but would have preferred to see them hit those when they dialed up the big plays. Ryan’s deep touch seemed to have regressed a bit if judging against the last two seasons, but there’s no reason to panic. Renfree clearly outplayed Yates on his lone series, and it was the first time I thought that Renfree was deserving of real praise this summer. In previous outings, he may have been better than Yates but that had more to do with Yates’ struggles than Renfree doing anything particularly well. There will likely be one more game with each Renfree and Yates getting a half’s worth of play vs. the Jaguars next week. Their performances in that game will be the final deciding factor in the battle for No. 2 quarterback, although Renfree is decidedly in the lead right now. I doubt Mathews makes it past the first round of cuts.

Running Back

What I Saw: Jacquizz Rodgers ran well in the early going. The only black eye could be that he did not convert on a 4th-and-1 at the end of the first half, but that play was not blocked well. Rodgers did give up a pressure in the first quarter, but also got a key block for his blitz pickup on Devin Hester’s touchdown. Antone Smith didn’t do much on the ground, with his highlight play coming on special teams coverage. Smith knows his assignments in blitz pickup, but is still struggling to maintain his block. He can lower the shoulder and deliver a blow to a blitzing linebacker but almost every time doesn’t stop his man there. That could lead to issues come the regular season. Josh Vaughan had a couple of nice plays, and for once Devonta Freeman was bottled up for the most part on the ground. But he had a nice catch in the flat at the end with Renfree in the game.

Conclusion: Rodgers inability to get that first down on his 4th-and-1 run had more to do with the blocking than his own lack of ability, but it does hint at a concern of the team’s inability to get tough inside yards with Steven Jackson out of the lineup. It will be interesting to see how the Falcons handle the rotation next week against the Jaguars. Freeman has been their best runner behind Rodgers, but has been buried on the depth chart. Jerome Smith’s lack of reps also indicates he’ll probably get cut in the first round.

Fullback

What I Saw: Patrick DiMarco got a key block on a 3rd-and-1 conversion by Rodgers, clearing Wesley Woodyard out of the hole for a four-yard gain. Maurice Hagens didn’t really pop as a blocker, missing a block at the two-minute warning late in the game that led to Freeman getting bottled up on a run.

Conclusion: DiMarco has clearly won the battle between him and Hagens for the fullback position. And basically the only issue is whether he can make it through one more preseason game healthy. Hagens should probably get a lot of reps next week, since I suspet the team won’t risk DiMarco too much.

Wide Receiver

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Devin Hester

What I Saw: Julio Jones looked sharp, showing good ability after the cathc on his 52-yard touchdown, making Bernard Pollard look silly on a spin move. Pollard was also the goat on Devin Hester’s touchdown as well, getting juked after the catch. Roddy White had a couple of nice grabs, but dropped a second-down pass that would have kept Ryan’s lone second-half drive alive. Once again, the Falcons reserves did not do much in this game. Bernard Reedy dropped a pass that should have given Yates his only first down of the game. Geraldo Boldewijn had a pair of nice catches at the end with Renfree in the game, and they seem to have a decent rapport. Other than that, the only time a reserve wide receiver popped was when Julian Jones had a decent block on the edge on a nice run by Vaughan. Fact that Tramaine Thompson and Freddie Martino failed to get any work should indicate their days are numbered.

Conclusion: Eric Weems and Courtney Roby mostly worked on special teams, and it means the battle for the backup positions are still in doubt. Boldewijn has flashed, but is still raw as a receiver and probably needs a year on the practice squad. Reedy has ability but hasn’t really had that many opportunities to showcase it. The Falcons could keep five or six receivers, depending on if they want to expose Reedy to waivers, which is a possibility. The final preseason game will provide some clarity at this position.

Tight End

What I Saw: It was telling that the Falcons made heavy use of Ryan Schraeder and Mike Johnson as blocking tight ends. Levine Toilolo missed a number of blocks in this game working against the Titans starters and the writing is on the wall that his role with this offense is going to be minimal this season. In fact, don’t be surprised if the Falcons wind up using a true tight end the least of any NFL team this season. Bear Pascoe had a few nice blocks with Mickey Shuler being absent with a concussion. Brian Wozniak had a nice block towards the end of the game, but otherwise didn’t get enough reps to really push for a job.

