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Falcons vs. Dolphins recap: It was a preseason game, alright

The main takeaway from last night is that the Falcons’ depth still needs work.

Atlanta Falcons v Miami Dolphins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Falcons have been a miserable preseason watch, full stop. They struggled mightily against the Titans and, faced with a long stint from the Dolphins starters and plenty of talented backups, they struggled mightily again against Miami. The fact that the playoff-caliber Dolphins had quite a few starters in the game against mostly Atlanta’s backups means that result was far from surprising.

That said, I did hope it wouldn’t be so lopsided, and even getting the Dolphins backups into the game did nothing to staunch the bleeding for Atlanta, which surrendered a safety and allowed Jacoby Brissett to march downfield against them for a score in the third quarter. There were individual moments and a general improvement in terms of blocking and discipline, but this one got ugly quickly and stayed pretty ugly throughout.

If we’re being blunt, this is a result of the Falcons having questionable depth and that depth being extremely overmatched by starters and a little overmatched by Miami’s depth. There were glimpses of competence along the offensive line, at running back and on the defense. There are plenty of Falcons fans who were not fans of A.J. McCarron as the team’s backup—I number among them—but a potentially serious injury and an underwhelming Feleipe Franks performance means Atlanta’s going to throw a new backup into the fire this week.

The Falcons have a ton to iron out and some tough decisions ahead for their next five cuts, with the McCarron injury high on their list of troubles. Arthur Smith’s bedrock belief in not exposing starters to injury risk and getting an extended look at his backup will be challenged in the preseason finale against Cleveland, where apparently starters will get into the game, and we’ll soon find out whether Atlanta’s starters will benefit from the rest and the extended look at the depth will result in the best possible 53 man roster. I hope so, because if the Falcons roll into the season with lackluster depth and an unprepared set of starters, there isn’t a Falcons fan alive or dead who’s going to find it enjoyable.

I am ready for preseason to be over, but we have one more game ahead of us to endure. Here’s a look at what was good and was not so great from last night, in case you missed it or need a refresher.

First, a note

  • Atlanta didn’t sit every starter, and brought out a couple of guys they clearly thought needed more work. Isaiah Oliver and Fabian Moreau came in at corner early on and Kaleb McGary was out there at right tackle, and even a brief look at those guys may pay some dividends for this coaching staff. I’ll repeat that I only expect the Falcons to toss their starters in for a quarter or less against the Browns, so I do strongly favor them getting extended looks at any potential starters they have questions about, given the cost of those players not being ready for Week 1. This was not an extended look, though.

Smith’s appreciation for Sean McVay and Bruce Arians parking their starters is evident, and there’s little question in my mind that he’s looking at the Rams being among the 10 healthiest teams in the league the last three seasons and deciding that the risk outweighs the benefits of giving players significant time. It leads to brutal performances—the Titans beat the absolute snot out of the Bucs backups last night—but that and a very long look at backups before the cut down to a 53 man roster seems like it’s sparking that decision.

That said, Smith is a new coach and there are plenty of new starters here, including prized rookie Kyle Pitts trying to make history as a rookie at a position where rookies often struggle. At least a tune-up is probably warranted, and the indications today are that we’ll get one next week. We’ll see how much work it actually ends up being next Sunday.

The Good

  • Caleb Huntley and Javian Hawkins turned in an excellent fourth quarter drive, helping the Falcons go 75 yards in just five plays. Hawkins looked slippery and Huntley, who also had a couple of nice runs earlier in the game, rumbled for 30 yards and a touchdown against a Dolphins defense that didn’t appear capable of stopping him. Few players have done more for their chances in preseason games than Huntley, who has looked fast and (forgive me) physical throughout both games thus far, whether the offensive line is cooperating or not.

It will be a tough call between Hawkins and Huntley—I still think Hawkins’ potentially game-changing speed gives him an edge—but whoever loses the competition should make the practice squad if they aren’t scooped up by another team.

  • D’Onta Foreman and Qadree Ollison didn’t put up impressive numbers—the two combined for 16 carries and 45 yards, compared to 11 carries and 103 yards for Hawkins and Huntley—but Ollison had a couple of solid carries against a tough defense and Foreman ground his way to a touchdown later on. I’m not sure how unsettled the pecking order truly is after Mike Davis and Cordarrelle Patterson, but I have to think the team will keep all four backs through the preseason finale and make some tough calls in the run-up to the 53 man roster.
  • Generally speaking, the offensive line fared better than last game, where no one could run and McCarron and Franks just got killed all night against Tennessee. Jalen Mayfield looked sharper at guard and (near the very end of the game) fine at right tackle as a reserve, and the versatility will serve him well if he winds up being a reserve, as it looks like he will be. Fellow rookie Drew Dalman was good in an extended audition, and while it’s obvious that Matt Hennessy is in the driver’s seat at center, I feel good about his ability to step in.

Given the quality of competition especially, this was a much improved effort, albeit one with a couple of embarrassing lowlights.

