Last night the Atlanta Falcons held their annual Friday Night Lights exhibition scrimmage. The event featured a record attendance, with over 14,000 fans flocking to Gainesville, Georgia to see the Falcons in action. Friday Night Lights is the first time the team gets to participate in full-speed tackling for a few series, so it's something that the players and fans look forward to each season.
While I'm delighted about the turnout--we're really seeing a shift in fan support for the Falcons, a product of five years of sustained success for a franchise that had never experienced consecutive winning seasons prior to 2008--the thousands upon thousands of people in attendance meant that I was forced to stand behind an end zone, which meant that I--along with The DW--didn't have the best view of the entire scrimmage.
Similar to the last few years, the evening opened with members of our U.S. military skydiving into the stadium, with the last one in bearing the flag. It's pretty much indescribably special, but the Falcons and Jay Adams shared a photo and some video.
Friday Night Lights is more than just another step in the team's journey toward the regular season, it's an opportunity for players battling for a roster spot to make their mark. Head coach Mike Smith said that when the coaching staff reviews the film from the evening, they'll be looking for players executing their assignments as well as players giving it 100% on every play.
As far as the scrimmage, Friday Night Lights is really trial by fire for the offense. The scoring system credits the defense one point for "sacks" (which is really just getting to the quarterback, they're not really allowed to hit the quarterback), one point for stopping a drive with no points, one point each for tackles for loss, two points for a forced three-and-out, three points for a fumble recovery, three points for an interception, and six points for a pick-six. The defense is highly motivated to push through the offensive line and disrupt the offense in any possible way.
The offense was awarded six points for each touchdown, three points for each field goal, two points for each consecutive earned first down and one point for each explosive play of over 20 yards.
The quarterbacks donned yellow jerseys to distinguish them for the sake of the defense. Even though some tackling was permitted last night, you obviously don't want anyone hitting your quarterback.
Matt Ryan and the quarterbacks are wearing yellow on the field tonight. Yellow means "STOP! DON'T HIT MATT RYAN!!!" #fnl13— Jay Adams (@FalconsJAdams) August 2, 2013
Dominique Davis saw significant playing time, and I thought he looked very comfortable at full speed. He was getting quite a bit of pressure from the right side (more on that in a bit) but managed to make good adjustments.
Dom Davis looking very good. Hit WR Marcus Sales wide open in a blown coverage situation. Calmly delivered the pass. #fnl13— Jay Adams (@FalconsJAdams) August 3, 2013
Sean Renfree was slower to adjust to the blitz than Davis, which is reasonable considering that Davis has spent a year in this system, and Renfree is fresh out of Duke University. He had some good completions and looked perfectly adequate.
Steven Jackson has such good instincts for finding holes. He will really make a difference for this offense this season.
The running back that stood out the most to me, aside from Jackson, was Georgia State University's own Donald Russell. Russell, wearing Michael Turner's old number, turned in a really solid performance, and was successful rushing the ball and in screen pass situations.
Former Georgia State RB Donald Russell showed some flashy moves, but PK Manley just destroyed a DT to make way for him. #fnl13— Jay Adams (@FalconsJAdams) August 3, 2013
Oh my, Donald Russell!!! Took a handoff, got shut down to the left, shifted direction and went around the right side for a big gain. #fnl13— Jay Adams (@FalconsJAdams) August 3, 2013
Josh Vaughn, a third-year player out of Richmond, also showed some versatility with a big play off of a screen pass.
Harry Douglas had another really solid evening. These past few days collectively represent the best I have seen Douglas look in several seasons at training camp.
I liked Rashad Evans in minicamp, I've liked him in training camp, and he did not disappoint last night. He has sure hands, and lateral quickness that makes him evasive.
WR Rashad Evans just made a nice catch and went for a huge chunk of YAC. Love the YAC. #fnl13— Jay Adams (@FalconsJAdams) August 3, 2013
The coaching staff is going to be faced with a very difficult decision when establishing the final roster at the tight end position. Chase Coffman continues to perform exceptionally well. Andrew Sczerba was the recipient of a really nice touchdown pass from Sean Renfree.
Levine Toilolo has really made strides, and was very effective last night.
