When you’re starving for football and all you have is preseason, it’s hard not to draw big, sweeping conclusions based on a handful of plays. It’s especially hard when the Falcons do things you actually like, as they managed to do at times against the Miami Dolphins on Thursday night.
The first half was replete with Matt Schaub passes that were surprisingly crisp, some nice plays by receivers vying for roles, and stellar burst from the likes of Vic Beasley and Takk McKinley. The second half was a boring sort of nightmare until late, as you might have expected it to be, but at least there was enough scoring to keep things lively. The Falcons also dropped their 10th straight preseason game, which is pretty meaningless (they went to the playoffs in ‘17 while going 0-4 in preseason and went 7-9 last year with the same record) but sure as hell isn’t fun to watch. The fact that they’ve been more competitive this year is, at least, a sign that their depth acquisition efforts are pointed in a better direction.
I did it a little bit in realtime, but by the end of the game it was relatively easy (with another loss looming, these Falcons are almost deliberately terrible to watch in preseason) to settle into a fairly even keel. There may have been one or two Falcons who lost jobs based on tonight’s performance, but by and large the team will be evaluating the tape and moving guys around incrementally based on what they see. With three preseason games still to go, that’s only reasonable, especially since I got hot and bothered about Brian Hill early just to watch Qadree Ollison pop off late.
Still, there are takes to be had and observations to share, so let’s get to it.
- Hey, sometimes you need to eat a little crow. Matt Schaub had a garbage game against the Broncos last week and that plus his most recent NFL experience pre-Falcons and actual on-field performance with the Falcons has largely convinced me that the Falcons would be megadoomed if he had to get into a game for any length of time. Against the Dolphins, at least, Schaub made that notion look pretty dumb.
While he took a timid sack and threw some off-kilter balls, Schaub was also much more accurate and found a particularly fruitful rapport with Russell Gage in the early going.
- What can you say about Brian Hill? This wasn’t his most impressive effort, sure, but he ran hard, showed some small value as a receiver, and clearly has been the most impressive back on the team this summer. If he keeps this up he’s absolutely going to make this roster and have a role, and the Falcons are going to have to make a tough decision about Ollison, a player I think has promise but wouldn’t appear to have a roster spot if Hill makes it. This is all a little surprising, but as a more sober me would remind you, it’s just a couple of games and nothing is set in stone just yet.
- Especially since Ollison put together a damn good game of his own. After a relatively quiet first effort against the Broncos and a slow start in this one behind an offensive line that could charitably be described as “struggling,” Ollison reeled off runs of 11 and 15 yards on the same drive in the fourth quarter and punched in a touchdown on the latter. He’s potent if he gets a block, and if he can get an opportunity with the “starters” and do something with it, the battle between him and Hill will likely go down to the wire. For the sake of the drama and the sake of his football team’s depth, I hope it does.
- Russell Gage has looked better than I dared hope. His speed was intriguing from the moment he was drafted and his value as a gunner on special teams ensures he’ll have a role here, but Schaub found a connection with him and Gage continued to show off savvy that belies his year. Justin Hardy’s well-rounded game should still make him the de facto WR4 in this offense, but Gage is nipping at his heels at minimum.
- Chris Lindstrom continues to look good, as does Matt Gono when he’s not being penalized. The big difference is that Lindstrom is a slam dunk rookie starter and Gono is fighting to make it as a reserve, so he’ll need to clean up the penalties. Still, despite the shakiness across the broader line, the team appears to have assembled some legitimate talent here for a change.
- Takk McKinley in particular and Vic Beasley to a lesser extent looked really explosive standing up and moving around during their limited snaps to start the game. Takk is primed for a breakout and Beasley has looked legitimately improved, and if that carries over into the season it’s going to go a very long way.
- The reserves looked pretty solid, too. Durrant Miles and Austin Larkin each picked up at least one nice tackle and a sack, with Larkin looking particularly strong and Miles adding a forced fumble for the coaching staff to consider. Both are far from locks to make it, but these kinds of efforts help a great deal, especially when there are question marks about depth at defensive end.
Oh, and John Cominsky had another tackle for a loss, for those counting John Cominsky tackles for loss at home. He’s one player we don’t have to worry about overreacting about, because he’s both making this time and finding his way into a small but real role in 2019. Bank on it.
- Del’Shawn Phillips and Jermaine Grace both had nice games. Grace’s special teams value increases his chances of making the roster to begin with, but he also had a pretty pick of an otherwise effective Josh Rosen and looks fast and seasoned out there. Phillips is a work in progress but is always around the ball, picking up a forced fumble and drilling whoever Gaskins was for a loss in the fourth quarter. The Falcons love their athletes across the board, and it’s not out of the question that they’ll drop Duke Riley for a Phillips or a Grace if this keeps up. If this keeps up.
- Giorgio Tavecchio did not miss any field goals this week. We can save our panic for the moment.
- Despite a couple of solid scrambles, Matt Simms does not even have a prayer of competing against Matt Schaub this year, and nothing we saw last night changes that. Schaub put together a strong game and Simms put together a mediocre one at best, and it’s possible the Falcons shuffle out their third-string quarterback again soon to ensure that Schaub doesn’t get hurt in meaningless preseason action. Simms did throw a pretty pass or two very late in the game, at least.
- C.J. Worton in particular and Shawn Bane and Devin Gray to a lesser extent dealt with drops, which are the kind of glaring mistakes that draw the ire of fans, if not the coaching staff. There’s not a ton of room for young receivers on this roster but the team has shown a consistent willingness to keep a couple on the practice squad, so mistakes really do hurt here. Christian Blake and Olamide Zacchaeus continue to look like they have a leg up in the early going.
- Jordan Miller and Kendall Sheffield had their moments in the exhibition game and had looked good all summer, so we were probably due for some bumps in the road. Both struggled in coverage against the Dolphins, with Josh Rosen noticeably victimizing Sheffield in the third quarter en route to a couple of nice passes. Both have bright futures, but it’s a reminder of why they’re not anywhere close to starting for this Falcons team, particularly Sheffield.
- Many of the players who had nice games against the Broncos had a tougher time this week, including Tre’ Crawford at linebacker (a call I thought was borderline) and Jasyon Stanley Sheffield at cornerback, with Stanley getting targeted late and being called for unnecessary roughness. The NFL might not need four preseason games, but it helps teams from making kneejerk reactions based off a single game, which is a good thing.
- The deep reserves did what the deep reserves are wont to do. Hamp Cheevers, Stanley, and Ryan Neal all had rough efforts against the Dolphins’ backup backups, and that’s going to impact their chances of making it deep into August with this football team. There are three games to go, but Neal in particular probably needs some fine games ahead to hold on, given how things have gone to this point and given how deep the Falcons figure to be in the secondary.
I do this at least once per year, but it was you, the viewer. You put up with preseason football thanks to your love for this team and you deserve to be recognized for it.
There really is young talent here among the reserves, though we’re not quite sure A) who’s going to make the roster and practice squad and B) how they’d look if they were thrown up against starters for any length of time. Still, the cupboard feels less bare in that regard than it did a season ago.