Breakdown of Falcons Preseason Week 4 vs. Ravens

Brett Davis-USA TODAY SportsGrady Jarrett

A little tardy with this review of the Atlanta Falcons’ win over the Baltimore Ravens in the preseason finale. A lot of stuff happened over the past week-plus since this game and my to be honest, my interest waned after a few days. But I’m one for completion, so I’d get this out eventually at least for the sake of posterity so that a year or two from now I can look back and use this game to draw some conclusions about the Falcons in another summer.

Quarterback

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Sean Renfree

What I Saw: Matt Ryan got a single snap to start the game. I’m not sure what prompted the decision to play him in the game just to hand the ball off once and call it a night. Sean Renfree started this game and didn’t have a great performance. There were too many times where he seemed to press, particularly when he was asked to throw on the move and wasn’t doing a good job resetting his feet. That was particularly prevalent whenever he was rolling to his left. That’s not uncommon with right-handed quarterbacks, but still nonetheless disappointing.

Renfree also didn’t seem to do a great job handling pressure in this game. Many of his other errant throws came when he felt some heat. He deserves credit for standing tough in the pocket and taking some hits throughout this game as the Ravens’ defensive tackles were creating havoc up the middle and they were also able to get a couple of free blitzers off the edge. But it is concerning that he had a tendency to be high on throws when he saw pressure, which could prove problematic down the line. Let’s be honest if Renfree does play this season, it’ll likely because the Falcons offensive line didn’t hold up and let too many guys hit Matt Ryan. So that means that if they can’t protect Ryan, they aren’t going to fare much better with Renfree under center and this weakness of his could get exposed quite a bit.

But Renfree was still better than Rex Grossman, who finished the game by playing most of the second half. Grossman looked out of shape and rusty. Few of his passes had zip on them and it all pointed to the probability that he hasn’t been particularly working hard to stay in game shape over the past eight months.

Conclusion: Renfree won the backup job fair and square but in reality it’s hard to clearly state that he was good this summer. He was certainly the best of the candidates however. And based off his improvement over the past three years, relatively good timing, accuracy and decision-making throughout the majority of preseason games, he showed enough to trust that should he be forced into the lineup, the Falcons offense might be functional with him as a game-manager.

Running Back

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Terron Ward

What I Saw: Terron Ward had probably his best game as a runner. There were several runs where he managed to create despite limited blocking. He looked much quicker and decisive in this game and showed his best vision to date. He looked much more like the quick, darting running back he was during his Oregon State days.

However, Ward’s play in pass protection left a lot to be desired. He missed several assignments leading to hits or sacks on both Renfree and Grossman. Ward seemed focused mostly on trying to chip interior pass-rushers like Carl Davis, who gave Eric Lefeld fits throughout the night. This caused the Ravens to be effective with edge pressure from blitzers who got a free run at Renfree and Grossman on multiple occasions. Ward’s most egregious error came midway through the third quarter, when he simply watched as Ravens linebacker Brennen Beyer went right past him for a sack on Grossman to end a series.

Tevin Coleman had a couple of nice runs early but in all honesty, I’m not sure they were because he showed great vision. Instead, he just was able to outrun angles by slower-footed Ravens linebackers and the like and get to the corner where he could use his speed to run past guys on a few of them. When he could not do that, he really didn’t do much.

Jerome Smith didn’t do much on limited opportunities as a runner as every single time he seemed to get a carry, a blocker missed a blocking assignment and he got blown up in the backfield for a loss of yards.

Conclusion: It’s hard to draw much from Coleman’s performance since there’s nothing to compare it to. It was an okay performance that showcased his speed, but nothing much of anything else to put expectations on what he’ll do at least early this season. Ward showed improvement as a runner, but still has a lot of growing to do in pass protection. Rookie running backs tend to struggle with the learning curve in the latter and Ward has shown that he’s not going to be the exception to that rule. Smith had a couple of nice runs throughout most of the games but in truth has always been just sort of average.

