You want to come into arguably the most important preseason game with your starters looking sharp. The Falcons accomplished that and then some against the Titans last night, turning the game over to the backups with a 17-10 lead. The Falcons subsequently lost in embarrassing fashion, but at least it was the backups.
Aside from a couple of long, worrisome bombs between Jake Locker and Nate Washington, the defense largely held the Titans first team offense in check. The first team Falcons' offense absolutely shredded a middling Tennessee defense on two drives and made solid headway on others, quieting some of the doubts raised by that lousy Texans game. The Titans looked completely overwhelmed until late in the second quarter, and I have little doubt that a complete game between first units would have ended with the Falcons up.
The backups, meanwhile, were at the mercy of Zach Mettenberger & Co. and did not show particularly well. The starters, you'll recall, left with a 17-10 advantage that the reserves squandered, allowing a total of 14 points en route to a loss. To say they did so while looking sloppy is a mild understatement, though Sean Renfree and Geraldo Boldewijn nearly led them back to a tie. They'll have a chance to show better, more tangible progress this Thursday night, and with injuries an ever-present concern, I could certainly be reassured.
Overall, it was a solid performance by the starters and a necessary one after the crapstorm kicked up by last week's game. There are adjustments left to be made, to borrow a favorite Smittyism, but this team looked like they'll have a fighting chance in the regular season games ahead. When Matt Ryan, your receivers your special teams and your front seven are looking better, you're at least in decent shape, even if your secondary decides to pick last night as the night to lose their way and the pass rush still isn't impressing anyone. This is a roster with real limitations, but I'm still optimistic enough to believe that they can turn in a greatly improved effort in 2014.
The Falcons likely will only give their starters a drive or two at most in the fourth preseason game, so this was our best chance to see the starters work before Week 1 against the Saints. As is always the case, you shouldn't take too much away from a single preseason performance, especially against a less-than-excellent team, but seeing the first teams fare well over an entire half and change was the best sign we're going to get at the end of August. Buckle up for the last game on Thursday night.
On to the individual recaps.
- Matt Ryan was sharp as a bowl of nails, racking up 224 yards on 23 passes with a pair of touchdowns. With a little bit of pressure late in the first and early in the second quarter, he still managed to step up into the pocket and deliver some beautiful passes, especially on the 31 yard touchdown on a slant to Devin Hester and the 52 yard bomb to Julio Jones. Regular season tune-up over, he's ready for the Saints.
- Sean Renfree got to come in against the third-stringers, but he impressed immediately in a way T.J. Yates can only dream of. He completed his first five passes, showed impressive poise and accuracy from the pocket and just generally looked like a player who has made enormous strides from year-to-year. Yates is not safe at this point, nor should he be.
- Jacquizz Rodgers started for the third straight game, and this was by far his most impressive effort of the preseason. He caught the ball well, ran hard and showed the kind of versatility a coaching staff can fall in love with. Rodgers is still young and a useful player, and while he shouldn't legitimately start for this team, he's likely ensured he has a third down role.
- Julio Jones looked ready, as well. He caught a 52 yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan (not a bomb, he said apologetically) and ran crisp routes with no hitch in his step all day. Any concerns about his athleticism and readiness are, at the moment, apparently misplaced. Let's hope that continues to be the case.
- Harry Douglas threw a particularly nasty block. I was urged to mention that.
- Devin Hester is never going to be a high-volume target in this passing attack, but the Falcons talked about making him a part of the offense and they haven't reneged on that promise. Hester pulled down a beautiful pass on a slant route and took it 31 yards to the house, mixing in three other short catches to leave him with a total of four for 56 yards. As long as the team limits his use, Hester can be a weapon.
- Geraldo Boldewijn has been arguably the most impressive receiver down the depth chart the last two weeks, wrestling the title away from Bernard Reedy. I have to imagine he's got a shot at the practice squad, particularly if he can keep it up for one more week, and he has the size and speed that Falcons coaches love.
- Give Lamar Holmes credit: He went out there as the starter at right tackle and handled his blocking assignments well. Given how woeful he was for long stretches of 2013, his play thus far has been truly night and day, and Gabe Carimi's going to have to hurry back if he wants to wrest the starting gig away.
- Ra'Shede Hageman had a couple of nice stops and his first sack, a great sign for a rookie still learning his way. I think questions about his work ethic are overblown, and I hope the only question we're asking about his ceiling right now is "how quickly can he get there?"
- Prince Shembo continued to look fast, fluid and tough, and it's basically a foregone conclusion that he'll have the starting job next to Worrilow. Joplo Bartu should be a useful super-substitute, but it's hard to argue that Shembo hasn't earned this.
- Paul Worrilow and Robert Alford came up with a sack apiece, and I'm always delighted to see young players sacking quarterbacks. Worrilow, in particular, had his finest effort of the young season.
- Kemal Ishmael was all over the field, tackling well. That's refreshing, and he should carve out a nice little role as a reserve and special teamer, if nothing else.
- T.J. Yates seemed to walk into the perfect situation, one where he was battling a 7th rounder coming off a major injury and a UDFA from Cornell. Given that level of competition, you had to figure that once Yates got the playbook down, he was destined for the backup role.
Maybe Yates still will grab that, but I'm no longer very confident. He continued to look uncertain and lousy throwing the football against backups, and Renfree should get every shot to unseat him this coming week.
- I'm hoping Devonta Freeman grows into the role, but it's fair to say the Falcons are still woeful in short yardage without Steven Jackson. Jacquizz Rodgers couldn't advance on fourth and short right before the end of the first half, another sign that the Falcons may not have totally kicked that particular limitation.
- It was another quiet evening for Kroy Biermann, which is only noteworthy because at this point a significant, vocal portion of the fanbase thinks he should be selling unsharpened pencils in another country. It's fair to wonder whether Biermann is going to keep the starting job he seemed destined for when the offseason began, and that's not real clear right now.
- The secondary continued to have some communication issues, issues exacerbated by a couple of penalties and a couple of honest-to-goodness blown coverages. Nate Washington should not be going off for 90+ yards on three receptions against your defense, preseason or no. This will obviously need to be ironed out before the Falcons play against a talented group of Saints receivers in Week 1.
- The refs and the league for calling so many stupid penalties all offseason long. Kills what little flow you get in a preseason game and stalls drives. The Falcons also have not completely mastered the level of discipline that used to be their calling card, as is evidenced by the many non-referee-driven penalties last night, especially Jacques Smith's big swing. You can still tip your cap to a crew that was hellbent on displaying more yellow flags than Vatican City.
- The Falcons lost Mike Johnson, not Ryan Schraeder, and Dezmen Southward to as-yet unknown injuries, and we'll have to hope they're not serious, lest the team lose a pair of useful backups.
- They lost a preseason game. :-(
Game MVP: Matt Ryan, who threw for over 200 yards in the first half, accounted for both touchdowns and just generally looked to be in mid-season form.
Game Theme Song: I got...
One Thing To Take Away: Sweet, tangible progress. Preseason progress, though.
Final Word: Startersgoodreservesbad.