Conclusion: Pascoe had a better performance, but will need to keep it up against Jacksonville to close the gap on Shuler, who has outplayed him this summer. Wozniak might have done enough to get him to the final preseason game, but it’s likely inevitable that he and Jacob Pedersen won’t make this team. Expect the Falcons to make a move at this position, as it’s clearly going to be the biggest weakness on their entire roster if this game is used as a basis to judge. While I doubt the Falcons will make a move for a starter at the position, the reality is that they probably should. Toilolo’s performance in this game wasn’t terrible by any means, but it’s clear that this coaching staff doesn’t see him as a solution at the position.

Offensive Tackle

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Jake Matthews

What I Saw: Jake Matthews had a couple of breakdowns at left tackle, but performed well for the most part. There were plays where he got beat by high-caliber players like Jurrell Casey, but other plays where he was able to control Casey. It’s clear that Matthews has the potential to be a very good tackle at this level, he just needs to become more consistent snap to snap. I counted him giving up a hurry to Karl Klug, a pressure to Casey, and missed a block against Sammie Hill that led to a loss.

Lamar Holmes held his own, with perhaps only two plays where I saw Derrick Morgan beat him cleanly. And on one of them, Morgan failed to get the pressure because Antone Smith delivered a nice chip. Holmes missed a block against Ropati Pitoitua on the opening drive that led to Rodgers getting stuffed for no gain. Overall, a solid performance for Holmes. Definitely a major contrast to his play last year against the Titans.

Terren Jones and Ryan Schraeder worked the rest of the game at left and right tackle, respectively. Jones did a nice job, looking much more fluid than he did last summer. Schraeder held his own as well. Jones was called for a holding on the final offensive play, but it was really James Stone that was the culprit, as he tried to tackle Klug.

Conclusion: Based off this game, the Falcons should be comfortable with their starting tackles. Although, I’m not fully on board with Holmes until I see how he fares against Cameron Jordan on opening day. But I definitely won’t be losing sleep between now and then. Jones played well enough to think he has a legit shot to land a reserve spot if he can perform well next week against the Jaguars. Schraeder’s ability to double as a blocking tight end probably guarantees he’s sticking too. Presumably, Gabe Carimi will get plenty of work at right tackle next week, so we’ll have to see how he fares.

Offensive Guard

What I Saw: The Falcons interior did a pretty good job holding up against the likes of Casey and others and gave Ryan a clean pocket to step up into when need be. Justin Blalock and Jon Asamoah had solid games. They both had a couple of blocks that they’d love to get back, and when it comes to moving defenders off the ball, they could be better. But both should be at least solid this year, if not spectacular if this game is anything to judge by. The main concern will be their ability to get consistent push on the ground versus any concern in pass protection.

Harland Gunn got mixed in with the starters in the third quarter and did not fare great. He gave up a pair of hurries to Casey and Al Woods. Overall, Casey had a good game, tallying three hurries, one pressure and a sack, as well as being disruptive on a couple of run plays. But many of his hurries, particularly the one against Gunn, came on stunts. James Stone got second-half work at left guard and again he should have been flagged for a holding on the final play. He also gave up a hurry to Casey on a stunt.

Conclusion: Gunn needed a strong performance to try and solidify a roster spot before the final preseason game, and didn’t have it. He still has a chance to win a job with another strong performance, but I can’t say right now that he’s guaranteed to win a spot, particularly if Carimi performs well next week. Mike Johnon’s potential added value as a blocking tight end could also affect Gunn’s chances of sticking. Stone hasn’t been particularly great this summer, but between him and Adam Replogle, I’d bet Stone has the inside track to a spot on the practice squad.