Fullback

What I Saw: Collin Mooney had a few nice blocks early in the game, but unfortunately ruptured his biceps at the start of the fourth quarter while covering a punt. D.J. Tialavea fell on it when he was making a tackle. The highlight of Mooney’s night was his “scoop and score” at the goalline on a fumble by Renfree, but in truth both of his memorable plays this summer were sort of flukey. Heads up plays by him, but those aren’t the sort of plays that should determine who wins this position.

Instead that should be determined by who’s the best blocker. In that regard, the race between Mooney and Patrick DiMarco was very close. I might give Mooney the edge, but the difference might have been just one or two more blocks.

Conclusion: Mooney is out for the year, so even if he was the better player, it’s moot now. Although I would say that even excluding his 60-yard catch and one-yard fumble recovery touchdown, there were a few more instances where Mooney popped on tape. But this was a close battle and really, the Falcons could have flipped a coin and decided between the two.

Wide Receiver

What I Saw: Julio Jones saw a single befuddling snap just like Ryan. Justin Hardy, Carlton Mitchell and Nick Williams played the majority of the rest of the game. Eric Weems and Leonard Hankerson saw some action, but neither did much with it.

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Nick Williams

Because of the erratic at times quarterback play, the receivers probably didn’t have their ideal opportunities to shine, but each made a couple of nice plays. Mitchell had a nice catch and run on a quick slant for a touchdown. He showed nice hands on a couple of grabs. Williams had a nice run after catch on a quick out that saw him get over 20 yards after the catch due to a missed tackle by Cassius Vaughn.

Hardy’s big moment of the night came on special teams, but despite that 70-yard punt return and near score, his abilities there are limited. But I’ll dive further into that in the special teams section below. One thing I’ve noticed throughout this game and the rest of the preseason is how effective a blocker Hardy is and has been. It’s an underrated skill among receivers. He also nearly had a long bomb to his name but it was one of those plays where Renfree was rolling to his left, didn’t set his feet and underthrew his receiver. That could have been the highlight of his entire summer had he reeled it in.

Conclusion: Mitchell had a couple of nice plays but his upside as a receiver is limited because of a lack of speed and ideal burst. He’s a guy that wins due to length and size rather than an innate ability to separate from defenders. He’s by no means a bad player, but given the Falcons depth at the position, he needed to show a lot more to make the roster. Williams can create a bit after the catch, but he’s not the sort of dynamic guy that will make you hold your breath a little the minute he gets the ball. He’s mostly a straight-line speed guy that doesn’t have that burner speed. But he’s competent and reminds me a bit of a younger Weems, but runs with a little less attitude. Hardy has been more consistent with his hands as the summer wore on. He didn’t get as many opportunities to play in the slot this summer as I expected. It’ll be interesting to see how he fares in the future if/when he gets those opportunities.

Tight End

What I Saw: Tony Moeaki sat this game and it gave more opportunities for D.J. Tialavea to try and exploit. Tialavea shined more on special teams than he did on offense. But there were a couple of times where he made nice blocks on the edge. Unfortunately he got injured but there is some developmental upside if he continued to work on his blocking.

Levine Toilolo got plenty of work as well, playing the majority of the game. Toilolo still is a bit underwhelming as a blocker, although he did do a good job sealing the edge on Coleman’s 26-yard scamper early. But there were too many other times where guys like Brennen Beyer and Za’Darius Smith proved too much of a match for him. Smith especially is by no means a bum, but it’d be nice if your primary blocking tight end could win the majority of his matchups against players that are essentially the fourth and fifth outside linebackers on the Ravens’ depth chart.

Jacob Tamme got some early work and left the game after taking a hot shot to the kidneys after making his first catch of the summer. I also noticed earlier on that same series that Tamme was doing a good job as a lead blocker when he was working as an H-back and was able to hit second-level blocks against Ravens inside linebacker Zachary Orr multiple times.

