Preseason football is like going to see a movie with a friend that you’ve already seen. It’s better than doing nothing, and you liked it enough to watch again, but you’re probably mentally checked out about halfway through.
While the four weeks before the NFL season begins are nobody’s favorite time of the year, they do provide answers to the deluge of questions that build up during the offseason.
After an interesting 8-8 season in Dan Quinn’s first year with the Falcons, the team had quite an interesting offseason. They made a couple of key free agent signings that received mixed reviews (except for Alex Mack, because he’s perfect) and forged their own path in the NFL draft.
It’s still early, but we are getting glimpses of how those moves might pan out for Atlanta. Here’s a look at how the preseason has answered some of our offseason questions.
Will the pass rush be any better?
This question has been on the mind of every Atlanta fan for what seems like the past decade. It’s also the most important.
Many had hoped that the team would address this issue with their first-round pick in the draft or with a big free agent signing. Adding Dwight Freeney was a smart move by the organization, but he wouldn’t qualify as a “big free agent signing” at this point in his career.
Instead, it appears that coaching staff thinks it can scheme for more sacks. Vic Beasley should be able to improve in Year 2 if he stays fully healthy, and the added linebacker speed will hopefully prevent those last-second, check-down passes.
The team has five sacks so far this preseason, although Adrian Clayborn has the only sack among players likely to receive decent playing time. There have also been a couple of blatant holding penalties that have prevented sacks. It’s important to note that Dwight Freeney hasn’t played more than a handful of snaps and the team doesn’t look like it’s asking Vic Beasley to do too much.
The third preseason game against Miami will tell us a lot more about that status of the pass rush for 2016, but there at least appears to be signs of life thus far.
What should we expect from Mohamed Sanu?
Through two games, Mohamed Sanu looks like a man on a mission to prove people wrong, and that’s an excellent thing to see.
The free agent receiver has five receptions for 63 yards in two games and has been giving a noticeably strong effort. Atlanta was criticized for overpaying Sanu, giving him a five-year, $32.5 million contract, and it’s hard to defend such a large contract for a receiver who has caught only 152 passes and has 11 touchdowns in four seasons.
Still, Sanu doesn’t have to be an all-pro player for Atlanta. He just needs to develop into an effective No. 2, who is capable of hurting defenses when their attention is focused on Julio Jones. So far, it looks like he is determined to become a solid contributor for this offense.
How much better will the offensive line be?
2015 was an interesting year for the Falcons’ offensive line. According to the eyeball test, it was a glaring issue for the offense. Yet some, like Pro Football Focus, graded them as the fourth-best unit in the NFL.
Everyone can agree that the center position was a major problem area for Atlanta last season. The team addressed that need in a huge way by signing the top free agent center available, Alex Mack. His veteran experience should go a long way towards solidifying the interior of the offensive line.
Against Cleveland, the offensive line looked dominant in the running game. Blowing open massive holes for the Falcons’ running backs and getting blocks on the second and third levels of the defense. The strong performance carried over into the latter stages of the game as well, with players like Brandon Wilds and Cyrus Gray benefiting from the open running lanes.
Opponents have only managed two sacks against the Falcons so far, which is a positive sign. Again, they will face a major test against Miami’s stout defensive line this week. With a strong showing against the Dolphins, fans can feel a lot better about the unit heading into 2016.
Will Matt Ryan have a bounce-back year?
A surprising, yet serious problem presented itself last year when Matt Ryan looked completely lost at times in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. The former Pro Bowl quarterback has proven himself to be a very good player in this league, but Ryan’s plentiful turnovers hurt the team in 2015.
Both Ryan and Shanahan have said they are dedicated to improving their relationship and making it work on the field, but the preseason has provided mixed results so far.
In his first outing, Ryan was 0-for-4 and did not look good. Granted, the first drive started at the team’s one-yard line, throwing the offense out of rhythm, but that shouldn’t affect a veteran quarterback like Ryan as badly as it appeared to.
He looked much more comfortable in the second game, completing 6 of his 11 passes for 78 yards. Ryan has plenty of pieces around him, but will need to prove last season was a hurdle he has fully cleared. So far, the jury is still out on whether or not that is the case.
How much will the rookie defenders contribute
Much of the talk this preseason has been focused on the team’s defensive draft picks. Safety Keanu Neal and linebacker Deion Jones and DeVondre Campbell have impressed fans and coaches alike.
Jones and Campbell have particularly been impressive. They have always had the physical tools, but nobody knew how quickly they would be able to pick up the mental aspect of the game. Quinn has said that he simplified the defense a bit to allow them to feel comfortable, but the pair of linebackers have stood out through the first two games.
Reports still indicate the Jones has not beaten out Paul Worrilow for the starting middle linebacker role, but a strong showing in Week 3 would go a long way.
Neal missed the first preseason game because of injury, and did get beat for a touchdown in the second game (although that was more due to the fact that it was a perfect throw than a defensive breakdown), but there have been plenty of positives as well. Coaches have praised his work ethic, saying he is a true professional whose life revolves around football.
The third preseason game will ultimately reveal a lot about the Falcons’ progress from Quinn’s first year to his second, but the early returns look positive so far.