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Falcons vs. Titans recap: Defense shines early in otherwise forgettable preseason opener

What we learned from the first preseason game, in brief.

Tennessee Titans v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

All the things we were looking forward to from the offense in the first preseason game did not materialize. Some of the things we didn’t dare hope from the defense did materialize. The starters were parked on the bench throughout. That’s preseason in a nutshell.

Atlanta decided not to put a single presumptive starter in the game on offense with the exception of Josh Andrews at left guard, who struggled. The result was truly putrid play, with A.J. McCarron being harried, sacked and generally struggling as a result, without much in the way of positive plays from anyone around him. Feleipe Franks and company were a little better against players further down the depth chart, but it was not exactly the cavalry arriving. It’s very obvious that Atlanta’s offensive depth has some work to do, and that’s primarily a concern when it comes to the offensive line. Given that Atlanta can’t be and won’t be 100% all season, though, those depth concerns are not something to dismiss out of hand.

The defense, meanwhile, dealt with short fields and generally difficult situations owing to the offense’s lousiness, but handled themselves with aplomb. The third down blitzes were deadly, the coverage was all over the map but had its moments, and the run defense from the likes of Ade Ogundeji and Dorian Etheridge was terrific. As early, encouraging efforts go, it was one of the better ones we’ve seen in preseason. The third string defense had its adventures against Matt Barkley, sure, but still was the better side of the ball. The fact that Dean Pees had this defense ready to go and causing havoc on third down was, even in a game that hardly matters, a cause for celebration.

Special teams fell somewhere in the middle. Younghoe Koo missed a very long field goal attempt but nailed a shorter one, and Cameron Nizialek impressed in his audition for the punter job. The coverage team and the returners were a bit more mixed, with an ugly

Of course, overreacting based on any of this would be foolish. Preseason is a time for zeroing in on individual efforts and how roster battles appear to be going, not sweeping conclusions about the Falcons. Arthur Smith said as much, alluding to the ugliness of the effort in postgame comments but also not sounding like a man who was ready to burn down the team’s depth and start over.

I will say that if Atlanta suffers considerable injuries in 2021, an awful possibility I don’t really want to consider, I’d feel better about the defensive depth today than the offensive depth. I haven’t said that much in recent years, so that’s both refreshing and terrifying. The Falcons still have two more games to take better stock of the roster and decide whether, with their limited free agent dollars, they want to make real changes.

As is our custom, let’s look at some individual and unit performances.

The Good

  • Feleipe Franks didn’t get much done as a passer, per se, but he showed a strong arm and scrambling ability in his second half snaps. The ability to take the ball down and run was particularly impressive, as he ran for 51 yards on one scramble and showed an ability to take what the (admittedly strong) third-string offensive line gave him and turn it into something. His final stat line as a passer, however, was not great.

Given that A.J. McCarron struggled generally and the Falcons would obviously love to add some athleticism and upside to their quarterback room, Franks’ flashes were still important for his chances of latching on to a practice squad spot. Stealing McCarron’s gig away will likely require a lot more passing acumen than he showed last night.

  • They had little chance to shine behind this line, but both Javian Hawkins and Caleb Huntley had moments. Huntley was simply the most productive back on the day, turning 7 touches into 32 yards (6 carries for 18 on the ground, 1 grab for 14 through the air) and putting the best run of the game on tape before it was called back due to a penalty. Given that only Mike Davis and Cordarrelle Patterson truly have spots locked up and that Qadree Ollison was out, Huntley’s extended audition for a reserve spot was a pretty positive one. We’ll see if he can build on it next weekend.
  • Going to give a little bit of a shout out to rookie offensive lineman Ryan Neuzil. He looked like one of the more intriguing undrafted free agents, and on a night where the line made itself the center of attention in a very unwelcome way, he stood out to me as a bright spot. Keep an eye on him for the next two preseason games, because he might just steal a practice squad slot or even a roster spot on a line looking for a final reserve.
  • Jon Bullard got off to a rough start with a defensive offside penalty, but he made up for it with the first sack of preseason on 3rd and 14 as the Titans drove downfield. That sack was aided by a powerful rush by Jacob Tuioti-Mariner that forced Woodside to move, so nice work done by both players. Bullard is pushing for a roster spot, while Tuioti-Mariner is just pushing for a prominent role.

Tuioti-Mariner did himself more favors as he was playing, as he showed up multiple times winning his matchup and causing pressure that made life easier for others. He was legitimately impressive for stretches last year, and if he’s ready to do that over the course of an entire season, it’s a big deal for Atlanta.