Conclusion: I trust Tamme’s blocking at this point a lot more than Toilolo’s and it’s hard for me to imagine the coaching staff having a ton of confidence in the latter to provide that role ably throughout the entirety of the 2015 season. The Falcons cut their two best blockers of the summer in Moeaki and Tialavea, and it’s worth monitoring how things fare this year in that regard. However most of the starting tight ends that Kyle Shanahan has worked with over the past seven years haven’t been known for their blocking prowess, so ultimately he may not care that much. As far as receiving goes, Tamme and Toilolo were definitely their best two options.

Offensive Line

What I Saw: The Falcons deployed their third-string unit for most of the game, flipping sides at both guard and tackle. Pierce Burton and Jared Smith, who normally had been right tackle and right guard in the first three games played left tackle and left guard. And vice versa for former left guard Eric Lefeld and left tackle Jake Rodgers. Clearly the team wanted to test those guys to see if they could handle playing on either side of the line. And to be frank, none really passed the test with flying colors.

After three solid outings, Burton had his roughest game by far working at left tackle. By my count, he gave up two hurries, a sack and missed a couple of run blocks. I still saw the flashes of upside and athleticism that he showed in earlier games, but he looked uncomfortable on the left side. Not a surprise given that he spent both years at Ole Miss and the past year since leaving there playing almost exclusively on the right side.

Rodgers fared a bit better at right tackle, likely because that is the position he spent the bulk of his collegiate career playing. He did miss a couple of assignments here and there and got beat a few times, but in the end I didn’t count a single hurry or pressure against him. Of the four, Smith probably had the best game but had his fair share of struggles, particularly against Kapron Lewis-Moore.

Lefeld fared the worst among the quartet as frankly Carl Davis kicked his butt throughout the night. He was consistently overwhelmed by Davis’ power and there were too many instances where Lefeld got knocked on his butt. I counted three pressures and two hurries allowed by him, with two of the former technically being nullified by penalties. He also missed a trio of run blocks that led to losses of yardage. He had a few bright moments, but his first real in-game venture playing on the right side could be termed a minor disaster.

Tyler Polumbus, Mike Person, Chris Chester and Ryan Schraeder got a series’ worth of work as the starters. All four fared much better against guys like Lewis-Moore and Davis, which was a big reason why the Falcons were so successful moving the ball on the ground early on. It’s good to know that at least three of the Falcons’ starters can look good against the Ravens’ backups.

At center, the Falcons featured a rotation of James Stone, Joe Hawley and Adam Replogle. Hindsight tells us that we should have paid attention to the fact that Hawley was working behind Stone with the second unit and didn’t see game action until the second quarter, well after the other starters had been pulled. Stone did give up a sack to Davis at the end of the first half, but that was another instance where Ward should’ve chipped to prevent that play. That wouldn’t have changed the fact that Stone still got beat, but a chip from the back should’ve prevented the sack.

Stone’s mobility and athleticism really are worth marveling at. There was a point early in the second quarter when the Falcons ran a draw play to Ward on a 3rd-and-29. It went for only a nine-yard gain, but on that particular play you could see Stone do a good job releasing downfield to get position against a defender on the second level. What’s notable about that play is that Toilolo did the same thing, but Stone was able to move in stride side-by-side with him. The point I’m getting at is that Stone moves as well as a tight end. There’s a reason why the Falcons wanted him to be a starter this season and that’s it. There’s a very good chance we haven’t heard the last of Stone as a viable starting candidate in Atlanta.

Replogle should also be given points for his athleticism and ability to get out on the move. He’s still learning how to play on the offensive line, but his “plus” athleticism for a defensive tackle does show up at times.

Conclusion: Hindsight being what it is, it’s a little less surprising now that Hawley was cut. It’s become increasingly clear that this coaching staff (or more accurately, Kyle Shanahan) values athleticism and mobility above all other things when it comes to its blockers.

Despite a rough final outing, overall Burton had a pretty good summer. Rodgers never did anything to blow anybody away, but could have a future if he continues to get time and opportunities to develop. A year on the practice squad would certainly help. Smith also showed enough to think he is worthy of a spot on the practice squad. None of those guys are quite ready to play in NFL games this year, but in time all could be developed into a decent backup options much in the same way that Person did before arriving in Atlanta. Stone is still flawed, but don’t let anybody tell you that he doesn’t have the upside to be a starter in Shanahan’s offense. I’ve become a fan of Replogle over the course of this summer. He’s still raw, but he is a good athlete and has a mean streak about him that makes me hope he gets another opportunity to stick in Atlanta down the road.

