It’s now time for the third and final part of my series breaking down every single Atlanta Falcons player that made an appearance in the team’s preseason-opening loss to the Miami Dolphins.
If you’re interested in seeing how the Falcons actual depth chart was laid out against the Dolphins, you can do so by clicking here.
Let’s finish things breakdown off right!
The Falcons threw a bit of a curveball with their decision to start Vic Beasley at strong-side linebacker over De’Vondre Campbell, as well as LaRoy Reynolds on the weak side instead of rookie Duke Riley.
Most expected a preferred trio of Campbell and Riley flanking middle linebacker Deion Jones heading into 2017 and unfortunately we’ll have to wait at least another week before we see such a group take the field together in the preseason.
But it was nice to see Beasley continue to get looks at linebacker in the base defense, even if it was only for two snaps on the opening series. I’ve firmly held the belief over the past year that Beasley could become an amazing player if utilized more in that capacity and at least for a single play against the Dolphins he was able to flash that potential. He did a nice job avoiding a pull block from Dolphins tight end Julius Thomas to help disrupt a run play on the opening series:
Debo makes the TFL pic.twitter.com/INzCW88KwD
— Carlton (@SlopingGiraffe) August 10, 2017
Having a player like Beasley in their back pocket means the Falcons are in a very good place at linebacker. But it also means that a player like Campbell, who is expected to get the bulk of the snaps at strong-side linebacker during the regular season, also can’t really afford to mess around.
While Campbell made a brilliant play in coverage for an interception on a poorly thrown pass and had a couple of other strong, standout plays against the run, I’d have to say I came away a bit underwhelmed from watching roughly eight plays of him on the strong side in the base defense.
There’s no doubt that Campbell has the tools to be an excellent “SAM” linebacker, as his speed, length, athleticism and strength should make him an effective defender against the run and tight-end-eraser in coverage. But after hearing about his renewed commitment to excellence this offseason, I was expecting to see him take to his position change like a duck to water. Unfortunately there were a few too many snaps where he was plagued by his biggest weaknesses a year ago, which were poor recognition and awareness.
Now I’ll readily admit that I’m probably making a mountain out of a molehill. My belief that Beasley would make a superb option at that position also gives me a little less patience to see Campbell works through his “issues.” But if he continues to make plays like that interception, I think I’ll find myself extending the leash a bit further.
Jones had a strong 2017 debut, doing his best to showcase his improved skills as a run defender. Despite a limited workload, he made a number of stops against the run, showing a physicality when taking on blockers that was sorely lacking throughout most of 2016. Jones’ prowess in coverage is unmatched, but the main obstacle against him taking his game to a new level this year hinges on his ability to get tougher against the run. Using this Miami game as a litmus test, things are definitely looking promising.
Reynolds didn’t get a ton of reps with the starters. The biggest note I have on him is that he looks a lot slimmer than he appeared a year ago. He’s listed at 240 pounds, but I’d wager he’s probably closer to 230. That weight loss makes sense given how much Dan Quinn’s defensive scheme emphasizes speed. It will certainly help him solidify his role with the team if Reynolds shows he can hang with other Falcons linebackers in the speed department.
He eventually gave way to Riley for the bulk of the game. The rookie’s debut wasn’t spectacular, but he made a couple of nice plays against the run and flashed physicality by attacking blockers. That was a trait that he showed more during his collegiate days at LSU than Jones did, so it was nice to see that translate. It also suggests that his floor as a run defender might be a bit higher than Jones, at least when comparing how they might start their NFL careers.
Joining Riley on the field for a considerable portion of the game was Kemal Ishmael, who spent time at both middle and weak-side linebacker versus the Dolphins. Of the five “core” linebackers, Ishmael was the least impressive. He was consistently slow and hesitant reacting to the run and was less willing to attack reach blocks from Dolphins offensive linemen.
It makes sense that Ishmael might have a bit more development to do in his bid to transition as a full-time linebacker. As a hybrid safety-linebacker in 2016, his run responsibilities typically were outside contain and “spill.” As a full-fledged inside linebacker now, his responsibilities and keys will change. He’ll be forced to take on a lot more massive offensive linemen rather than tight ends and fullbacks. A learning curve is to be expected so I don’t want to be overly judgmental. Essentially, Ishmael might be experiencing some of the same growing pains that held Campbell back a year ago as the former also suffers from questions about his instincts.
Beyond this core quintet, I was eager to see if any of the other reserves would emerge to potentially push for a roster spot as the sixth linebacker. Fortunately I was not disappointed.
