Last night was more or less the perfect representation of a preseason game. It featured an exciting performance from the starters, and it proceeded to obliterate all the good feelings generated by said performance with three quarters of mediocre, penalty-ridden football.
The sour feeling that arises after watching the second-and-third stringers bumble and fumble through most of the game erases what's actually important here, which is that the starters killed it. Scoring at will against the Titans is one thing, but when you're pushing past one of the league's best front sevens and Darrelle Revis, you have to feel good. With Vic Beasley looking fast and the defense making the Jets look even more inept than usual despite being down William Moore, Desmond Trufant, and Ra'Shede Hageman, the good vibes were everywhere.
The issue here is depth, which is where 90% of the anxiety from this game is going to originate. I have no particularly reassuring words for you about the backups here, whether they be the potential reserve options at quarterback, the offensive line, or the secondary. The Falcons have the depth to weather the storm at wide receiver and the front seven, but if they take hits anywhere else, they're likely in real trouble for 2015. That gives them something in common with better than 75% of the teams in the NFL, but that's small comfort after watching the slog last night.
Bottom line, though, is that this team did quality work against quality starters despite being down a few starters. A critical third preseason game against the Dolphins looms, but if we see this level of performance one more time, it's going to be impossible to be overly pessimistic about the season ahead.
On to our observations and superlatives.
- Matt Ryan looked stellar for the second straight week. He stepped into his pocket well, threw darts and made one of the more impressive throws I've seen from him recently when he zipped it past a Jets defender into the waiting hands of fullback Collin Mooney, finishing his night at 4/5 for 75 yards and a touchdown. Ryan's gonna have a nice year, methinks.
- Speaking of Mooney, he's making one hell of a case for a roster spot. That 59 yard reception was one (beautiful) thing, but his soul-breaking block on the Terron Ward touchdown run was something else entirely.
- On a night where the Falcons were once again without their top three running backs, Jerome Smith had the best evening. I'm not saying he's pushing for a roster spot, but it's clear Ward needs seasoning, and if the Falcons keep four, Smith's blocking acumen and hard-charging style may give him the edge.
- Leonard Hankerson's numbers are not that impressive—just three receptions for 15 yards and a touchdown—but he displayed nice hands, speed, and body control in reeling in all three of those passes from Matt Ryan. I think he's heading for a big season, particularly if Roddy White can't stay on the field.
- Justin Hardy got off to a slow start, with a drop and penalty marring his night, but he really is a sure-handed, competent rookie receiver. The only thing holding him back at this point is that he's behind Julio, Roddy, and Hank Time, and that he doesn't necessarily have the rapport he'll need to have with Ryan for regular season action. I truly believe he'll be a good one, though.
- Levine Toilolo made a nice catch on a two point conversion. No jokes, I was happy for him on that one.
- Nick Williams has an outside shot to make this team, but he's making the most of his opportunities. He's shown a little shake and bake as a returner, and he continues to make tough catches in traffic when T.J. Yates is out there slinging around rockets like a blind man in a Russian armory. He's shown me enough to think he has to hit the practice squad, at least.
- The first-team offensive line largely held, and I'm not going to hold a so-so run blocking effort against them when they're not blocking for any of the team's top three running backs. The line thins out fast after the starters, and there were a few hiccups in pass protection from James Stone and Jake Matthews, but I feel fine about the unit. That'll have to do, given the last two years, but we'll get to some specific criticism in a minute.
- Vic Beasley looks like a stud no matter where he's playing. He fought his way into the backfield, got his hand on a pass, and generally looked like one of the two-or-three most explosive players on the field against the Jets. I don't know what his ceiling is and I don't know what his 2015 is going to look like, but I'm tremendously excited to see what he can do, nonetheless.
- Stansly Maponga wants to make this team. It wasn't all impressive, as Bryce Petty escaped from him once and he looked a little lost in the backfield late in the third quarter, but Maponga picked up his second sack in two weeks and generally looks fast and difficult to fight off. He'll be a reserve, of course, but I like his chances of making the team.
- The linebackers looked at least solid across the board, I thought, but I felt Justin Durant continued to stand out in limited reps. He fits the "fast and physical" mantra perfectly.
- Kemal Ishmael was active and hard-hitting, as per usual, and it's very obvious the team won't feel hesitant to turn to him if William Moore is banged up this season. He's coming along nicely.
- Between special teams and defense, you simply aren't going to find a more aggressive, hard-charging linebacker than Allen Bradford. Where Tyler Starr had a relatively quiet second game after a quality first one, Bradford built on all of his camp and preseason hype and delivered another solid performance. I wouldn't say Bradford is a roster lock, but he's done everything he needs to to this point.
- Maybe Devin Hester doesn't have a huge role on offense, but his dynamic 59 yard punt return should have reminded you of exactly why he's valuable. He's a legendary returner for a reason.
- The backup quarterback competition is going to make Aaron Freeman at FalcFans look like a genius. Freeman predicted recently that the Falcons would try to trade Jon Asamoah for Kirk Cousins, and given that Sean Renfree was merely okay and T.J. Yates mixed a handful of nice throws with an interception and a safety, this battle looks both unsettled and kind of grim. The Falcons may well look outside the organization for help, but they're likely to give the Renfree/Yates battle one more week.
- The ground game looked bad, but with good reason. The blocking wasn't phenomenal up front, but when you're working with Terron Ward, Jerome Smith, and Mike Ford, you're only going to do so well. The Jets are also notoriously stout upfront.
- James Stone and Chris Chester struggled a bit on the interior, and a Stone/Jacob Tamme miscommunication led to Yates getting nailed in the end zone for a safety. Something to work on.
- Tyler Polumbus just cannot pass protect at a high enough level to stick on this roster. Harsh, but after watching the game last night, I think also fair.
- Dan Quinn told reporters he wasn't happy with the tackling after the first quarter, and you can see why. The Jets don't have a dynamic offense, but the Falcons' defense consistently failed to make stops at the line of scrimmage, which
- Dezmen Southward is doomed. I'll give him a lot of credit and say he diagnosed an end zone pass perfectly, but he couldn't come up with the interception, and was otherwise mediocre-to-terrible in coverage. It's deeply unfortunate, because I think he has the tools to turn into a quality player, but I think he's off the roster.
- I feel for a guy like DJ Tialavea, who is fighting against impossible odds just to make the roster. That fumble to close out the game was, however, like watching a duck try to juggle a cactus. Awful.
- They're injuries to backups, but it's rough to see Evan Royster, Derek Akunne and potentially Mickey Shuler getting hurt. With some of the starters already out for the short-term, the Falcons aren't suffering major blows, but they are taking a ton of paper cuts.
Game MVP: Matt Ryan continues to dominate preseason. That's relatively meaningless, but if he can keep this up in the regular season, we're going to call him #elite.
Theme Song: Some song that's really good at first, and then descends into seven minutes of kazoos.
One Takeaway: This is the best-looking Falcons team since 2012, so long as injuries don't strike. Oh God, don't let injuries strike.
Next Week: The talented Miami Dolphins, in a road game, in a critical third preseason game that will see the starters play most of the first half. Follow The Phinsider for a lot more about the Dolphins.
Final Word: Don'tgethurtFalcons.