Defensive Line

What I Saw: The Falcons did roll with their regular starters to kick off the game with Tyson Jackson, Paul Soliai, Ra’Shede Hageman and Vic Beasley each getting work in the team’s base defense. As has been the norm, Beasley was joined by O’Brien Schofield, Jonathan Babineaux and Adrian Clayborn for a single snap in the nickel sub-package. Despite only getting a handful of snaps, each of the base guys except Beasley shined for one individual play. Hageman had a hit on Matt Schaub, showing good power on that play. Schofield got decent pressure on his lone snap.

Joey Mbu and Grady Jarrett got a ton of reps throughout the rest of the night playing inside in their base defense. Jarrett played in the nickel as well and Mbu got some late reps there as well. There were a couple of nice plays here and there for Mbu, but he gets too easily pushed around at times for a nose tackle. He really needs to work on his gap discipline. Jarrett was disruptive throughout the night, getting pressure and busting up runs plays on multiple occasions.

It was nice to see the Falcons give Malliciah Goodman looks at both strong-side defensive end and LEO in their base package. Goodman hadn’t seen action at the former since the preseason-opener against the Titans and had a couple of nice plays where he was able to stand up the offensive tackle. It’s odd considering the sort of night and day difference that Goodman appears to show at the point of attack when playing the two different positions. ON the strong side, Goodman does well. ON the weak side at LEO, he does not. He continues to flash power as a bull-rusher when working inside in the nickel sub-package. I’d like to see a lot more consistency from him considering this is his third season in the NFL, but he continues to flash enough at times to believe that he hasn’t quite reached his ceiling.

Cliff Matthews flashed power at times as well as a pass-rusher, but doesn’t quite have the burst, athleticism or play-making abilities to stick. He spent the bulk of his reps at strong-side defensive end.

Either I’m blind or I think Pro Football Focus might be inflating Stansly Maponga’s performance a bit. I only counted one hurry for him, but the premium website gave him credit for one hit and four hurries. That tells me either that their threshold for what constitutes a hurry is very low (this isn’t the first time I’ve come to such a conclusion) or that I’m blind. It could be the latter, but I thought it was a pretty nondescript game from him.

Tyler Starr alternated between putting his hand in the dirt in nickel situations and playing linebacker in the base, which has been pretty common the past few weeks. He’s steadily improved as a pass-rusher. Both Matthews’ and Jarrett’s sacks were instances where they got a lot of help from Starr’s pressure. On the former, Starr’s pressure was the primary factor that forced Bryn Renner up in the pocket into the waiting arms of Matthews. On the latter, Starr looped inside on a stunt with Jarrett, who split the block between the left tackle and left guard for an easy sack.

Conclusion: Maponga got off to a promising start this summer, but probably fizzled out a bit towards the end. I think he still has upside as a pass-rusher, but needs a lot more polish if he’s going to make the leap from a guy that can beat up on third-stringers to a guy that is going to be consistently effective against NFL starters.

Starr is a player that I think is worth watching next year, particularly if he gets to spend the entire year on the practice squad. I think at this point he’s a bit too much of a “tweener,” meaning he’s not quite good enough to be a linebacker nor defensive end, but can do a little of both. Next summer he should be able to make a leap in one of those regards and that should decide his long-term fate not only in Atlanta, but also in the NFL.

I think Matthews has always been underrated by the majority of fans in Atlanta because most conflate pass-rushing ability with overall ability, never realizing that a defensive lineman’s sole purpose isn’t just to sack quarterbacks. But that being said, I can’t really say that Matthews deserved to stick on the team based off his play this summer. He just didn’t make enough plays.

