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More thoughts on the Falcons in preseason Weeks 1-2

Here’s what we know about the Falcons so far.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Atlanta Falcons
Matt Ryan likes what he sees. We should be happy too.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

After the Jets game, a lot of commentary in the media and on the internet wrote it off with comments that the team was flat, that it’s only preseason and doesn’t matter, that the team stayed vanilla and didn’t “open up” and tip off their playbook, and similar themes.

The Atlanta Falcons went 0-4 in the 2017 preseason, yet went 10-6 in the regular season and advanced to the Divisional Round of the postseason. This year’s team is shaping up as the finest roster Atlanta has seen in a long, long time, and yet they are 0-2 for the preseason.

Preseason games do matter, but it’s not the score that’s important. What counts is who plays well, who doesn’t, keeping everyone healthy, and whether the issues that show up are things that are easily corrected. And this leads to the single most important thing to remember about the Jets game, the Chiefs game, and all four preseason games from last year: for the most part, the players who “lost” those games are NOT the players you will see in the regular season.

Why the Falcons struggle in preseason

If you’re looking for a simple explanation for Atlanta’s ongoing preseason losses, it’s that Dan Quinn and his staff like to play the prospects early and often. Other teams have prospects play a significant number of snaps, too, but Quinn will routinely go so far as to have undrafted rookies facing the other team’s starters. We also have more of them — the Falcons entered the second preseason game with a league-leading 32 rookies on the 90-man roster.

The main downside to this approach is that you’re taking key reps that could be going to your first and second-unit players (the guys who will actually be playing in September) and using them on guys who probably won’t even make the roster. But it’s terrific experience for the prospects, and it really does give the coaching staff some good film. Fans simply have to be aware of it, as throwing likely practice squad defensive backs against Carson Palmer (which Atlanta did last year with exactly the results you’d expect) doesn’t bode well for the final score.

Key Falcons barely saw the field against the Jets

Take another look at that Jets game. Atlanta’s starting defense put up a three-and-out, and that was the end of the night for the first-unit secondary (including Brian Poole, who only played one snap) plus linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell. Linemen Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett and Takk McKinley played one brief rotation after that, giving Jarrett five snaps on the night with only four total snaps for Takk and Beasley.

In other words, the 10 most important Falcons defenders made brief cameo appearances, got a stop against New York’s starters, and left with the game scoreless. Giving up 17 points in the first half was disappointing, but that came from a mix of second and third-unit players, with Duke Riley as the only potential starter who got extra playing time.

On offense, seeing the first series get derailed by two penalties was a big letdown. But those are easily correctable items. Fullback candidate Ricky Ortiz shifted in the backfield with another player in motion, and Justin Hardy (not really a starter anyway) wasn’t able to avoid getting into the back of a defender.

That was the end of the night for Ryan, Coleman, Sanu, and four of the starting linemen. Austin Hooper and both right guard candidates (Fusco and Schweitzer) were out soon afterwards. Julio and Freeman didn’t play at all. Neither did swing tackle Ty Sambrailo, who was banged up and held out of that first exhibition. Key point: Even in the first quarter of the game, Matt Schaub was depending on the No. 4 and No. 5 offensive tackles for pass protection.

Sure, the offense was flat, but outside of that first series (with 7 yards called back and 15 yards assessed on penalties) it wasn’t the first unit. Is anyone all that surprised Atlanta couldn’t score in the second quarter with Justin Crawford running behind a mix of second and third-unit linemen, the top receivers out of the game, and an undrafted rookie protecting Schaub’s blind side?

When prospects face starters, ignore the score

The mismatches were truly obvious in the Chiefs game, as Andy Reid had already made it clear that Kansas City would play the starters for the entire first half. The first-unit offense connected on a bomb at the end of the first half for a 69-yard score — against Atlanta’s THIRD-unit secondary.The Chiefs opened the second half with veteran Chad Henne gaining 40 yards by targeting fourth-string defensive backs Chris Lammons and Secdrick Cooper before a rookie mistake by Isaiah Oliver handed KC the easy score.

And those were the only touchdowns allowed by the Atlanta defense. It’s actually impressive that the Falcons gave up as few points as they did. The first and second-unit offenses consistently moved the ball and put up two touchdowns on the Chiefs’ starting defense.

They failed on two fourth down attempts in likely field goal range — but with kicker Matt Bryant still out and both Quinn and Sarkisian emphasizing the importance of playing the rookies and evaluating players in key situations, it makes perfect sense to pass up the points and get the players that experience. Note that both of the plays focused on the rookies, showing exactly what Sark had meant about calling preseason plays specifically for certain players rather than necessarily going with the best choices.