Jermaine Grace seems to be perfectly tailored for Quinn’s defense, showcasing excellent speed and range to make plays all over the field. He delivered a nice hit on a receiver in the flat to break up a pass as well as providing pressure thanks to excellent closing speed on the pass that was intercepted by cornerback Jarnor Jones.
Josh Keyes also looked solid working with the third team at middle linebacker. He too has copious amounts of speed and range to make an impact in this defense, but didn’t have as many “splash” plays as Grace.
Comparatively Jack Lynn did not shine, but that doesn’t mean he played poorly. He had a couple of nice plays both as a blitzer and run-defender along the edge. Lynn’s only major problem was that he wasn’t always consistent when asked to set the edge against the run. But his play was solid for the most part and it’s more a testament to the prominence of Grace and Keyes that he was overshadowed rather than an indicator that Lynn was deficient in any manner.
Overall, it was a solid performance for the entire group of linebackers. I’ll readily admit most of my complaints ultimately boil down to nitpicking a unit that may be on the verge of ascending to new heights in 2017, if judging by this first preseason game.
Starters Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford got in and got out after less than a dozen snaps. There doesn’t need to much else said about their performances. They’ve proven without a doubt over the past two years to be one of the league’s premier cornerback duos, and the preseason acts merely as their warm up before the real games count.
This position was one that most believed was one of the bigger strengths of the entire Falcons roster heading into the summer. However the recent suspension of Jalen Collins rattled the confidence of many (including myself) whether the rest of the group could pick up the slack.
It’s hard to say whether or not they won back confidence in this game, particularly given the nature of preseason. During the exhibition season, teams run “vanilla” concepts and rarely get the caliber of quarterback play one comes to expect in the regular season from seasoned starters. So the fact that players emerge from these games looking good doesn’t always translate to indicating that they’ll do the same when the games count.
Brian Poole got minimal work with the starters in the slot (two snaps by my count), so there isn’t much to glean from him. Deji Olatoye saw extensive work in the first half as Alford’s replacement at right cornerback and performed well since he was rarely challenged.
C.J. Goodwin was fine with the exception of the 33-yard touchdown pass he gave up to Leonte Carroo. That play was an indicator of the development that still must be made in regards to Goodwin’s transition from wide receiver to cornerback which began a year ago. On that play he had good initial positioning on the go route, but due to his inability to turn and locate the ball prevented him from being in a prime position to defend the deep pass. Note that Goodwin’s initial to look back and locate the ball was over the wrong shoulder, preventing him from making the necessary adjustment when the pass inevitably came. He’s still a work in progress and this play showed it.
Similarly Collins proved that he still has a ways to go before he’s truly entrenched in this league, regardless of off-field considerations. While it’s not accurate to say Collins had a good game, I think that some of his mistakes have been embellished given that he currently resides in the doghouse of both the coaching staff and fan base thanks to another suspension.
Collins showed fairly good ball skills and most of the plays where he was targeted and beaten, he at the very least contested those throws. He nearly managed to nearly snag an interception on an overthrow and broke up a touchdown pass as some of his sparsely mentioned positive plays.
He had his fair share of mistakes no doubt as well. Notably there was a play near the end of the half where he completely whiffed on his attempt to jam Dolphins wideout Damore’ea Stringfellow and was only bailed out from giving up a big play thanks to pressure by defensive tackle Joe Vellano forcing Dolphins passer David Fales to throw the ball away.
But at least in terms of the 99-yard touchdown Collins gave up, that had more to do with Fales making a perfect pass rather than Collins being bad. His pass interference penalty wasn’t egregious either, as he was just a half-step too early breaking up a throw to Stringfellow. But since most consider Collins to be on thin ice in regards to his tenure in Atlanta, any mistakes he makes are going to be magnified whether fair or not.
Blidi Wreh-Wilson worked with the second unit as the slot cornerback. Like Olatoye, he wasn’t challenged very much. He didn’t significantly help his bid to stay on as the team’s sixth corner, but also did not hurt it. His lone standout play came when he made a nice stop on a quick screen on third-and-long near the end of the first half.
Jarnor Jones worked across from Collins for much of the second half and had a number of standout moments. His one-handed interception was an obvious example. Like Campbell’s pick, that was another case of a Falcons defender taking advantage of a poor throw. But even if you benefit from a quarterback error, one can ignore that if you put a little bit of relish on it, and Jones did that by snagging his pick one-handed.
The only major blemish on Jones’ record was a blatant hold on the final drive of the game. It came on a critical third down with about three minutes left in the game. The interference penalty extended the drive rather than allowing the Falcons one final chance to pull off a win. Obviously it’s the preseason so this matters very little in the bigger picture, but still remains a teaching moment about situational awareness for the young cornerback.
