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Falcons vs. Browns recap: Preseason ends and the hoping begins

Atlanta’s preseason was grim, so now we talk about how much you believe in the starters and coaching staff.

Cleveland Browns v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Falcons preseason is rarely pretty—I think the last time we felt good about what they looked like in August, Mike Smith was the head coach—and this one has been consistently ugly. It was more of the same against the Browns, where we got a few shining moments and a lot of lackluster football we hopefully won’t see again until next summer.

The Falcons scored 10 points in this one and had their adventures defensively, ultimately losing 19-10. The offensive line reserves scuffled—Jalen Mayfield in particular needed a huge game to push Josh Andrews at left guard and didn’t have it—and the defensive reserves managed to hold the line in the red zone more than once but literally fumbled away big plays in the open field. Arthur Smith’s decision to keep the starters healthy by playing them very little will have to pay off, because the depth concerns we had in the spring were largely validated by preseason.

And that’s what the Falcons are saying, emphatically. They believe their best players can be good enough, whatever that means for 2021, and that a summer should be spent sorting out your reserves and your future. Even if that proves to be foolhardy, it is a statement of faith in the Atlanta Falcons that seems more hopeful and less misguided than any one I’ve seen in a while. The fact that the Browns looked deep and good against the Falcons in this one is a reminder of how much work is ahead for Smith and Terry Fontenot as they try to turn the Falcons back into a perennial contender like they were in the best years of the Mike Smith era, but with hopefully considerably greater playoff success. If they’re going to make any sort of noise this season, it’ll be Matt Ryan and Kyle Pitts and Grady Jarrett and so on who fuel it, and the depth they settle on after assaulting our eyeballs with this preseason will have to be something other than a total liability.

Preseason thoughts and impressions follow. May they not map to the regular season.

The Good

  • After a long, long wait to see Kyle Pitts in preseason action, he made his first and only target of the game a beautiful moment. Catching a short pass from Feleipe Franks, Pitts rumbled for a 27 yard gain in which he outrun and out-muscled Browns defenders with seeming ease. There will be hiccups and quiet games, but yeah, he’s the real deal.
  • Josh Rosen may or may not prove to be worth keeping around, but the difference between him and Feleipe Franks as passers at the moment is evident. That ugly fumble on a snap in the third quarter was something Arthur Smith will look at closely and mull, but otherwise Rosen looked far more decisive and quick in the pocket than his competitor throughout his stint in the game, and he overcame some questionable route-running to toss a very rare preseason touchdown.

While he still missed some throws, I have a feeling the Falcons are going to keep him as the backup for the moment and see who else gets cut. There was enough here for Arthur Smith and company to seriously consider trying him out as Ryan’s backup for 2021, particularly after a hurried week of practice, but that’s all he’ll be guaranteed for now.

  • What does a preseason of carries mean? Mike Davis and Cordarrelle Patterson are locked in, but Caleb Huntley’s heavy workload in the final preseason game as the nominal starter raises plenty of questions about what the team’s pecking order. Huntley rarely had a chance to go anywhere but also looked physical in his chances, Qadree Ollison was solid, and D’Onta Foreman looked pretty good again in this one. Huntley’s opportunities with the starters and well beyond suggest Smith is weighing giving him a genuine role in the backfield, and for the moment it still looks like the undrafted free agent will stick.
  • I had sort of narrowed down the 5th wide receiver battle to Christian Blake and Frank Darby because one was a stubborn veteran who sticks around versus a rookie the new regime just drafted, but Juwan Green was good enough to raise some doubt. Despite a near miss on one catch, he finished with three receptions for 58 yards and a touchdown on a day where Pitts and his huge grab made him the team’s second-leading receiver. If Atlanta likes Green on special teams, the frequency of his targets and his work with them should at least garner consideration for a practice squad spot, but he might surprise.