Linebacker

What I Saw: Paul Worrilow and Nate Stupar got the starts at middle and weak-side linebacker, respectively. Worrilow did fine in his lone series of action. Interestingly enough, Stupar wound up playing all three linebacker positions in this game although the majority of his reps came on the weak side early in the game. But he did get a series each at strong-side linebacker (at end of third quarter) and middle (second to last Ravens’ possession). Stupar’s speed is proabbly his greatest asset and he didn’t play on his heels as much in this game as he had in previous efforts, but there were still a few too many instances where he overran plays in pursuit and missed stops in the open field. He continues to do fine work on special teams, being the one that managed to nail a pair of Ravens on the block that helped spring Hardy on his 70-yard punt return.

Allen Bradford got a ton of reps in this game and had a couple of nice plays. But he there were too many instances where his range and speed looked limited. It seemed like he was playing faster earlier this summer and was a bit more tentative against the Ravens, leading to missed tackles and being out of position when working in coverage.

Derek Akunne did some nice things as the second-string guy at weak-side linebacker. He’s active, but he’ll need to get stronger and become a better open-field tackler to stick long-term in Atlanta. But he probably had his best game as a tackler against the Ravens.

Kroy Biermann got the start at strong-side linebacker and didn’t do much to stand out. He did a decent job setting the edge on one play. He also missed an open-field tackle on Darren Waller on a 3rd-and-17. Luckily, the Ravens did not convert, but it was another signal to my concerns about his ability to play effectively in space should he be asked to replace Brooks Reed long-term.

Terrell Manning saw some action late in the game on defense and also got reps on special teams, but didn’t play enough to impact.

Conclusion: The depth at this position looked weaker as the summer wore on as both Bradford and Stupar have limitations that could be exposed if they were to get extended reps at some point this season. Biermann can also be lumped into that group. He’s been mostly fine when asked to play with his hand on the ground, but something is missing when he’s playing on his feet at linebacker. Basically when Joplo Bartu is your most reliable backup, you’re probably not in the best of spots. But in fairness to Bartu, he’s played well throughout the summer, but just historically hasn’t always been the most consistent player. Akunne has looked active when he’s gotten opportunities this summer and has a good nose for the ball. He just needs to improve physically and he could help supplement the team’s depth concerns in 2016 and beyond.

Cornerback

What I Saw: Robert Alford got a pretty quick hook after a single series. Phillip Adams and Jalen Collins took over as the starters outside for the majority of hte first half, with Adams getting the plug pulled on him earlier after he took a hard shot from Ravens guard Robert Myers that drew an unnecessary roughness penalty.

Mostly Adams has been fairly quiet this summer. Collins was OK outside the 42-yard play he gave up to Marlon Brown, who simply ran past him on a go route. I hope this summer has taught Collins an important lesson in that in order to have success in this league, he’s going to have to become a lot more detail-oriented, particularly when it comes to his footwork, balance and technique. If he thought on that particular play that Brown didn’t have the speed to run past him, he quickly learned how wrong he was.

Kevin White, Travis Howard, Dezmen Southward and Akeem King finished the game. None really stood out in a positive way. Southward got beat for the two scores, but both instances were good throws by Bryn Renner and excellent catches by Jeremy Butler and Daniel Brown, respectively. Southward had a nice tackle on a third down where Fitzgerald Toussaint ran past Bradford on a shallow cross.

I’ve been hard on Southward this summer, but it’s because I think he gets preferably treatment due to his draft status, not because of anything he’s shown on the field. It’s particularly frustrating to me since I’ve seen this song and dance before too often with the Falcons over the years in which a high-round draft pick is getting outplayed by a late-round or undrafted player, but continues to get favored in terms of playing time. Peria Jerry versus Vance Walker, Peter Konz versus Harland Gunn are two prominent examples that immediately jump to mind.

I don’t think you can look at what Southward has put on tape versus what King has put on tape and find a discernible difference. Yet, Southward will have many defenders and supporters for his “potential” while King won’t. And it’s only because one was drafted higher than the other and thus the tiniest positive (or non-negative) that people can attach to Southward will be harped on, while the same status won’t be given to King, White or Howard, who I don’t think are any less as players or possess less upside than Southward does.