Jordan Moore saw reps with the third string as the nickel cornerback, although only on the outside, prompting Jones to move inside to the slot. My only notes about Moore center on his confusion when the Dolphins ran a “stack” concept against him on their two-point attempt. He got confused by the receiver’s inside release, leaving him wide open in the back of the end zone. But as I noted in the previous part of this series, defensive end J.T. Jones was able to provide pressure and a hit on the quarterback that led to an overthrow and incompletion.
Akeem King did not play and hopefully will get an opportunity this week against the Pittsburgh Steelers to throw his hat in the ring to challenge Wreh-Wilson for a roster spot. It wasn’t that long ago that King was being billed as a leading candidate to be the Falcons third corner. It would be nice to see him fulfill that promise.
With starting strong safety Keanu Neal sidelined, Sharrod Neasman was thrust into the starting lineup and held his own. Neasman has been a bit of a forgotten player, especially since he was considered by many to be a sleeper and one of the few gems of last year’s undrafted class.
But it was telling that the coaching staff did not shy away from deploying Neasman towards the end of last season at times as a substitute for Neal in garbage time. It was also notable that for much of hte back half of the season following Trufant and Ishmael’s injuries, Neasman was the team’s only active reserve safety on the roster, meaning he could have been thrust into the lineup at a moment’s notice. Against the Dolphins, he flashed why he had earned that confidence.
Neasman made the key stop on third down to end the Dolphins first offensive series, showing good closing speed to wrap up wide receiver DeVante Parker. The Falcons also were willing to drop starting free safety Ricardo Allen down to cover the slot with Neasman rotating back to play single-high safety on a few occaisons, suggesting that he could still potentially be considered as a possible emergency replacement at either safety spot this season.
However, Allen’s likeliest reserve will be fifth-round draft choice Damontae Kazee, who arguably had the most impressive debut among the Falcons’ five draft picks that played against the Dolphins.
Kazee showed considerable speed and range while working as the single-high safety. He delivered a bit of a late hit on Jakeem Grant during Campbell’s interception. Perhaps spending time around Neal has been rubbing off on him. He also displayed that closing burst when closing on speedy Dolphins running back Kenyan Drake on a five-yard run on the ensuing series during the second quarter.
During the quarter-plus where Kazee saw reps at free safety, he worked with three different strong safeties including Neasman, Quincy Mauger and Marcelis Branch.
Most of Mauger’s noteworthy plays came on special teams rather than defense, which I’ll touch upon in the next section. Branch also replaced Kazee throughout the entirety of the second half at free safety, suggesting that the coaching staff may also think he has versatility comparable to Neasman in possibly being used at both safety spots.
Branch had some bright moments and some bleak ones. Among the latter, it was his poor angle and inability to bring down Stringfellow on the 99-yard touchdown that was arguably more egregious than Collins’ “questionable” coverage.
But Branch had some positive moments to at least wash that away bitter taste. He delivered a huge hit on running back De’Veon Smith on the final series and also did a great job contesting an overthrow to tight end Thomas Duarte on the final play of the third quarter that was nearly picked by Collins.
Deron Washington saw a lot of reps at strong safety opposite Branch in the second half and unfortunately may have not had enough positive plays to distract from the touchdown he gave up. He simply was caught out of phase against wide receiver Francis Owusu down the seam. If anything can be said in Washington’s favor in that regard, it’s that whether it’s with starters or reserves, most times when a safety is matched up in man coverage against a wide receiver it’s a blatant mismatch. Simply put, if he was expected to be able to man up wideouts, he’d probably be playing cornerback rather than safety.
However Washington did look much more effective playing in the box on the final possession with the Dolphins attempting to run out the clock. He made a tackle for loss and another key stuff against the run on that drive.
Kicker Matt Bryant missed his lone field goal attempt from 47 yards out. The league’s all-time greatest clutch kicker is afforded a few “practice swings” before the games count.
Reserve Mike Meyer connected on both of his kicks, including one from 53 yards out. That’ll certainly catch the eyes of various general managers around the league for teams that may be looking to make a change at kicker before the summer is up.
Meyer is probably no threat to take Bryant’s job unless the latter has the worst run of luck ever imagined over the next three weeks. Rather Meyer is likely auditioning for opportunities elsewhere and made a good first impression.
If there was any issue with Meyer’s performance, it was the fact that his kickoffs were very underwhelming as only one of five were driven into the end zone. Although I want to attribute that to special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong instructing him to not boot it deep, so that the team could better evaluate their coverage units. That was seemingly something I noticed the team doing last summer.
