The Falcons just lost to one of the worst teams in the NFL due to horrible turnovers at inopportune moments in the game and inconsistent defensive play.
There is a bright spot to take away away from the game, though. Jalen Collins, Justin Hardy, and Grady Jarrett all performed admirably while seeing extended snaps versus Tampa Bay. When the draft concluded in May the overwhelming consensus was that the Falcons pulled in an impressive haul, a potentially franchise altering draft. If Sunday was an indication of the future, those predictions may end up true.
Collins, Hardy, and Jarrett all put on great performances and displayed why they were highly regarded leading into the draft in an otherwise forgettable game.
Coming into the season, Jalen Collins was seen as a major "boom or bust" cornerback prospect. He fits the prototype of what NFL teams are looking for in cornerbacks to a T: Long, athletic, and big.
His physical gifts have never been in question, but his ability to play right away and make a positive impact right off the bat were understandably in doubt. Collins didn't start many games at LSU and when he did get on the field his play was inconsistent. He didn't perform well at all in the preseason which (laughably) had Falcons fans calling for his head going into the season.
He's improved by leaps and bounds since then and looks to be a legitimate number two corner moving forward in Dan Quinn's defense. Against the Buccaneers he was only thrown at once the entire game, mainly due to the lockdown coverage he was routinely displaying at all levels of the field.
Against the Buccaneers, Dan Quinn employed a lot of man coverage looks, immediately testing Collins' ability to guard NFL receivers all over the field. He passed the test with flying colors.
On the following play the Falcons called Cover 2 Man, which means the safeties are playing deep coverage while the rest of the defense is playing man coverage. Watch Collins give up minimal separation at the line of scrimmage before effectively trailing his man on a crossing route.
His footwork and confidence within the defense are much improved from the preseason and early portions of the season. Quinn and the coaching staff brought him along slowly after a rocky start and it's already paying dividends on the field.
Collins is also showing much better patience and awareness in zone coverage than he did at the beginning of the season. In the preseason (and against the Texans in Week 4) he had a bad tendency to display overaggressive play in zone that allowed receivers to easily get behind him.
Here he shows much better patience keeping the receiver in front of him and in his sights at all time. Small aspects of cornerback play like patience and confidence go a very long way in showing in-season improvement. Assuming Robert Alford leaves for free agency after his contract expires, Jalen Collins should be in a great position to step in and succeed. Sunday's game was a nice, promising start for him.
Grady Jarrett was the steal of the Falcons' draft. Many draft analysts had Jarrett pegged as a Day 2 pick, but he inexplicably fell to the 5th round of the draft. So far, he's been the Falcons best rookie, prompting Dan Quinn to reward him with more playing time.
That decision paid off in a big way on Sunday. When Jarrett was on the field he was constantly disruptive versus the run and showed off strength, technique, and athleticism that made him so highly regarded.
The play above is a fantastic example of Jarrett's athleticism. He shows poor gap discipline at the start of the play by jumping from the B gap to the C gap, but has the explosive ability to cover lost ground. Jarrett compresses the right tackle before exploding down the line of scrimmage to make a tackle for no gain.
An under-appreciated aspect of defensive line play is the ability to sift through traffic while being able to find the ballcarrier. When Atlanta goes to their 4-3 under front with five players on the line scrimmage, the number of bodies in a confined space can create murky situations for the offense and defense.
Jarrett holds his ground against former All-Pro guard Logan Mankins before tracking down Doug Martin for a loss. Notice on this play he has much better gap discipline than the previous play. As a three technique, his responsibility is to control and maintain leverage in the B gap. The front side of the play gets blown up by Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson leaving Jarrett with clean up duty on the backside.
He uses great technique to extend his arms, create separation, and then gets skinny to squeeze through Mankins and muck on the right side of the offensive line to back an outstanding tackle for loss. Jarrett's been making splash plays in the backfield all season long and he's going to be an integral part of the defense as the Falcons push for a playoff spot over the back half of the season.
Much like Jalen Collins, patience was going to be key for Justin Hardy. With many colleges running spread, up-tempo attacks (like East Carolina) the value of a massive playbook has diminished to a degree. Atlanta Falcons reporter Andrew Hirsh spoke with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan about Hardy's long path to being promoted to the active roster.
Hardy definitely looked ready when he saw his first action against Tampa Bay.
Throughout the season the lack of a legitimate number two receiver has hampered the potential of Atlanta's offense. Now that Hardy has an increased understanding of the playbook, he should be able to fill in that role throughout the rest of the season.
With Matt Ryan struggling some this season, attacking underthrown balls and being fearless in coverage has to be a key trait for any receiver seeing extended playing time in this offense. Hardy comes back hard on the curl route and snatches the ball out of the air knowing that there's a defender in the area ready to knock him into next week.
An issue that's been plaguing the offense with Leonard Hankerson out is how long it takes routes to develop without a second speed presence on the field across from Julio Jones. While Hardy isn't a burner, and he shouldn't be mistaken for one, his route running is crisp and his initial acceleration out of cuts allows him to get open.
Even though he's a smaller receiver, his route running and suddenness make him a threat in the redzone. When a receiver doesn't have top tier athleticism, the nuance needed to be successful is ratcheted up a bit. Hardy's quick feet in and out of his breaks allow him to get open in the short area of the field. When Hardy wasn't getting the ball he was still finding space to get open which bodes well for this passing game as he and Matt Ryan get on the same page.
Sunday was an impressive performance for all three of these Falcons rookies. They've all improved greatly since the start of the season; the coaching staff has clearly made a positive imprint on the younger players. They'll all be crucial pieces to the team as the final push into the playoffs starts.
Don't worry too much about Vic Beasley. He's struggling right now, but expectations for him may have been a bit too high coming in as a top ten pick. Be on the lookout for a piece about his rookie year during the bye week.