Conclusion: We really don’t know whether or not cornerback is a strength for this team yet. Alford and Adams have done okay this summer, but neither have been tested to the degree that they will be come the regular season. Depth is thin since neither Collins nor Southward have shown much to indicate that they should be playing a lot.

Safety

What I Saw: Ricardo Allen continues to look instinctual, rangy and active at free safety. He’s willing to throw his weight around, which is good for a smaller safety. It was nice to see William Moore back at strong safety and he looked aggressive and at home playing near the line of scrimmage. There is a part of me that does somewhat worry about their susceptibility to injuries considering how “fast and physical” they are playing in the presence, making me believe that is only going to increase once the games start to matter.

That of course raises concerns about depth. Robenson Therezie didn’t play, but Kemal Ishmael, Charles Godfrey and Sean Baker did. Ishmael should be fine as a replacement for Moore should the veteran get hurt. But the concern still remains who will step in for Allen if he goes down. Godfrey probably will be that guy, but he’s done little this summer to instill much faith. He didn’t wow versus the Ravens, but did have a couple of decent stops cleaning up some run plays where linebackers like Bradford and Akunne couldn’t get off blocks.

Baker had the lowlight of the night, whiffing on the block that led to the blocked punt that nearly gave the Ravens a literal last-minute victory. He played mostly free safety on defense behind Allen and didn’t really impact much in coverage because nothing was really thrown down the field when he was in the game.

Conclusion: Depth is still a concern behind Allen and until Therezie or Godfrey prove that they can handle the spot, it will remain so. Moore should have a solid, bounce-back year if this Ravens game is any indicator. Baker is a player that I like, particularly when he’s been given opportunities to play near the line of scrimmage.

Special Teams

What I Saw: Matt Bryant missed a 52-yard field goal. It involved a good snap from Josh Harris and hold from Matt Bosher, but Bryant just hooked it wide left.

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Asa Jackson stumbles on a 53-yard punt return

The Falcons “starting” kickoff coverage unit consisted of Alford, Adams, Baker, Bradford, Collins, DiMarco, Howard, Mooney, Starr and Weems. Most of those guys should carry over into the regular season, although obviously Baker, Howard, Mooney and Starr will not. Your best bets are that Ishmael, Toilolo and Stupar will be three of the replacements. That last spot will be likely decided between Ward, Williams, Goodman, Bartu, Southward, Therezie or Godfrey.

Adams and Collins continued to work as gunners on punt coverage. Stupar, Toilolo, Ishmael, DiMarco, Tialavea and Bradford were the other “starters” there. Asa Jackson’s big 53-yard return was thanks mainly to Josh Harris getting slightly out of his lane and neither Bradford nor DiMarco being able to change direction and make the open-field tackles. Luckily, Bosher and the “Turf Monster” were there to prevent the score.

As noted earlier, despite a near touchdown of his own on Justin Hardy’s part as a punt return, his lack of speed and vision on returns was apparent. His 70-yard return came on a play where he ran directly into traffic, but because Ravens linebacker Arthur Brown delivered a bigger hit to teammate Nick Perry, it allowed Hardy to spin out of the tackle and sprint the rest of the way. Weems stumbled trying to get a block downfield, which allowed the Ravens defenders to catch up with him. But Hardy’s lack of breakaway speed was also apparent due to his inability to run away from anybody on that play.

That wasn’t the only time Hardy tried to return a punt and had trouble finding daylight. It’s not to suggest that Hardy is a bad punt returner, but his abilities slide closer on the spectrum to functional than good. If the Falcons need to replace Devin Hester over the next two or more weeks there, then Nick Williams should get the look. Williams isn’t special either, but his superior speed probably should lead to more consistent gains than Hardy.

Conclusion: The Falcons have multiple options in the return game should Hester miss extended time. While their coverage units won’t be as strong without Antone Smith moving forward, they still should be pretty solid this year.

 

About the Author

Aaron Freeman
Founder of FalcFans.com