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Reactions to Falcons-Bengals (Defense)

August 9th, 2013

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Brian Banks got his first football action in a decade

It’s time to look at what the Falcons defense and special teams did against the Bengals in their preseason debut. From the scoreboard (34 points allowed) it would seem not particularly good. But there were some bright spots. As with what I did for my offensive reactions, I will go through each position group and highlight what I saw from individuals and make loose conclusions about them and their respective position battles.

Again remember, it’s only the first preseason game and thus players will have plenty of opportunities to either improve or decline in upcoming games as well as camp practices.

Defensive End

What I Saw: Osi Umenyiora stood out when he got the opportunity to work against Anthony Collins on the second Bengals series. He got credit for a pressure, beating him with an inside move. He also got in the face of Dalton on a botched screen play although Corey Peters made the play there (more on that to come). Kroy Biermann started opposite him and looked solid defending the run. Osi did not fare as well in that area, struggling to get off blocks at the point of attack. He did make one stop (again teaming with Peters), but that was when he came off the edge on the backside pursuit. Massaquoi and Maponga got mixed in with the reserves. Malliciah Goodman and Neal Huynh also received snaps on the edge. I don’t recall Cliff Matthews getting much edge work, so I’ll hold off on discussing him until I get to the tackles. Massaquoi looked sharp as a pass rusher, as he seemed to be one of the few Falcons reserves up front that could beat individual blocks. He got a sack and a pair of hits from either side of the line. He was able to beat a cutblock by Tyler Eifert to make a stop vs. the run, but there was another time where he was out of position on a play-action rollout. Goodman didn’t do a lot when he played at end. Maponga did get a hurry/hit on a play at left end. That followed Massaquoi’s sack, both of them badly beating Dennis Roland. Roland is a player I considered as a potential pickup after cuts to bolster depth at right tackle, but I think after last night’s performance we might want to scratch him off the list. Overall, outside those few plays the Falcons struggled to get pressure off the edge and had to rely a lot on blitzing and stunts to manufacture pressure, which also wasn’t all that effective. Cam Henderson and Brandon Thurmond got work at the end of the game, but didn’t really stand out.

Conclusion?: It would’ve been nice to see Osi work over Andrew Whitworth like he did Collins, but Whitworth sat out of the game. In the immortal words of Denny Green, Osi, Massaquoi, and Biermann are what we thought they were. Other than that, not much to take away from this position. Goodman and Maponga looked like rookies still growing into their roles, so we’ll have to see what improvements they make in the coming weeks.

Defensive Tackle

What I Saw: Jonathan Babineaux got the quick hook, giving way to Peria Jerry fairly early in the game. Babs flashed his trademark burst, getting upfield to try and tackle BenJarvus Green-Ellis in the backfield, but couldn’t make the stop (that was the first time Osi couldn’t get off a block) and it led to an 11-yard gain. Jerry was OK working as his substitution. I thought Corey Peters looked sharp, as he was stout against the run. He saw one of the screens to Bernard and hooked him coming out of the backfield which led to the incompletion from Dalton. Goodman and Matthews got a steady mix of snaps inside. Like he was at defensive end, not a whole lot to say about Goodman. He wasn’t bad, but I only really saw a pair of plays where he flashed across the radar screen. Matthews seemed to get pushed around a bit when I focused on him inside. He didn’t seem able to get off any blocks, and that is a little concerning. Adam Replogle and Travian Robertson looked the best of the reserve tackles. Replogle was able to show some quickness upfield getting a pair of pressures, and was stout against the run in the fourth quarter. Robertson looked solid working at nose tackle, as his pressure up the middle helped Massaquoi get his sack as Josh Johnson was looking to step up. Johnson really had no problem tucking and running throughout the game due to minimal interior pressure which is critical when it comes to mobile quarterbacks. Huynh got some work here as well but didn’t do much as he’s more of a space-eater due to his lacking flexibility, range, and quickness. He just didn’t eat space.