  • Marlon Davidson rocks. It’s preseason and backups, but the kind of havoc he wreaked throughout this game is exactly the kind of havoc I think he can wreak against starters in the regular season. He looked like a bear in a field of rabbits at times and . Even if he’s only a rotational option in the early going, he’s going to make plays.
  • Overall, the pass rush on third down was ferocious and the defense looked pretty tight out there in the first half, though Logan Woodside did have some disconcertingly good moments. There were only a handful of players having big moments who figure to play a lot on regular season Sundays, but Davidson, Tuioti-Mariner and Bullard might be among them, and they all had big moments. That’s an encouraging start.
  • Ade Ogundeji has looked better than a late round rookie has any right to. In this one, he looked strong and savvy on defense and special teams, and it appears the team is going to give him a serious look as part of the outside linebacker rotation in 2021. I don’t have high expectations in terms of production, but he’s already looking better than I anticipated, and that bodes well for his chances of turning into a useful player very soon.
  • Shareef Miller’s sack came so late in the game that the announcers were basically talking about something else—that’s not a knock on them, because I would be too—but it was a nice play and gave him something to point to. Given that the final roster spots are not exactly settled, any big efforts help, so keep an eye on Miller next week.
  • Jaylinn Hawkins looked promising his rookie year, but in limited opportunities and without a clear idea of where he’d find playing time. In this one, he really showed us what he’s capable of in both coverage and as a pass rusher, and it shouldn’t take much more of that for him to look up the fourth safety job in Atlanta. If he can carry that production over to the regular season, he’ll factor in for a starting job in 2022.
  • Cameron Nizialek did himself a favor with a beautiful punt out of the end zone in the first quarter, one that traveled 57 yards with considerable hangtime. Throughout the first half, he punted well even if the special teams unit more broadly struggled, and at this point it’d be difficult not to view him as the favorite for the punter job. There are still two weeks of preseason left to go, but for a guy who wasn’t even in camp a short time ago, he’s done an impressive amount of work to get ahead.
  • Avery Williams did solid work as a corner, but I thought his most impressive efforts came as a returner, as you’d expect. He averaged 28.3 (oh no) yards per kick return and 10 yards per punt return and could be lethal in the latter role this year. Chris Rowland is an interesting player and one I’d like to see at least make the practice squad, but Williams is the heavy favorite to be the punt returner in my eyes.

The Ugly

  • A.J. McCarron was not my first choice for a backup quarterback option, but I’ve been down on the team’s veteran backup options before and they’ve proven to be perfectly fine additions. I was hoping that he’d come in Friday night, sling it effectively, and exit with all of us feeling great about him holding the clipboard for Matt Ryan in 2021.

McCarron’s audition against the backups for what was, in 2020, an awful Titans defense did not inspire confidence. He missed open receivers, held on to the ball too long, threw passes directly at Titans defenders and showed happy feet under pressure. His receiving options did him few favors and the offensive line was shaky, so I don’t want to bury him that deep based on a single effort, but my concerns about his ability to step in if Ryan goes down were almost entirely validated by this game. It’s worth noting that Arthur Smith was more critical of the offense in general than McCarron, so all my fretting still seems unlikely to be met with anything but McCarron as the Week 1 backup. Hopefully he bounces back against Miami and puts our minds at ease a bit.

  • We didn’t get much of a look at this receiving corps at all. Tajae Sharpe was a favored target for McCarron but didn’t get an actual catch thanks to flags, and the leading receiver was fullback/tight end John Raine with two grabs for 15 yards. Quarterback play and line play were factors here, but hopefully the reserves at tight end and wide receiver can do a better job of getting open and making plays against Miami.
  • If you’re ready to bury McCarron or the running backs, I get it, but you have to hang a lot of this on the offensive line. Only a handful of players there seemed to be consistently getting the job done Friday night. Atlanta’s offense primarily ended up being quarterback scrambles—Franks led every player in the game in terms of rushing yards—which is not a great look for the receivers who struggled to get open quickly but is a much worse indictment of the offensive line.

That’s not great when we’re talking about depth—the legendary Willie Beavers and Jalen Mayfield struggled enough that I’m more worried about injury than I was before—but it is worth remembering that aside from Andrews not a single presumptive starter was out there last night. The struggles at left guard suggest Atlanta might not stand pat at the position, given that they do not seem to have any interest in getting Matt Ryan killed. We’ll see if they shift Mayfild to guard, give Dalman a longer look, or just chalk that ugly Andrews effort up to Tennessee’s admittedly solid defensive effort.

  • No Kyle Pitts?? I understand it, but also why do the Falcons hate fun? If we didn’t see him in the first game, I’m not sure we’re going to see him at all, which means Atlanta is very confident in Pitts’ ability to make an immediate impact without any game action. It’s good that they feel that way, honestly, but not even getting a handful of Pitts snaps deprived us of a little joy on a night that could’ve used it.
  • The secondary didn’t fare quite as well as the rest of the defense, as they allowed a few Matt Barkley and Logan Woodside darts when neither of those guys seem awfully likely to throw them. This is less of a concern given that zero starters played, as was the case elsewhere, but certainly I’d like to see more from guys not named Chris Williamson and Richie Grant.
  • That 57 yard return by Chester Rogers was the definition of ugly. Hopefully that will prove to be one ugly play in a sea of competence from special teams this year.

The Wrapup

I’m not going to add MVPs or anything here because it’s preseason, and we all know at this point just how futile that is. Instead, let’s note this: The Falcons got some encouraging defensive performances, they desperately need better reps to evaluate their offense and Miami will hopefully provide some of those. I wouldn’t assume anything is settled after tonight, but I would give Feleipe Franks, Ryan Neuzil, Dorian Etheridge and Avery Williams extra attention going forward, among others.

There’s a lot to work on after this first preseason game, but the team’s decision to hold out virtually all their starters means most of that work is going to be happening with the second and third string players. We’ll see if they can show us something more against Miami.