Center

What I Saw: Joe Hawley had a solid game. He missed a couple of second-level and pulling assignments against linebackers, and gave up some ground to power rushers up the middle. But he was by no means a liability, and he was mixing it up with Titans defenders all game and is without a doubt the “enforcer” of the starting five. Peter Konz had a fine game, but the one thing that stood out to me (as it has in previous games) is how he’s not a great fit for all the pulling the Falcons do in the run game. Konz just does’t have the mobility to be particularly effective when blocking on the move.

Conclusion: Hawley and Konz are both making the roster without a doubt. Konz will probably be active on game days unless the Falcons really see something from Gunn next week. I have yet to see Gunn get in-game snaps at center, so that’s probably a long shot.

Defensive End

What I Saw: To no surprise, Tyson Jackson had another quiet game. Jonathan Babineaux fared best when he was lined up inside at defensive tackle than trying to rush from the end spot. Kroy Biermann was also quiet. Jonathan Massaquoi, Osi Umenyiora and Stansly Maponga each popped on occasion. Each one had a hit, pressure or hurry. Maponga had two because he got to work against reserve right tackle Byron Stingily, who struggled against several Falcons defenders. Tyler Starr got some late pressure against Stingily in the fourth quarter and Jacques Smith was mixing it up with Taylor Lewan all game. He wound up getting ejected at the end of the game for throwing a punch at Lewan. It was a dumb play by Smith, and it’ll be interesting to see how that affects his chances of making the roster. He’s outperformed Starr thus far in the preseason, although Starr probably closed the gap a bit yesterday. Walker May got a few reps late, but he’s probably not going to make it through first round of cuts.

Conclusion: The Falcons are still featuring Biermann as their primary edge-rusher over either Massaquoi or Umenyiora. That’s understandably the case with Osi, who is really only getting work in nickel situations. But Massaquoi should be starting ahead of Biermann because he’s simply a better player at this point. But as is the case with Jackson over Malliciah Goodman, the Falcons will opt for the veteran over the youngster, despite the latter clearly outplaying him.

Defensive Tackle

What I Saw: Paul Soliai continues to play well, although he wasn’t quite as disruptive in this game as he looked against the Dolphins and Texans. Again, Babineaux did a nice job when he was lined up inside and his quickness was very effective against Andy Levitre on several plays. He had a trio of hurries, the most of any starter. Malliciah Goodman also was able to be disruptive on a couple of plays, but also got pushed around on a couple of plays. Ra’Shede Hageman had his first NFL sack wiped out by a penalty. There were flashes of ability from him, but he was a bit too inconsistent and for the most part looked like conditioning and consistency snap-to-snap are still problematic. Frankly, he’ll have to continue working to get increased reps in the rotation, and I’m hopeful that by the second half of the season he should be firing on all cylinders. Cliff Matthews looked solid against the Titans second-string blockers late in the game. Travian Robertson also was disruptive as well and continues to look the sharpest besides Goodman in terms of the Falcons backups.

Conclusion: The Falcons have a steady rotation here, with Hageman, Matthews and Robertson all showing that they can contribute in a rotation if need be. Goodman should be splitting reps with Jackson at the least, if not starting over him. But that’s not going to happen with this coaching staff.

Linebacker

What I Saw: Prince Shembo was mixed in early with the starters, and held his own if one lowers the standards to that of a rookie. Joplo Bartu had no real standout moment early in the game and it appears that Shembo will be starting on opening day. Paul Worrilow was active and made a couple of nice stops against the run and had a sack when he came unblocked on a blitz. Pat Angerer was elevated to second-string reps, and had a couple of nice plays, but failed to really stand out. There were a couple of times he drew penalties or got outmuscled in the hole. But thankfully for him, Tim Dobbins didn’t play much better. Yawin Smallwood and Brenden Daley couldn’t get off blocks on the second level on that 47-yard run by Antonio Andrews at the end of the game.