All in all, the first and second units put up a 14-3 lead, kept Kareem Hunt in check, and came off the field without any serious injuries. That’s a great game.

Many, many positives so far

So ... forget the 0-2 record. Outside of two penalties on that opening offensive drive against New York and Oliver inexplicably releasing his receiver to an imaginary safety against Kansas City, the performances (at least for the players that matter the most) have been solid. The first and second units have been quite strong, and a few of the prospects are separating themselves from the pack as well. Particularly noteworthy:

After the Atlanta TV crew named Damontae Kazee as the top Falcons player against the Jets, Kazee said in a post-game interview that no, he didn’t have as good a game as the announcers had thought, and that he needed to work more on his tackling. With that dedication and attitude, it’s easy to understand how he has come so far from his rookie year to this year.

Since the first defensive series against the Jets only involved one play in the nickel package, Brian Poole was essentially making his preseason debut against the Chiefs. He made his presence felt with solid coverage and a backfield tackle on Kareem Hunt. It wasn’t all that long ago when we had to sweat it out wondering if Chris Owens or Dominique Franks could develop into a serviceable nickel back. Now we have two outstanding nickel players in Poole and Kazee. It’s a great time to be a Falcons fan.

Jonathan Celestin has been the surprise star of preseason. What makes his campaign even more impressive is that he wasn’t even with the team for minicamps or OTAs. The Falcons signed him three days into training camp. He’s still scrambling to learn the system and his assignments, yet he put up a sack, 3 TFLs and a QB hit against the Jets and then led the team in tackles against the Chiefs.

Kurt Benkert’s struggles came against the second-unit Kansas City defense while playing with third and fourth-unit players on offense. He was frequently under pressure and unable to get comfortable in the pocket. That’s not surprising for a rookie. Think back to the preseasons of John Parker Wilson and Dominique Davis. They were good enough to make the roster, but neither one of them ever gave the offense the same kind of spark that Benkert did against the Jets. For that matter, the last time I can recall any Falcons third-string quarterback having that kind of on-field presence was D.J. Shockley against the Bills in 2007 — the game where he blew out his knee.

Late-rounder Russell Gage will likely spend the year on special teams, the inactive list, or on the practice squad, but he joined the fun on offense with a fine sideline reception against the Chiefs’ starting defense (he was covered by CB Kendall Fuller). It was a well-run route and a tremendous grab that showed his potential as a receiver. But what made that play even more important for the Falcons is that Matt Schaub was the one who threw the pass. Schaub hasn’t played all that many snaps in the last two preseasons, and his passes have mainly been short ones. Seeing our 96-year old backup zip a pass 18 yards downfield and to the far sideline (meaning the ball traveled over 40 yards through the air) on target and without it being intercepted is reassuring.

After the Jets game, radio announcer David Archer said we should not be so quick to jump to conclusions on several plays that looked bad for Duke Riley. In particular, Riley was working in tandem with safety prospect Tyson Graham in coverage, and Archer thought it might have been Graham that missed at least one assignment rather than Riley. After watching the Chiefs game, Archer’s observations make sense. Riley looked much better working with other first and second-unit players while Graham, Marcelis Branch and the other deep backups continued to have miscues.

Free agent signing Brandon Fusco is likely to win the starting right guard spot, but Wes Schweitzer has shown that he’s continuing to develop and is at the very least a solid backup. It’s easy to forget that Schweitzer is only 24 years old, while fellow backup guard Sean Harlow is only 23. At some point I wouldn’t be surprised if one or both started cross-training at tackle, as both played left tackle in college.

With Ty Sambrailo out, Matt Gono played left tackle with the second unit line against the Jets and then switched to right tackle with the third unit. His performance may have put him above Austin Pasztor on the OT totem pole, as it was Gono rather than Pasztor who paired with Sambrailo on the second unit line against the Chiefs. As an undrafted rookie, Gono obviously has full practice squad eligibility. But watch for him to get a lot of snaps in at least one of the two remaining games, as the coaching staff is likely considering him as a candidate for a possible tenth overall OL spot.

Free agent DT prospect (and ex-UGA player) Garrison Smith helped his cause against the Chiefs with a sack and two QB hits. Given the defensive makeup over the last three seasons, the door is open for Smith or one of the others to win a job as a fifth defensive tackle.

They may be 0-2 in exhibition games, but this Falcons team is shaping up to be something really special.