The Falcons have a nasty habit of putting you in a very, very bad mood with their preseason games early in the evening and never letting off the gas, to the point where looking back all you have is a sour feeling. I did my best to avoid that last night, but then, the Falcons were doing their best to Falcon.
Between Giorgio Tavecchio missing a field goal almost immediately, Matt Ryan finding few open receivers and taking a couple of big hits, and the offense generally looking sluggish whenever someone not named Ito Smith or Qadree Ollison was handling the ball, it was not a spirited performance. Those not insignificant troubles almost overshadowed the consistently good work the Falcons did on defense, work that was legitimately encouraging despite Washington’s offense and preseason more generally.
What is clear is that the Falcons cannot wait for preseason to be over. They’ve ground away four games (all of them, of course, losses), absorbed some annoying injuries, and probably gotten more than enough tape to evaluate who will and will not make the roster minus a couple of sticky calls. That fourth preseason game next Thursday is going to serve only to make some of those calls easier or more difficult, because if the starters touch the field at all it’ll be for a series and the reserves will be fighting for every snap.
The good news, if you’re at all in the mood for good news, is that the Falcons look like they’ll be heading into the regular season with a strong starting lineup intact and a defense that has looked encouragingly game throughout the preseason. The bad news is the offensive line looks far from settled, kicker is suddenly A Problem, and there still figure to be depth issues despite an offseason spent addressing them, which means we must pray for good health the rest of the way. But as is typical, a sloppy, careless preseason is serving to make us less excited about this football team than we probably ought to be, with a couple of notable caveats. They looked worse in this one, particularly on special teams and offense, than anyone could feel great about.
Let’s do our best to be balanced and talk good and bad here, with the understanding that the bad is really not great.
- Ito Smith has wasted no time dispatching his competition, and he looked great in this one. At his best The Judge is equal parts elusive and ball-of-knivesy, and his value as both a pass catcher and a runner should put him in a position to chew up most of Devonta Freeman’s table scraps in 2019. He ran hard and ran effectively in this one and picked up a first half touchdown along the way. Brian Hill and Qadree Ollison are still fighting for a spot.
- I don’t claim to know what the Falcons are doing with Ollison, but I do know he’s running really well with the backups, including that shaky reserve offensive line. Whether that’s enough to push him onto the roster or whether he’s looking at a year one practice squad spot, we can’t say just yet. Unfortunately, his fourth quarter fumble won’t help him.
- Jaeden Graham looked strong again, mixing in at fullback in place of Ricky Ortiz...before he got hurt and missed the rest of the game. I’m legitimately concerned that a player making a very strong roster push is going to be laid up for a while, which would be this team’s luck in the extreme.
- Duke Riley finally got some actual playing time, and he looked faster and more physical than he has...well, since he got to Atlanta. He had a couple of nice stops and was flying around the field once he came on with the reserves, and I think he has a strong chance of making this roster and hopefully building on a pair of forgettable seasons.
- Another week, another nice play for Jermaine Grace, this time a pass breakup in the second quarter. And pressure in the fourth quarter. And nice coverage. And nice tackles. And a very nice smile.
If he doesn’t get a roster spot, the Falcons are making a mistake, given that he’s exactly as fast, physical, and versatile as the team requires.
- Deadrin Senat with a strip sack! That was the kind of play the second-year defensive tackle needed in a crowded line competition, and hopefully it’s the sort of thing that helps ensure he has a roster spot. I’m still very high on the 2018 third rounder.
- Takk McKinley with a fumble recovery! Takk has been very good this preseason and figures to have a monster year if he’s healthy and the rest of the defense holds up. I dunno that he’ll have many fumble recoveries, specifically, the rest of the way, but that was still fun.
- Generally speaking, both lines were good. The offensive line looked stronger and less overwhelmed, albeit not free of mishaps, and the defensive line looked strong even when the reserves came in. Dan Quinn sounded pumped about that, so even with the typically underwhelming game and score overall, one suspects he got what he wanted out of this game.
- You have to start with Giorgio Tavecchio. Kickers have so few chances to impact games, and thus they’re under an enormous amount of scrutiny when they screw up, and Tavecchio has been screwing up. The Falcons clearly want him to succeed, but when he missed wide left on a 39 yarder on the game’s first drive, it must have sent trills of panic down Dan Quinn’s spine.
Tavecchio is on thin ice. I don’t know if the Falcons will be spurred into action or not based on the latest miss, but they’ll probably at least start quietly poking around free agent options with Tavecchio struggling. Their intent in making the switch was to save money and go with a steady kicker who, while not Matt Bryant, could be an above average kicker in a dome who was much younger. Tavecchio’s quest to erode their trust in him means he’s going to be on a short leash heading into the season no matter what, and that’s not additional stress any Falcons fan needed. If the Falcons would seem inclined not to turn back to Bryant--and given that they cut one of the most popular players on the team, it seems likely that'll be the case--there are no slam dunk options floating around out there.
- Danny Etling doesn’t look ready to run the Falcons offense, though he looks extremely down to just plain old run. He’s got a prime opportunity to hang on for a practice squad spot this year and try to compete for a backup job a year from now, but during what promises to be an extended appearance in the fourth preseason game, he’ll have to show a better mastery of what’s going on to get that shot. The arm and athleticism are there, but the pocket presence and touch is not.
- Ryan Neal is competing for a spot in a very crowded secondary, so his margin of error has always been thin. Despite the competition, he’s gotten a lot of snaps this summer, and what’s been most notable about his play has been the glaring mistakes. Neal’s latest was a defensive pass interference call on a play where his coverage was actually pretty good, which points to the reason the Falcons keep giving him snaps: He’s got real talent. His penalty problems and mishaps probably doomed his roster chances, but perhaps he can latch on to the practice squad for the second straight season.
- There are plenty of teams around the NFL content to sit key starters, especially their quarterback. The Falcons ought to be one of them, because all they did by trotting Matt Ryan out there was give him opportunities to get hit behind a line that mostly did good work but faced a tough DL, while trying to throw to a receiving corps that couldn’t get open. It’s just preseason and I know the team feels Ryan and the offense benefit from the reps, but given what happened to Cam Newton on Thursday, I still don't love the risk.
- The Falcons continue to drive us all a little crazy with an endless parade of penalties. It’s hard to take Dan Quinn’s grave words about discipline seriously when the team so consistently gets flagged, but we’ll at least hope they can pull it together a little more with all the starters in during the regular season. We’re deep into the DQ era at this point, though, and this team has never been particularly great at avoiding them, even when they've been great otherwise.
- The returner “battle” appears to be going to Kenjon Barner by default. Marcus Green and Olamide Zaccheaus both muffed punts on Thursday night, with Washington enjoying the spoils in both instances. I doubt Ben Kotwica is going to roll with guys who can’t take care of the football, which gives the veteran a real good shot.
On the other hand, Zaccheaus did make a hell of a play on a Qadree Ollison fumble Washington nearly returned for a touchdown, and Green did have one good return late. We may, against all odds, not be done yet.
Ito Smith, who looked really good, all but sewed up the #2 job, and gave us something entertaining to watch. Here’s to you, Judge Ito.
The defense, particularly the defensive line, might actually turn a corner this year, if preseason performances against starters indicate anything at all. They at least look better.