The Falcons took on the Steelers on Sunday in a game that was in equal parts riveting and downright unwatchable. If you turned the game off at halftime, you would’ve spared yourself the agony of watching two teams trade punts for nearly two hours straight. Luckily, the part before halftime was the part that actually mattered, as those first-and-second teamers are the ones that are actually going to be playing in the NFL in 2017.
With that in mind, here are some of my observations after re-watching the game today.
The first team offense looks as potent as ever
Matt Ryan and the starting offense—sans star players Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, and Taylor Gabriel—once again marched down the field and scored an opening drive TD. They made it look effortless, and the similarities to last year’s team were undeniable. Steve Sarkisian appears to be running a very similar offensive scheme to what Kyle Shanahan ran during his time in Atlanta, and you can tell the players are very comfortable in it.
This is just the preseason, of course, but the early signs from the offense are very encouraging. Here’s to hoping the team continues its offensive dominance into the 2017 regular season.
Austin Hooper is going to be a major factor in 2017
All of us knew Hooper would have a larger role with Jacob Tamme no longer on the team, but the scope of that role was still unclear. Over the last two games, we’ve received some clarity: Hooper appears to be one of Ryan’s most trusted targets, and is likely to play a major role in this offense. The second-year TE looked much improved as a blocker and made a few highlight reel catches in the game against Pittsburgh.
It’s important to note that Ryan often looked Hooper’s way when under pressure, or on high-importance throws (like third downs). That level of confidence in a player is meaningful, and tells us that Hooper could be in for a big year in 2017.
The starting defense continued to look impressive
We all know that the Falcons’ defense in 2016 was an up-and-down unit that mixed flashes of very solid play with periods of ineptitude. Quinn knew the defense wasn’t quite where it needed to be, and he spent the offseason adding pieces to bolster the unit. If the performances we’ve seen in the first two preseason games are any indication, those moves—coupled with the development of several key second-year players—have produced results.
The Falcons’ starters still haven’t allowed a TD in the preseason. Free agent addition Dontari Poe has looked disruptive and athletic playing next to potential breakout candidate Grady Jarrett. The secondary is talented and loaded with depth. If this unit can make the leap to a top-15 or better defense in 2017, the Falcons could once again be among the best teams in the NFL.
There are mixed results from the rookie class so far
Everyone was excited to see the Falcons’ first round pick, Takkarist McKinley, make his NFL debut on Sunday. He did not disappoint, and looked like a dynamic and disruptive pass rusher. Damontae Kazee left the game with an ankle injury, but not before making several impressive plays—including an awesome open-field tackle for loss. Duke Riley got time with the second team and made several impressive stops.
The rest of the class has been rather disappointing, however. Sean Harlow looked improved from his disastrous first game, but still struggled in pass protection. Brian Hill still couldn’t get any blocking, making any evaluation of him difficult. Eric Saubert remains an incredibly raw prospect that looks out of place on an NFL field. It’s too early to draw any conclusions about these players, but Falcons fans should temper their expectations for many of these rookies.
The offensive line depth is a problem
After the first team offensive line left the field, there was an immediate drop-off in line play. That’s not entirely unexpected, but the level of the drop-off was pretty concerning. The Falcons’ offense, led by Matt Simms, couldn’t manage anything after halftime—in large part due to the offensive line giving up pressure or sacks on nearly every play.
The signing of T Austin Pasztor should help quite a bit in this area. He should immediately become the team’s swing tackle, and provide a much more experienced back-up to Matthews and Schraeder. The top two back-ups should be solid players (Garland and Pasztor), but there is very little behind them that is trustworthy.
Marvin Hall and Reggie Davis are the clear standouts among the UDFAs
The two most exciting UDFAs this offseason have probably been WRs. Marvin Hall and Reggie Davis have both impressed in the first two preseason games, and have clearly distanced themselves from the pack in the competition for the 6th WR spot. Hall is more of a possession-type receiver, where Davis is more of a deep threat. Both showcased solid hands and dynamic playmaking ability.
It’s going to be a close call between these two and veteran Nick Williams. At the moment, I’m still leaning towards Hall due to his previous relationship with Sarkisian. But the team could view Davis as filling a more important role with two possession-type receivers already on the roster in Sanu and Hardy. It’ll be interesting to watch this battle play out over the final two preseason games.
There will be some difficult cuts along the defensive line
The Falcons defensive line rotation looks absolutely loaded with depth. Add to that the presence of some truly intriguing UDFA and camp players like EDGE J’Terius Jones, DT Taniela Tupou, and DT Joe Vellano and you have a recipe for some talented players getting cut at the end of the preseason.
I think Jones has a chance at making the 53-man roster if he continues to play well throughout the preseason. Tupou is likely destined for the practice squad, but Vellano is out of eligibility. There will be some very tough decisions for the coaching staff as the preseason comes to a close, but hopefully the next two games will provide some clarity.
What are some of your thoughts on the Falcons’ second preseason game? Any players stand out to you? How do you feel about the starters so far?