Being on the wrong end of a 27-16 game is never fun, even if it's preseason. That's unfortunately what happened with Falcons-Titans last night.
It started promisingly enough, with the Falcons humming on offense despite settling for two field goals. The defense made the Titans look stupid and foolish. It's just that it didn't last, mostly because nothing worked for an agonizing stretch.
The "gameplan" here wasn't anything close to the regular season, but I can certainly understand why some fans were upset after the game. The Falcons chose to throw Robert Alford into the fire and watched him get burned to a crisp. They chose to mix things up a little bit on offense and actually plan some plays, and they watched as the offensive line crumbled to dust in pass protection repeatedly. The pass rush was only middling. It was not fun to watch, to put it mildly.
That said, it's preseason. This team has done enough over the last three seasons to make it clear that they're a perennial playoff contender no matter what they do in preseason, so the end result of this one matters very little to me. The two concerns I mentioned above, particularly the offensive line, will persist into the season and need to be corrected. That doesn't change the fact that this is a good football team that will be orders of magnitude better once the regular season begins. They've made a habit of playing horrendous preseason games and then winning 10+ games in the regular season for, I dunno, the last three seasons running.
If we're still talking about how lousy the coverage and line are after the Saints game, I've got a giant red panic button my desk that we can all take turns slamming with our palms. For now, make a mental note to keep an eye on the weakest units and prepare for Tuesday's cuts. Those ought to clarify things.
Let's break down some of the performances from the Falcons-Titans game.
- Matt Ryan was fine. His protection failed him multiple times, but he didn't look quite as effortlessly excellent as he did in the first two preseason games. That's not a big deal, and his chemistry with everyone from Roddy White to Harry Douglas remains excellent.
- Dominique Davis had a Jekyll and Hyde night. He had a huge scramble and a nice touchdown strike to Darius Johnson and continues to solidify his hold on the #2 job....but then he threw one of the uglier interceptions I've seen recently, negating a lot of that good will. I think he's going to win that backup job, but I hope we never have to see him on the field during the regular season.
- Steven Jackson looked very good. He hit the open holes with power, showed excellent vision again and averaged well over four yards per carry. Expect to see a lot of those kinds of games this season.
- Julio Jones whiffed on one catch, but was otherwise stellar with four grabs for 81 yards. He's nearly in mid-season form, and that's terrifying.
- Darius Johnson should at least get a look on the practice squad. All he's done is produce, and last night with the second unit he reeled in a 41 yard touchdown pass from Dominique Davis that showed quality athleticism and better hands.
- Tony Gonzalez is back and looks like the same Hall of Fame tight end he's always been. Thank the Football Gods for that.
- The offensive line was very effective in run-blocking and very lackluster in pass blocking tonight, particularly on the first unit. The Falcons surrendered five ugly sacks for Matt Ryan, two of them on third down, and generally looked powerless to stop some pretty middling Titans pass rushers. You don't want to read too much into preseason performances, but I expect a few rear ends to find themselves suddenly occupied by Mike Smith's angry foot. It's still the biggest weakness on offense heading into the season, and the reserves haven't been much better than the starters.
- Kroy Biermann was beastly. He made multiple big stops in the run game and came up with two sacks of the mobile Jake Locker. Moving him all over the field allows him to use that athleticism, and he's taking full advantage.
- I had hoped to see the pass rush step up in general. Besides Biermann and Corey Peters, it was a pretty mixed bag. The Falcons will need to coax more out of their young ends in particular starting Week 1.
- If you're wondering how the Falcons can refuse to budge from Richard Seymour's contract demands, look no further than Corey Peters. Peters and Jonathan Babineaux are a scary duo up the middle, and while there are legitimate depth concerns there, Peters showed why he's so deadly by making a big run stop and slamming Ryan Fitzpatrick to the turf for a sack in the third quarter.
- Worrilow wasn't stellar, but he made a couple of nice tackles. Joplo Bartu was the truly impressive one last night, as the man flew all over the field on his way to four tackles and a Jake Locker forced fumble. Both of these guys will survive initial cuts, and you shouldn't be surprised if both stick on the roster and/or practice squad.
- Brian Banks got a tackle. If nothing else, at least he got the chance to get on the field and make plays. Rooting so hard for the man to get his chance somewhere.
- Desmond Trufant kind of tackled his own teammate on a return. He was also a little shaky in coverage, and certainly we're going to have to expect the occasional poor play. We're dealing with a rookie cornerback, but given that he's going to start, he'll need to improve fairly rapidly.
- Robert Alford had some growing pains last night, chiefly while trying to cover Kenny Britt, and Alford also allowed his first touchdown to Nate Washington. He also was burned for a huge completion and (declined) penalty in the second quarter. Then he picked Ryan Fitzpatrick off in the third quarter. Then he allowed another touchdown. And so on.
That's what happens when you get your first shot against a first team offense and aren't ready for it, which Alford is not. The important thing to remember is that rookie corners will have these growing pain, and there's a reason Alford isn't going to start despite his obvious talent.
- The coverage will need to tighten up quite a bit in general before the regular season starts. Having Asante Samuel in there instead of Alford will make a difference, obviously, but if you let Jake Locker go 11/13 against you, you need to be at least mildly concerned about getting guys on the same page for Drew Brees. Maybe more than mildly.
- Jeremy Shelley could be an option for kicker in a year or two, but his 46 yard miss reminds us that he's not there yet. Matt Bryant is not being threatened.
- Matt Bosher averaged 54 yards a punt. He's a Madden punter brought to life.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a real MVP for a game like this, so I'll just give it to Steven Jackson, who looks like he'll have a transformative effect on this offense. They just need to continue to block well for him once the games start to count.