Thanks to the backups’ inability to sustain drives, punter Matt Bosher probably got a more extensive workload than he deserved. But as usual, he performed ably. Bosher’s best punt was a 54-yard one that was downed by Marvin Hall at the one-yard line thanks to a very advantageous bounce. Unfortunately the Dolphins went 99 yards for a score on the very next play, but Bosher did everything he could to put the defense in prime position. I have little doubts that Bosher would’ve made a more successful attempt tackling Stringfellow than Branch did on the ensuing play.
Long snapper Josh Harris continues to look good at his one job as well as finding ways to be in the mix among coverage units on punts.
Before getting the rest of those coverage units, it’s worth discussing the battle for who will replace Eric Weems as the Falcons returner in 2017.
Andre Roberts definitely put his name at the forefront of the list, although that was mostly expected. His first punt return of 39 yards was a solid one thanks to fullback Derrick Coleman managing to take out a pair of Dolphins defenders with a single block. Unfortunately that brilliant effort by Coleman was marred by the fact that it caused a season-ending injury to Dolphins rookie linebacker Raekwon McMillan.
Hall also had a 26-yard gain on a punt return thanks to gunner Cordrea Tankersley losing outside contain, giving the former an easy pathway up the field along the sideline. Reggie Davis also had a good 24-yard return where he had to do a bit more heavy lifting to make the something happen with a nice couple of juke moves. Unfortunately that gain was wiped out by a holding call on Kazee away from the play.
The fact that three separate returners all managed to gain significant yards likely points to the Dolphins having coverage problems more so than the Falcons luckily managing to snag three especially good returners.
Josh Magee and Nick Williams were also in the mix as punt returners. The team also utilized Justin Hardy as the “up man” when Roberts returned kickoffs, likely signaling he might also get an opportunity to return in upcoming games.
Unfortunately for Hall and Davis, who were the most impressive returners of those not named Roberts, they also were marred by two major mistakes. Hall’s was a fumble on a kickoff return in the fourth quarter. Davis made an error on a fair catch that led to another turnover, this time the ball bouncing off Mauger with the Dolphins recovering.
On that particularly play, Davis initially signaled the fair catch but instead of fielding the ball, he waved it off at the last second. It was too late for Mauger to make the necessary adjustment. The ball wound up bouncing just two yards in front of Davis, clearly indicating that he was in prime position to field the punt but simply didn’t. Either Davis was being indecisive or did a poor job judging the trajectory of the kick, neither of which does him any favors in his bid to unseat Roberts as the team’s primary return option.
Both Hall and Davis should get more opportunities to make up for their mistakes in the coming weeks, but trust is a big part of why Weems held such a tight grip on return duties in recent years. It’s unlikely those two mistakes assured Armstrong of their reliability.
As far as coverage units go, in terms of the “starting” unit against Miami, the only major changes compared to last year’s kickoff unit was the insertion of Derrick Coleman and Campbell to replace Brooks Reed and Paul Worrilow. Weems’ replacement appears to be Ishmael, who was already a regular on the kickoff coverage unit at the outset of 2016. But after he was injured midway through the season, Neasman wound up taking over. So now the 2017 coverage units are likely to employ both.
Although it’s worth noting that last season, Robenson Therezie, D.J. Tialavea and Sean Weatherspoon worked with the “starters” on kickoff coverage in the preseason-opener, and were not working in that same capacity during the Week One of the regular season.
As far as the performance of the coverage units went, the Falcons looked far more impressive than the Dolphins. However Miami did have a big 44-yard gain on their second kickoff return of the night. That looked largely owed to two players working with “second unit” getting out of their lanes: Riley and Keyes.
At the end of the first half the Falcons only deployed 10 men on their “third string” kickoff team. Most of that same unit was on the field to start the second half, which through a process of elimination indicates that it was Terron Ward that was missing from the huddle on the initial kick. Such substitution errors are relatively common during the more chaotic preseason. Remember there are nearly 40 extra players along the sideline, so it becomes harder for coaches to communicate individually with everyone.
That third kickoff unit also featured Mauger, who flashed his ability in coverage with a couple of stops. At least Armstrong should be able to point to something positive for him when reviewing the film beyond chewing him out for a fumble.
As far as the punt coverage units go, the team needed to find replacements for Patrick DiMarco, Worrilow and Weems. Those included Coleman, Ishmael and Ward, respectively. The team also replaced Reed with Campbell once again on this unit. Ishmael’s old slot on the punt team was filled once more by Neasman, being another strong indicator that Neasman’s roster status may be cementing. Neasman did not spend any time covering punts in 2016 during the regular season, so this seeming promotion this year is a good sign for his ability to stick.
