Nate Butler is joining the Falcoholic team. Welcome him warmly and enjoy his impressions of last night's game!
It’s week three of the 2013 NFL Preseason, which for most teams is their starters' final dress rehearsal before the regular season starts in less than two weeks. Same for the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons traveled up to Nashville for a contest against the Tennessee Titans. Last night was the first time the Falcons would have Tony Gonzalez back with the team, after he missed the last few weeks due to other obligations; however, he’s back for yet another run in Atlanta. Also, Roddy White would not play last night due to a low ankle sprain suffered in the first quarter of the Baltimore game last week. Despite the backups losing a 20-7 lead and eventually losing 27-23 last week, the starters were impressive on both sides of the football against the Ravens.
Last night, the Falcons looked to build off of their impressive first half from last week and put on a great showing in what is likely to be the starters' last exhibition game of the 2013 season. One of the most intriguing challenges for Atlanta was limiting the production of Pro Bowl running back Chris Johnson. The Falcons defense stepped up and held Ray Rice to 10 yards on eight carries and if they could find a way to limit the production of Johnson similar to last week, this could be a positive sign for a defense who struggled to contain opposing running attacks last season, finishing in the bottom half of the league in run defense in 2012. Also, Falcons fans were hoping to get a good glimpse at the explosive Falcons offense with the addition of Steven Jackson during the off-season and with the return of Tony Gonzalez. The Falcons were looking to earn their first victory of the pre-season in Nashville.
Atlanta's offense took the field first and would capitalize with a 11 play, 71 yard drive in 5:40 that ended with a Jeremy Shelley field goal of 27 yards to give the Falcons a 3-0 lead. On the Titans' first offensive possession, Atlanta's defense halted a 3 play, 15 yard drive as Jake Locker fumbled after a hit from rookie linebacker Joplo Bartu, and Thomas DeCoud recovered to give Atlanta the football at the Titans' 47 yard line with 7:25 remaining in the quarter. On Atlanta's next drive, the Falcons would again capitalize on a 8-play, 38 yard drive and settled for another Jeremy Shelley field goal of 31 yards and Atlanta took a 6-0 lead with 3:05 remaining in the quarter. After the Titans' following possession stalled, Atlanta's next possession continued into the next quarter.
Atlanta's possession ended with a Jeremy Shelley missed field goal after moving to the Titans' 28 yard line. On Tennessee's next possession, they would take the lead and never surrender it as their 5-play, 64 yard drive ended with a Jake Locker touchdown pass of seven yards to Nate Washington to give the Titans a 7-6 edge. After Atlanta's next offensive drive stalled, the Titans added some more points at the end of the quarter as they capitalized on a six-play, 45 yard drive in :41 seconds to give them a 10-6 lead at halftime.
In the second half, after the Falcons and Titans both traded possesions, Tennessee would score again as they capitalized on a three-play, 64 yard drive that took only 1:16 as backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick connected with Justin Hunter on a 3-yard touchdown to give the Titans a 20-6 lead with 7:52 remaining in the quarter. The Falcons responded with two scoring drives as they would settle for another Jeremy Shelley field goal after a nine-play, 62 yard drive to trim the deficit to 20-9. After Tennessee's possession ended on a Robert Alford interception, Atlanta would capitalize on a three-play, 41 yard drive as Dominique Davis connected on a 41-yard pass to Darius Johnson to cut Tennessee's lead down to 20-16 with 2:18 remaining in the period. Tennessee took their next offensive possession into the final quarter.
The Titans' possession would stall and Atlanta would give the ball back as Dominique Davis was intercepted by Jonathan Williard, and the Titans took over deep in Falcons' territory. Tennessee would put the game away as Ryan Fitzpatrick connected with Michael Preston on a six yard touchdown to give the Titans a 27-16 lead after capitalizing on a six-play, 22 yard drive with 7:43 remaining in the game and that would be the final score as both the Falcons and Titans would fail to score on their next possessions. Tennessee won their first preseason game of the 2013 NFL season and the Falcons would drop to 0-3.
ANALYSIS OF THE OFFENSE:
Steven Jackson's impact on the Falcons offense:
Throughout the preseason, many fans wanted to get their first glimpse of how the Falcons' latest offensive free-agent acquisition would help an already explosive Falcons attack and tonight, he once again was very impressive. Tonight, Jackson ran for 51 yards on eleven carries and also posted 15 yards receiving on three receptions. He is showing that he'll give Atlanta much-needed versatility at the running back position. Despite approaching the age of 30, which is the year of decline for most NFL running backs, he's looking hungrier than ever to provide a boost to a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
Bradie Ewing impact:
Tonight, Bradie Ewing received his first action of preseason and showed signs that he could be the best fit at fullback for Atlanta. During the Falcons first two possessions of the game, he provided Steven Jackson with the space to establish an impact on the ground. Due to his efforts, Jackson averaged almost five yards per carry in the first quarter. Ewing, who was selected in the (5th) round of last year's NFL Draft as a replacement for Pro Bowler Ovie Mughelli, suffered a season-ending injury during the 2012 preseason. Tonight, Ewing's efforts displayed the physicality needed at that position.
Tony Gonzalez return:
Although Gonzalez didn't make much of an impact, you could tell he is still the player that Falcons fans have grown to love over the last five seasons. Gonzalez caught two passes for 21 yards in tonight's game. It was a great feeling to have the future Hall of Fame tight end back with the Falcons and preparing for another run at winning a championship.
