One of the biggest preseason challenges is not overreacting, particularly when evaluating every player that is guaranteed to make the roster. They are playing between 15 to 25 snaps each game. Nobody knows if they are truly going full speed or playing in the right role. There is no credible indication about any major free agent signing or draft pick heading towards bust territory following preseason.
Every new addition deserves time to adapt in a new scheme or acclimate to playing on a professional level. Although Dan Quinn's defense is known for being fairly basic, it's very demanding for players in certain roles. It's no secret that Kyle Shanahan's offense is the complete opposite. A nine-year veteran quarterback is still trying to grasp his playbook.
Thursday's win showcased plenty of positives for Falcon fans. The offensive line absolutely dominated Cleveland's front seven. Unlike last year, they look cohesive and stable, especially with Alex Mack taking charge. Depth at running back hasn't looked better with Cyrus Gray and Brandon Wilds having impressive performances. Mohamed Sanu showed his ability to break tackles in the open field. Tom Compton is establishing himself as a versatile backup. Those were some positives from the new additions. Unfortunately, there were plenty of underwhelming performances.
Big defensive free-agent stumbles
The defensive line received major upgrades at defensive end. While Dwight Freeney gets back into football shape, it leaves Derrick Shelby as a key player based on his contract and decent possibility of playing the most snaps out of every defensive lineman on the roster. It remains to be seen if Shelby will play on the interior, when Vic Beasley and Freeney are both on the field.
Quinn may be hesitant to utilize Shelby in that role following Thursday's calamity. Joel Bitonio and John Greco took turns manhandling him at the line of scrimmage. Whether it was pushing him back five yards on running plays or eliminating him from creating any pass rush, Shelby was a complete liability on the inside. For a player that is considered versatile, he couldn't have looked more out of place.
Miami shifted Shelby to the inside on a few occasions. He created some penetration and looked comfortable. Then again, playing alongside Ndamukong Suh and receiving one-on-one opportunities can do that for any defensive tackle. With Jonathan Babineaux still effective, but turning 35 in October, they should have second thoughts on trying to make him Shelby a three-down player. Adrian Clayborn is undersized as a defensive tackle, yet never looked as overwhelmed on the inside as Shelby looked on Thursday.
There is still plenty of reason to be excited about Shelby. Pro Football Focus rated him highly as a defensive end. He should play an integral role in their base defense. In my free agency preview column, Shelby was one of the ten players on my wishlist. Setting the edge against the run and overpowering offensive tackles as a pass rusher were two main qualities from his four years at Miami. After Kroy Biermann and Tyson Jackson lined up at defensive end in their base package last season, Shelby should prove to be a massive upgrade. They should consider using him primarily there instead of trying to make him into a complete lineman, which doesn't appear to be the case following Thursday's alarming performance.
Questions about the offensive acquisitions
Besides Sean Weatherspoon's bizarre penalty and Courtney Upshaw looking massive (not in a good way), the free agent signings didn't play poorly. Sanu's lack of speed was evident on some occasions. Jamar Taylor broke up a pass on third down intended to Sanu, where he failed to sell a fake and ran a predictable slant route. We'll have to see how the high-priced wide receiver will be most effective. He appears to be a classic possession receiver, but looks to earn every possible yard. It's rare to have two wide receivers that are difficult to tackle in the open field. Shanahan needs to design ways to isolate Julio Jones and Sanu for them to physically overwhelm cornerbacks.
The expectations for every offensive draft pick aren't necessarily high. Devin Fuller is showing glimpses as a wide receiver and punt returner. Compared to Justin Hardy and Eric Weems, the difference in speed and vision between Fuller and them is staggering. The other rookies haven't quite excelled after promising training camps. Austin Hooper is being asked to block more than run routes. He blew a run blocking assignment, which led to Tevin Coleman being tackled in the backfield, before having the chance to look upfield. Levine Toilolo and D.J. Tialavea are earning more reps with the first-team.
Hooper isn't necessarily having a poor preseason, but many analysts expected him to contribute immediately. The next two weeks should indicate his place within Shanahan's offense. Hardy struggled learning the playbook last year and didn't make his official NFL debut until November. If a rookie isn't ready to contribute, the coaching staff won't hesitate putting him on the inactive list for two months.
Wes Schweitzer has shown promise, but he shouldn't pose a threat to Chris Chester at right guard. His run blocking success gets derailed by being consistently overpowered in pass protection. Matt Simms faced constant interior pressure during the second half.
All three rookies played in the first team defense on Thursday. They all had their learning moments during the first half. Deion Jones and DeVondre Campbell failed to make plays in run support. Campbell's instincts were critiqued in many pre-draft scouting reports. The fourth round pick tends to run straight at blockers instead of navigating running plays. Linebacker coach Jeff Ulbrich will need to work on combining his athleticism with better discipline and awareness. The talent is undoubtedly recognizable. He broke up a third down pass intended to Duke Johnson, which would have easily been a 20-yard completion against the Falcons last year.
The front seven looked shaky, as Isaiah Crowell found running lanes on a consistent basis. Jones missed a clear tackle on the first play of the game. After missing two tackles against Washington, it wasn't a very encouraging start for him. What should have been a one-yard gain turned into eight yards. The second round pick failed to make any standout plays either. While Campbell needs to develop better instincts, Jones will have to work on wrapping up. According to Pro Football Focus, tackling was one of his biggest issues in college. Without improved tackling, Jones will be reduced to nickel package responsibilities instead of completely taking Paul Worrilow's starting spot.
Keanu Neal found himself on the receiving end of a beautiful touchdown pass from Robert Griffin III. He ran step for step with Gary Barnidge, before losing position in the end. Finish is one of Quinn's most common words. Neal failed to do so against the emerging star tight end. It looked more like a "Welcome to NFL" moment rather than major concern based on the coverage. Quinn was impressed by Neal's range during pre-draft workouts. It's no secret that Neal will play a significant role in Quinn's defensive rebuilding project. Andy Benoit of Sports Illustrated wrote an informative piece about Neal's responsibilities in the Cover Three scheme. This is something everyone should be watching closely on a weekly basis.
Next week's showcase
As the third preseason game approaches, every starter and key rotational player will have more opportunities. Miami should present a good test on Thursday. The first-team offensive line was embarrassed last year. With Adam Gase's past success in Denver and Chicago, Quinn's defense will be challenged as well. It was a largely forgettable game for many players expected to make the roster against Cleveland. They have one more game to make an impact before opening day against Tampa Bay.