Conclusion: While Shembo hasn’t had a great summer, he’s been good enough. With Bartu being just average at best, it’s inevitable that the Falcons will give their rookie a shot to be the starter. He’s ready, but I won’t go as far to say he’ll be good. The Falcons were very reliant on zone coverage in this game, and both Shembo and Worrilow are likely going to struggle when matched up in man coverage situations this year. No one seemed able to cover the Titans tight ends, although that may have had a lot to do with the Falcons playing a ton of zone.

Cornerback

What I Saw: Javier Arenas worked with the starters at nickel, and while he wasn’t poor. There were a few too many breakdowns that I doubt he wins that job. But he will get another opportunity to stick on the roster. Robert McClain and Josh Wilson didn’t do much in this game to separate themselves. This is a position that could become a problem area for the Falcons in the regular season regardless of who wins the gig, although I’m not sure if it’ll be a liability as it has been in past years. But don’t expect the Falcons to be sporting one of the best nickel backs in the league. Desmond Trufant gave up a touchdown, although he could probably blame Dwight Lowery for not providing safety help over the top on that play. Robert Alford got flagged several times, and it’s worrisome if the officials are going to call it this tight in the regular season. Alford has always been a very handsy receiver and likely will draw a lot of penalties this season if the refs don’t back off on the coverage penalties. As for the reserves, nobody really stood out. Jordan Mabin had a nice pass breakup in the back of the end zone, but was flagged for holding on that play (the officials wrongly attributed it to Angerer).

Conclusion: It’s likely the nickel job won’t be settled until next week, although it’s likely that Wilson has the lead. Ricardo Allen hasn’t done much to really earn a job, but also hasn’t done much to lose one either. He along with Mabin and Devonta Glover-Wright will need stronger performances against Jacksonville to solidify roster/practice squad spots.

Safety

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Kemal Ishmael

What I Saw: One of the safeties was in the wrong position on the touchdown to Nate Washington that beat Trufant. William Moore jumped the underneath route in the flat, and Dwight Lowery failed to rotate over the deep half. It was a clear miscommunication between all three defensive backs, and left Trufant out to dry on the deep post. I’ll blame Lowery more than Moore and if this was a regular season review, I’d probably split the blown coverage between Lowery and Trufant. Lowery did have a nice pass breakup earlier in the game, and looked less tentative than he did vs. Texans. Moore was once again very active against the run, and the Falcons featured him playing up the box on a couple of plays in the nickel, acting as an extra linebacker. That’s a good fit for him.

Kemal Ishmael popped several times against the run, but still remains a work in progress in pass coverage. He also looks like he could comfortably play up in the box in sub-package situations. Dezmen Southward made a couple of nice plays on special teams, but left the game with a head injury after one. He was active against the run, but needs to improve his one-on-one tackling. Tyrell Johnson whiffed badly on the 47-yard run by Andrews at the end of the game.

Conclusion: This position is still a work in progress, but Ishmael and Southward are showing nice progress. I’m not sure I’d trust either to start for an extended period if either Lowery or Moore got hurt, but I trust them more now than I did a week ago, so that’s something. Johnson is a goner, and Kimario McFadden’s previous work might keep him around for another week. But his limited reps could also mean he’ll be gone before the Jaguars game.

Special Teams

What I Saw: Matt Bryant and Matt Bosher did a fine job in limited action. Coverage units looked a little bit better, with Malliciah Goodman, Dezmen Southward, Antone Smith and Joplo Bartu standing out on a couple of plays. Courtney Roby looked better, although I’m still not convinced he’s deserving of a roster spot. There was a punt in the third quarter that was almost blocked. Looked like Jacques Smith (or Hagens) didn’t do a great job blocking the Titans defender, and Sean Baker working as the upback failed to pick him up. Eric Weems looked slow as a returner and I was disappointed not to see Bernard Reedy get more reps there.

Conclusion: It’ll be interesting to see if Weems addition hurts Reedy’s chances of sticking since the Falcons likely will trust the former more as a returner behind Hester. Weems has not been a very effective returner since leaving Atlanta, so I think if that was the case, the Falcons coaches are living in the past.

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Author: Aaron Freeman

Aaron is the founder of FalcFans.com.

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