  • Richie Grant had nice coverage and a nice play on a second quarter 4th down conversion attempt for the Dolphins, getting his hand on the ball and showcasing the instincts and aggression that made him the team’s second round pick in the first place. I don’t know when he’s going to have a huge role on this defense, but I have so much faith that he’s going to be a terrific player when he does get it.
  • I thought Ade Ogundeji again had his moments, and while the fact that he stayed in the game a long time on a day where a lot of veterans hung it up early or didn’t get on the field at all suggests all those first-team reps may not translate into a huge role in Week 1, he’s done more than enough thus far to figure into the rotation at outside linebacker. Given my ground floor expectations for him as a third day rookie, that push is promising and suggests a bright future.
  • Chris Williamson continues to figure in these games early, play reasonably well and generally do more than enough to grab a practice squad spot. I like his chances of hanging around at least on the practice squad, as the gap between him and some of the other deep reserve options at cornerback seems to grow by the week.
  • For the second straight week, we saw a Falcons punter go out there and show a booming leg, if not a lot of directional punting ability. This time, it was Dom Maggio, and the third preseason game suddenly looks extremely important for determining who is going to actually be punting for this team come Week 1.

Nizialek still appears to have a leg up, but sometimes those leads evaporate quickly.

  • Avery Williams has the punt returner job sewn up. I think Chris Rowland, for all his evident talent, needed to be stellar to overtake him and he hasn’t quite been. Rowland will hopefully stick on the practice squad again, but Williams appears to be the future at returner for this team and will take on at least some of those duties right away.

The Ugly

  • At some point, pretty much all of it. Ugly throws, ugly sacks, moments of collapse on the offensive line, moments of shaky run defense, moments of shaky coverage and moments of shaky tackling could be found throughout. If this were a regular season game—or if it had pitted the Falcons starters against Miami’s for any length of time—you’d be slamming the big red panic button with the heel of your hand. Because it was preseason and mostly reserves, it’s just a bit concerning and was not very fun to watch.
  • The defense was largely backups, with only a few rotational defensive linemen and cornerbacks Isaiah Oliver and Fabian Moreau checking in early, and the Dolphins trotted out most of their starters on offense minus some injured receivers. That went about as you would expect.

This could not have come as a surprise to the Falcons, who appeared to want to give their depth the most significant challenge possible while again trying to keep starters healthy. Terry Fontenot told Jenn Hale on the FOX 5 broadcast that the practice work was critical and the team is concerned about their depth, if not so many words:

The thing about giving your reserves a lot of run is that they aren’t always going to look good, especially against tough competition, so we need to bear in mind that overreactions are not just a possibility but a likelihood. That said, when you decide to park your starters in favor of an extended, unblinking stare at the guys you’ll be counting on in case of injury, you don’t want to see them largely run over and destroyed even by a capable team. The Falcons don’t have a lot of money and flexibility to make improvements, so ultimately I have to think most of their third preseason game will still be dedicated to scrutinizing their available depth and trying to choose 17 logical cuts en route to a final 53 man roster. A lot is riding on them getting that right.

  • Feleipe Franks looked pretty good on his first drive against the Dolphins, stepping in for A.J. McCarron and nearly throwing a touchdown pass that Tajae Sharpe ultimately dropped. All he needed to do from there to make a strong case for himself with A.J. McCarron out was not play horribly.

To his credit, Franks keyed a touchdown drive with a couple of solid passes and a scramble, but he also ate a safety and threw a pick against Miami, and the amount of work he needs to do as a passer remains evident. I fully expect the Falcons to be intrigued enough by his tools to keep him around on the practice squad, but if they had any hope that the physically gifted quarterback would make a real push for #2 duties, those hopes have probably been dashed by now. He’ll hope to stick, work on his game, and compete again in 2022.

  • The receiving corps has some question marks. Tajae Sharpe was a preferred target and still looks like he has an inside track to a job despite a costly end zone drop on a rifle shot from Franks, but Christian Blake, Frank Darby and the crew all mixed fine moments with miscues and an inability to get open. The Falcons may only carry five wide receivers this year—remember, Cordarrelle Patterson has been a credible receiver and runner in the past—and time is running out for someone to separate from the pack.
  • Sam Eguavoen killed the Falcons, picking up four sacks and a safety on the night, and the that doesn’t happen entirely because the quarterback is holding on to the ball too long even if that’s a significant factor. A re-watch will be needed to assign proper blame but when you’re surrendering four sacks to one player in a preseason game, something has gone awry.
  • Coverage was a sore spot. The Falcons got real pressure at times, but it wasn’t quite enough and that left things very much in the hands of a linebacker corps and secondary that wasn’t quite up to the task. Delrick Abrams is going to be on the cut watch list despite a solid enough summer because he allowed a pair of scores last night, but Tua and Jacoby Brissett and whoever the Dolphins third string quarterback is found little trouble connecting with open receivers. I know the Falcons were trusting their reserves and that’s a tricky proposition, but it didn’t go particularly well.

The Wrapup

Look, here’s what you really need to know: The Browns are up next week, we’ll see the starters for at least a short time, and the season will follow shortly thereafter. All the speculation and worry will be either validated or dismissed soon enough, and I for one am ready to learn just how good to this team can and will be. The questions about this team’s depth and ability to weather injuries remains the biggest uncertainty and the most worthwhile worry after two weeks of brutal preseason efforts.