Conclusion?: Not going to draw too many conclusions other than Peters looks to be in regular season form, Robertson can collapse the pocket a bit at the nose, and Replogle had a nice performance to get him in the conversion for at least the practice squad. I’m a little iffier on the transition of Matthews to play more inside, so we’ll see how that plays out the rest of the way.

Linebacker

What I Saw: The Falcons employed Kroy Biermann at SAM linebacker, Nicholas moving to WILL, and Dent playing in the middle when the starters played on the first three series. In fact, one could consider it a base 3-4 at times (or 5-2 depending on your preference) with Osi & Kroy at outside, and Nicholas & Dent inside, although other times it was a legit 4-3 with Kroy being a true blue linebacker. Dent had a couple of moments and did seem to be reacting more than thinking, which wasn’t the case last year. There was really no discernible difference between him and Nicholas on the field, so that’s a positive step for him. A true cynic might consider that a negative step for Nicholas, but I’m not that cynical. Robert James entered the game with the second unit as the WILL, with Paul Worrilow in the middle, and Joplo Bartu playing the SAM spot. Worrilow shined particularly in the 2nd quarter, making 3 run stuffs (basically a tackle where he is responsible for preventing offense from having a successful run), 1 tackle for loss, and a pass breakup. The tackle for loss might have been the most impressive since it was on a screen pass where he sniffed it out from the beginning. When he was asked to attack upfield, he was able to shoot gaps and make stops at or near the line throughout the game. He added at least one other run stuff on the opening drive of the third quarter, and had a pair of special teams tackles (one was negated by penalty). Overall a very impressive performance from him and he was also effective in coverage when he could keep things in front of him. The only negatives came when linemen were able to get free shots at him downfield, where he struggled to get off blocks (but 80% of NFL linebackers struggle in that same situation too, so it’s no big deal). Bartu had a couple of positive moments in pursuit, but also had trouble getting off blocks at the point of attack. Schiller came in for James at the weakside spot fairly early and had his fair share of positive moments and his fair share of some lesser ones. But when he and Brian Banks were working with the 3rd team (Banks was the MIKE), they looked a lot sharper together as they were consistently in position late in the game to defend the run along with Replogle. Nick Clancy was the third string SAM linebacker.

Conclusion?: Worrilow was the real standout here. Schiller and Banks each had their moments against the run. I liked that there is evidence now that Dent is better. It’s too early to say that Worrilow has locked up a roster spot, but his play on defense and special teams presumably makes him the front-runner for the fourth linebacker spot. James and Schiller probably are the next guys up. Banks and Bartu are certainly in the mix as well, and Clancy can’t afford to fall behind next week. Thus this linebacker group may be the most interesting position group to watch the rest of the preseason. It’s fairly wide open with Worrilow currently leading the pack.

Cornerback

What I Saw: Desmond Trufant started at right cornerback and was a little underwhelming if I have to be frank. He got plowed by Jermaine Gresham twice and wasn’t in great position in coverage both times he was targeted for incompletions. He certainly didn’t look as sharp as Robert Alford did at left corner with the second unit. Alford looked physical, made plays against the run and broke up a pass. Asante got the quick hook and I’m not sure even what is the point of playing him in the preseason. No one is really going to throw at him and you might as well give Alford first team reps on the left side. McClain looked solid in the slot as usual. He got beat for a touchdown when working on the outside at right corner, but he looked to be expecting safety help. Dominique Franks got backup reps in the slot and got beat badly by Dane Sanzenbacher on one play, looking clueless as he ran right past him. Peyton Thompson also got beat by Sanzenbacher later in the slot as well for a touchdown. Seemingly he didn’t expect that quick second gear from Sanzenbacher and he went right by him for a score. He too looked to be expecting safety help over the top. Terrence Johnson got work late and gave up a third down reception on a comeback. For both he and Thompson, they didn’t have a ton of reps and didn’t impress in what limited ones they had. Jordan Mabin is listed as playing, but I didn’t notice him.

