Most football fans know that the preseason is never an accurate gauge for the regular season. Few need be reminded that the 2008 winless Lions actually started 4-0 in the preseason. However, the preseason is great for evaluating individual talent and factoring that into how they will impact the team in the regular season.
So, whereas an 0-4 preseason record for the Falcons may strike fear into the hearts of the faithful, I contend that there are quite a few positives to take away from this preseason. Join me as I break these down.
Julio Jones: For those wondering why we would mortgage this and next year's draft, this preseason showed it in spades. This kid is the real deal and is already striking fear into the hearts of defensive coordinators across the league. His sub 4.4/40 speed, huge size are complimented by an amazing attitude and fantastic blocking skills. His first reception - a 3 yard dump pass - exploded into 22 yards based on just his speed alone. Wow.
Harry Douglas: Speaking of speed, it's nice to see HD83 back to 100%. This preseason showed why Matt Ryan picked HD as his breakout player for 2011. Finally running the slot routes he's perfect for, HD is going to hurt opposing defenses. Once defenses double-up Roddy and Julio, HD is going to find tons of room in those 10 to 20 yard routes - and this preseason showed that he'll take full advantage of them
Matt Ryan: 2011 looks to be yet another step in the maturation of our franchise QB. This preseason - in particular the Pittsburgh game - showed that Matty is more than capable of running a pass first offense. Even though several of the drives in Pitt stalled out to FGs, two of them were easily touchdown drives were it not for some small mental mistakes (pass interference on Gonzalez, dropped pass by Julio). It also shows that this offense can finally keep up in a shoot-out, something we were woefully missing last year.
JaQuizz Rodgers: The 5th round pick may end up being the steal of the draft. His shiftiness and solid hands makes him a great 3rd down back. One can easily see a screen with Quizz going for 10 plus yards as we push safeties and DBs back with our talented WR corps. If he's going to get significant playing time, he'll have to do better in pass protection, but as a running and receiving option, he's a great counter to the power game of Turner and Snelling.
The Front Seven: The one thing we did see improved dramatically was the pressure by our front 7. The addition of Ray Edwards has appeared to help us get more pressure, and guys like Jerry and Vance Walker even registered sacks. We may even have a good long-term prospect in our seventh round pick Cliff Matthews, who showed good speed and decent technique for a rookie. Additionally, our linebackers continue to be a bright spot on the defense, with Weatherspoon showing why we picked him up in the first round last year. His speed and awareness are dramatically improved from last year.
The Secondary: The Pittsburgh game showed that we still have some weaknesses, and they're glaring enough to be trouble against the great teams. We know our starting corners are solid, and Moore appears to be getting more comfortable in coverage, but our nickel situation and the erratic play of DeCoud this preseason prompted the Comrade to immediately go out and pick up two veterans to compete for those positions. We heard all camp about the competition between Owens and Franks, but come game time, neither player impressed. Owens in paticular looked lost at times and Franks still has a lot of learning to do. It remains to be seen whether Hayden and Sanders can immediately contribute and help close these gaps, but something needs to get done.
The Offensive Line: The loss of Dahl looked to be a minor one, but losing McClure for the first game has intensified the scrutiny this unit is under. With two new players on the line to start the season, one has to wonder if Ryan will have the time he needs to unload the deep ball consistently. The Pittsburgh game showed they are capable of maintaining a good pocket, but what we need to see now is consistency. Both Hawley and Reynolds have looked both impressive and green in this same preseason. Additionally, it will be interesting to see if this new line can help create the running lanes that Michael Turner has used to abuse linebackers and safeties the past 3 years.
Michael Turner: Other than one nice run, Turner has been virtually non-existent this preseason. Granted, playing against Pittsburgh - the best run defense in the league - factored into this. Additionally, you know what you get with Turner and the staff may have used this preseason to do deeper evaluations on Quizz, Smith and Gartrell. But after three seasons of heavy carries and declining yards/carry, one has to wonder if Turner is about to hit the 30-wall. I still think he has gas left in the tank for this year, but I'd be more comfortable if we had seen just a little more out of him before the Chicago game.
All in all, whereas the 0-4 record may scare some people off, I'm actually leaving this preseason cautiously encouraged. I think we've finally got the explosive offense we wanted, and the defense should be improved in most facets. I do have some concerns, but in total, I believe the positives are outweighing the negatives.
What matters at this point is taking these developments and turning them into a solid performance come September 11th.
What say you? Did I neglect anyone or am I being too optimistic?