Hardy and Goodwin continued to work as the team’s “starting” gunners as they did for the vast majority of games in 2016. Many expected Kazee might be in the mix to push one of them this summer, but he instead was played on the end of the second punt team. Instead, Jordan Moore and wide receivers Deante Burton, Reggie Davis, Hall and Magee tried their hand as gunners on the outside.
Hall showed up by downing a punt at the one-yard line after soundly beating a double team. Davis and Magee’s speed also helped them get the down the field quickly on separate punts to help corral returners. Even though he wasn’t working on the edge, Kazee also managed to show up on at least one punt to quickly get downfield and teamed with Grace to help bottle up Jakeem Grant for a loss of three yards.
Players like Kazee, Riley and other members of the Falcons rookie class (I’m looking at you Eric Saubert!) should have increased opportunities in the coming weeks to carve out bigger roles on special teams over players like Neasman, Campbell and Austin Hooper. Yet in the big picture those battles represent relatively minor shuffling of the coverage units. Instead if there is any significant competition, it might be for who performs as the personal protector or “up back” on punt teams. That was Weems’ primary value, serving as the last line of defense in avoiding blocked punts. He was so good at it, that there was only one punt blocked on his watch over the course of six full seasons in that capacity in Atlanta.
It remains to be seen if Ward or Brian Hill, the two primary competitors to replace him, will adequately fill his shoes in that regard. Ward got the “start” as the personal protector but quickly gave way to Hill in the second quarter, where the latter remained for the rest of the game.
Hill had his moments where he was able to get downfield quickly, a trademark of Weems. But his first attempt covering a return featured him looking pretty silly as he whiffed twice trying to tackle Grant. Fortunately his own and his teammates’ efforts kept Grant corralled for a mere five-yard gain.
Through one game, it’s hard to tell if either back has gained a clear edge on teams. This competition could wind up having serious ramifications on offense as well, since whomever serves as the team’s third running back will also likely be the personal protector.
It’s effectively a two-way street with how their play on both offense and special teams could influence the final roster and depth chart decisions. If there is clearly a superior option between the two on offense and little separation on special teams, then the better running back will get the nod.
However if one proves to be a far more effective performer on special teams than the other, then it’s likely that it won’t matter much who is the superior option on offense. Given the presence of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman at running back, the Falcons aren’t necessarily in dire need of a highly effective third runner. Instead they can decide on which player offers the most value on special teams with the other candidate likely being inactive or potentially on the practice squad.
It’s easy to assume that the runner that shines the most on offense will win the battle, but it may in fact result in the better special-teams performer winding up atop the offensive depth chart.
Once again, I should lay out the caveat that trying to glean how performances in the first preseason game could influence the team’s choices for the final 53-man roster is foolish on my part. But nonetheless, I shall attempt to endure.
There has been speculation that the Falcons might try and stash Meyer on the practice squad to potentially replace Bryant in 2018, when his contract expires and/or he potentially retires. But if Meyer continues to kick like he did against the Dolphins, the chances he winds up playing for one of the other 31 teams this fall steadily increase.
Roberts doesn’t necessarily have the return gig locked up, but probably would have to suffer a major setback such as more than one muffed kick to really open the door for alternatives. However if players such as Hall, Magee and Davis can showcase their return skills, they can still earn a spot on the final roster in a similar capacity as Meyer as heir apparents since Roberts is only under contract for one season.
All three players not only need to showcase their prowess as returners, but also their ability to cover kicks. Hall seemingly took a bit of a lead among the trio after this first game, but the others should have plenty of opportunities to catch up.
As noted above, the competition between Ward and Hill at both third running back and personal protector on punts should be fairly intense. If anything manages to draw your attention on special teams beyond the occasional explosive return, it should be their performances in the coming weeks.
Beyond them, it seems like newcomers like Kazee, Saubert, Riley, Branch, Grace, Mauger and Moore should have opportunities to earn roles with their performances on special teams. In the case of the drafted players, it probably won’t affect their ability to make the team all that much, but certainly could indicate just how big their roles are early in their careers. Maybe it ultimately decides whether they are active on Sundays this fall.
For the remaining undrafted guys, they’ll still need to really showcase their skills on defense to make the 53-man roster. But they certainly can improve their odds of sticking at the very least on the practice squad if they can show that they are capable on special teams.
Should any of them land on the practice squad, they’ll be expected to fill in on special teams should they get the call up to the roster during the course of the season.
After all, special teams matter.