Darius Johnson continues to impress:
One of the most impressive offensive players of this pre-season is Darius Johnson. Tonight, he caught four passes for 62 yards, including a very impressive reception on a 44-yard touchdown pass from Dominique Davis. Johnson's impact is making the 4th and 5th receiver positions on Atlanta's depth chart, which are currently held by Drew Davis and Kevin Cone, look like they may not be set in stone. Johnson has made a reception in every preseason game, and was a key receiver last week as the Falcons almost won the preseason contest against the Ravens in the final moments. He's caught 12 receptions for 139 yards and a touchdown this preseason, and his efforts could earn him a position on the 53-man roster in a few weeks.
Things to Improve:
In tonight's game, the Falcons settled for three field goals and missed another attempt, which coach Mike Smith and Matt Ryan both addressed as a need for improvement. Last season, the Falcons had the same issue of settling for field goals instead of touchdowns in the red zone, and it was a huge difference in the NFC Championship loss as well. The team will address this over the next two weeks, whether it's the play-calling or another issue, but this could raise some concerns if the Falcons continue to encounter this issue during the regular season.
Offensive Line Consistency:
In the first two offensive possessions, the Falcons offensive line was effective with their blocking in both aspects; however, afterwards, they would struggle and surrender five sacks in the first three quarters. The offensive line in the first two games struggled in the running game; however, tonight Matt Ryan couldn't receive any time in the pocket due to the lack of consistency. The right side of Atlanta's line needs to improve because the most pressure was coming from the side where Garrett Reynolds and first-time starting lineman Lamar Holmes were blocking. Pat Hill will have his hands full for the next few weeks; however, he'll make sure the offensive line is prepared.
ANALYSIS OF THE DEFENSE:
Defensive Line Pressure:
The Falcons' defensive line led by Osi Umenyiora and Kroy Biermann have shown some improvements throughout pre-season and tonight, Biermann was very impressive as he posted a game-high 7 tackles (5 solo) with 2 sacks, 3 tackles for loss and 2 quarterback hits. If the Falcons can have an effective pass rush, this makes it tough for opposing teams to handle a unit who already is pretty solid in the secondary. Atlanta got a boost from defensive tackle Corey Peters, who tallied 3 tackles (3 solo) with one sack, 2 tackles for loss and one quarterback hit. When healthy, Peters is a key contributor on our defensive line, and with Jonathan Babineaux, the two interior defensive linemen will cause havoc all season long.
After last year's change of Mike Nolan as the Falcons defensive coordinator, the team has taken some steps in the right direction in order to become an aggressive, and opportunistic, defense as well. Despite the loss, the Falcons forced two turnovers and that was a key part of Atlanta's success last season. This season, I expect to see similar results from the team, if not better.
Things to Improve
At times, the Falcons' secondary struggled to maintain their coverage match-ups against Tennessee after Asante Samuel left the game in the first quarter with a thigh injury. Due to his injury, we would witness both Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant receiving more snaps as outside corner backs and of course, there were some good moments and then, there were rookie mistakes made, however, they will both have their ups and downs. It's a part of the learning curve all rookies face upon entering the NFL; however, they must be completely prepared by week one. Jake Locker completed 11/13 passes during the game, which is unlikely for him, and a portion of his success was due to the lack of experience the Falcons had on the field at cornerback as well.
Defending Mobile Quarterbacks:
Atlanta's biggest issue, even dating back to the 2012 campaign, was their inability to contain a scrambling quarterback. Tonight, Jake Locker avoided some potential sacks and made a play with his mobility or completed some passes to his receivers during a scramble. Ryan Fitzpatrick, during a few plays, gained positive rushing yards, which is very unusual for Fitzpatrick, and that's due to the line pressure inconsistency. The Falcons need to figure out a way to contain quarterbacks with mobility from making an impact because the defense sometimes plays too cautiously, and that usually leads to mistakes.
In this game, Robert Alford received a lot of snaps with the first team defense and would go through some growing pains as a NFL rookie. Alford allowed his first touchdown to Nate Washington. He also was burned for a huge completion and surrendered two more scores in the second half. Also, he made a interception which led to Atlanta's only touchdown of the game and went through some ups and downs in coverage. This is not a bad thing for the young corner, it's just a way for him to learn from his mistakes and take the next step.
Just like Robert Alford, Desmond Trufant struggled at times during the game as well. His coverage was shaky, which is expected from a rookie; however, his play throughout the preseason is similar and if the Falcons are starting him against New Orleans in two weeks, he needs to step his game up another notch.
Due to an injury to Stephen Nicholas, the rookie linebacker from Texas State got an opportunity to start and impressed as Bartu provided a big impact in our linebacker corps, finishing with four tackles and a forced fumble on Jake Locker. Don't be surprised if Bartu either makes the 53-man roster or earns a spot on the Falcons' practice squad.
Worrilow, who is receiving a lot of attention due to his effective impact as a linebacker in Atlanta's first two preseason games, finished with two solid tackles tonight. Similar to Bartu, he should also make a strong case to make the Falcons' 53-man roster or practice squad.
Although the Falcons lost, there are many positive things that were displayed in tonight's preseason game. They must improve in certain areas of the game as well, but Atlanta can now begin to game plan for their game in two weeks against the New Orleans Saints. The Falcons will play their final preseason game on Thursday against the Jacksonville Jaguars at the Georgia Dome. We should expect to see significant playing time from guys who are involved in position battles, and their performance will help determine which players will make the Atlanta Falcons 53-man roster.