Conclusion?: Here is the big one for Falcons corners, if Thomas DeCoud and William Moore aren’t on the field, don’t expect safety help! The Falcons backup safeties are frankly too green and slow to think they are going to help cover your mistakes. I’m not going to sit here and try to use this game to justify that Alford should start over Trufant. Being able to lock down Brandon Tate and Cobi Hamilton doesn’t make you an NFL starter. But you can put one in the win column for Alford and we’ll see how this battle fares the rest of the way. Considering Franks is fighting for his NFL future, not the best performance. But since neither Thompson nor Johnson stood out, he can breathe a little easier this week.

Safety

What I Saw: Moore and DeCoud are Moore and DeCoud. I thought the reserve safeties generally did an excellent job defending the run, but there were a few too many lapses in coverage. And I don’t think it had much to do with guys being out of position in a mental sense, but simply that they lack the physical speed and range necessarily to cover at the NFL level. Schillinger made a couple of nice tackles coming upfield (although he whiffed on a tackle on Josh Johnson’s big scramble). Ishmael also played well against the run, showing himself to be a solid, wrap tackler. He was the safety that was not there to back up Thompson on the Sanzenbacher touchdown as he was tasked with playing centerfield. Mitchell couldn’t come over the top to help McClain on his touchdown, although he was just a step too late and had a chance to knock the ball out of Tate’s hands. Mitchell also flashed on special teams, working as a gunner, something he didn’t do much of last year. Troy Sanders and Zeke Motta got second half work. Motta showcased something on special teams, and like Ishmael showed a little pop as a run defender, although he’s not as sound wrapping up.

Conclusion?: This is probably the firmest conclusion I’ll draw, but the backup safeties showed why they are backup safeties. They all showed that they can play in the NFL, but if they get extended reps on regular defense they don’t appear ready to handle themselves. This is why last summer after OTAs the Falcons picked up Chris Hope. I don’t think that’s really in the cards this summer since the Falcons have four drafted players that they want to give a shot. But if there aren’t improvements in coverage in the coming weeks, I’m going to be very nervous about our depth here. And I don’t want to sound like I think they played poorly, just that when you have a safety that has the durability issues that William Moore has, the standards have to be a little higher. You can mask lacking LB depth to a certain extent, but that’s not really the case at safety.

Special Teams

What I Saw: Matt Bryant gave way to Jeremy Shelley in the second half, although Shelley’s only real work was a kickoff. He was able to put the ball about 3-4 yards deep in the endzone, so questions about his leg strength are a little less. Matt Bosher got all the work at punter since Sean Sellwood was inactive. Bosher flashed the leg strength and hangtime.

Due to the Bengals kickers driving the ball deep on their kickoffs, there weren’t many opportunities for the returners to get on tape. Josh Vaughan had a lackluster return, and Quizz had a decent return to open the game. On punts, Harry Douglas did something that Dominique Franks never did last year which was just trying to get as many yards as possible and had the team’s best return of the night with an 11-yard gain. He just made the first guy miss and got upfield with bodies around him. Alford got one return opportunity, trying to bounce the play outside when the punter outkicked the coverage, but he couldn’t beat Rex Burkhead to the edge and thus was bottled up for a 2-yard gain.

Besides Josh Vaughan looking a bit lost out there, coverage was solid given it was a lot of rookies getting their first taste. As for other players that had positive impacts in coverage and made blips on the radar, they were: Schillinger, Drew Davis, Coffman, DiMarco, McClain, Robert James, Charles Mitchell, Worrilow, Motta, and Cloherty. The standouts were probably Worrilow, then McClain, followed by Motta and DiMarco.

Conclusion?: What is there to say? Bosher and Bryant are locks. Not much can be concluded from the return game, except Harry Douglas is perhaps our best option on punts but unlikely to get reps there due to his offensive responsibilities. We’ll see if the same players continue to excel (or struggle) in coverage, or fresh faces emerge in the coming weeks.

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