Rookie tight end Levine Toilolo just made a very nice catch over the middle in coverage. #fnl13— Jay Adams (@FalconsJAdams) August 3, 2013
Sadly, Tommy Gallarda went down with what looked like a dislocated shoulder to me. You could tell as soon as he hit the ground that it wasn't good. Until that point, he was also turning in a very solid performance.
Dom Davis hits Tommy Gallarda over the middle, but Gallarda holds his left arm and asks to come off the field. #fnl13— Jay Adams (@FalconsJAdams) August 3, 2013
I'll be honest, I had a hard time seeing the offensive and defensive lines from my vantage point, and I am very sorry about that, because that is specifically what I said I would report on today. I could see that neither Mike Johnson nor Lamar Holmes looked particularly good at the right tackle position with full-speed pressure, but Peter Konz and Garrett Reynolds held firm at center and right guard. There was one play that Johnson contained Kroy Biermann, but only because he held Biermann to the point that he had him on the ground with fists full of jersey. For the reserves, Phillipkeith Manley was particularly adept in run blocking.
Although I couldn't see much as far as one-on-one matchups and how individual offensive and defensive linemen managed those matchups, what I could see was Jonathan Massaquoi just absolutely running over anyone in his path. He consistently got into the offensive backfield against the second and third team offensive line. Malliciah Goodman also managed to bring consistent pressure. Against the first team unit, Osi Umenyiora was very difficult to contain. He brings really solid pressure off the edge.
Cliff Matthews also seems to be making a mark at the defensive tackle position.
Big Cliff Matthews bats down a pass at the line from the defensive tackle position. I like him there. Think he could make an impact. #fnl13— Jay Adams (@FalconsJAdams) August 3, 2013
Sean Weatherspoon was fired up, and was flying around the field last night. He looks ready for the regular season.
Brian Banks has established enough confidence in his role at middle linebacker that he's calling the plays. I will be shocked if he doesn't make the final roster. Banks looked particularly good against the run, which is a big need for this Falcons defense.
Brian Banks currently in at middle linebacker, directing the defense. #fnl13— Jay Adams (@FalconsJAdams) August 3, 2013
I've read quite a few things about Paul Worrilow, an undrafted free agent out of the University of Delaware, over the past couple of weeks, although I have to admit that he hasn't made an impression on me at training camp. He sure did last night, though.
And, Robert James is actually having a pretty good few days. He played well last night.
I saw you Robert James! No. 51's # was called for the blitz and he shot through a gap to get there. Didn't bring down QB of course #fnl13— Daniel Cox (@FalconsDCox) August 3, 2013
Joplo Bartu has arguably the best name on the team, and he has consistently impressed through training camp. Last night was no exception.
Undrafted LB Joplo Bartu made a nice play. Dave Archer tells fans to remember that name. He's right. Remember it. #fnl13— Jay Adams (@FalconsJAdams) August 3, 2013
Desmond Trufant is getting better. He is definitely adjusting to the speed of the game.
Trufant with a great pass breakup on one intended for Harry Douglas. Team heads to their benches for halftime. #fnl13— Jay Adams (@FalconsJAdams) August 3, 2013
While Robert Alford's physical play is an asset, he's still working to learn to control it to his advantage.
Alford is still learning to harness his aggression. Covering Cone just now, he got a little over physical and Cone got separation. #FNL13— Daniel Cox (@FalconsDCox) August 2, 2013
However, Alford was very good in coverage overall, including a deflected pass intended for Harry Douglas in the end zone.
Peyton Thompson, who spent last season on Atlanta's practice squad, wrapped up the evening with a pick-six to tie up the scrimmage. The final score was 14-14.
Peyton Thompson with the equalizer and that's it, 14-10 defense wins. #Fnl13— Daniel Cox (@FalconsDCox) August 3, 2013
The night ended with an autograph session, and fireworks.
The main things I took away from Friday Night lights were: Dominique Davis looks more prepared as a backup quarterback than I expected; I'm mildly concerned about the right tackle position; I'm not at all concerned about Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford--they're getting there; and, the coaching staff is going to have a difficult time whittling down the roster. They have a lot of talent to choose from right now.
If you were at Friday Night Lights, share your observations in the comments!