A shoutout to Chris Rowland, as well, who despite a drop turned in a solid return and a very pretty catch where he held on to a worm burner for 21 yards. I think Avery Williams probably beat him out for the returner role, but Rowland feels like one of the closest things to a practice squad lock the Falcons have trotted out there this summer.

  • Mykal Walker was everywhere. He knocked down one pass, nearly had at least one sack and had good coverage and good awareness on the Browns 4th down play near the goal line on their first drive to stop things in their tracks. I don’t know that Walker will get starter’s snaps to begin the year, but he’s good enough to be a key contributor for Atlanta, and I think Dean Pees knows that.
  • Marlon Davidson continues to have big, impressive moments. If he can enter Week 1 fully healthy and stay healthy, he’ll be an asset for a defense that could really use his power and ability to get after the quarterback.
  • Another solid effort by Ade Ogundeji, who spurred a holding call and almost got a sack. There’s little question that given his draft slot and initial expectations, Ogundeji has done more than just about anybody on defense to carve out a role this year, and while his role is unlikely to be as major in the regular season as it was in preseason, he’s got a bright future in Atlanta.
  • Richie Grant is already showing that he’ll be a major factor on special teams, as he’s capable of flying down the field and making tackles on returns. In this one, he took what might’ve been a fine Browns return late in the second quarter and turned it into a whimper with good angles and a decisive takedown. Over the long haul he might be a special safety, but for the moment he’ll at least make Marquice Williams happy.
  • Speaking of making Williams happy, Avery Williams has likely done that. He’s consistently looked solid-to-good as a returner on both kickoffs and punts, and while Cordarrelle Patterson will limit his work on the former, he’s probably going to seize both roles as soon as 2022. Add in solid work on defense, especially on a night where Chris Williamson got burned a couple of times and Darren Hall got very little work, and Williams belongs with Ogundeji on the short list of impressive Falcons rookies.
  • Younghoe Koo is not only a terrific young kicker, but also a willing tackler. His kickoff takedown of a Browns returner immediately after a 40 yard field goal was a real “fine, I’ll do it myself” moment from a player who ought to be a Falcon for a very long time.

The Ugly

  • Fabian Moreau and Duron Harman crashing into one another and taking themselves entirely out of the play felt like the essential Falcons defensive mishap, especially since Austin Hooper was the player with the catch and run. Kudos to Jaylinn Hawkins for stopping it before it led to a touchdown, but two defenders literally cancelling one another out of a play is something I really hope not to see from this team in 2021.
  • I think the Falcons will strongly consider keeping Feleipe Franks around, either as a surprise #2 quarterback while they search for upgrades or as a practice squad player, but he obviously has a ways to go as a passer. He missed a couple of throws, showed a genuine startle and freeze response to pressure at times, and generally looks like a guy not even close to ready to primetime after a lengthy preseason audition. That said, his physical tools are still intriguing, and I have to think the Falcons elect to stash him on the practice squad and see what he looks like a year from now.
  • I wrote before this game that Jalen Mayfield needed a huge effort to knock Josh Andrews out of the left guard job, if he could push him out at all after a summer where Andrews has consistently run as a starter, and that did not happen. Mayfield had his moments but also got shoved backwards into a hesitating Feleipe Franks’ lap and generally seemed to struggle in an extended audition that lasted most of the game. The Falcons are going to count on him over the long haul, but he’s not going to get into games early unless Andrews is hurt or an absolute dud, and based on the work we’ve seen to this point he probably shouldn’t.

Drew Dalman also scuffled mightily here and will settle in behind Matt Hennessy, hoping to push for a bigger role next offseason.

  • Kion Smith stuck this long despite the offensive line’s many struggles, so there’s still a decent chance he winds up on the practice squad. In this game, at least at first glance, he virtually guaranteed he’d be among the cuts as Atlanta trims down to 53 players. He largely did not stand out in the first two preseason games, but in this one he whiffed badly on a block that led to Josh Rosen being sacked and generally got pushed around at right tackle.
  • More on that Kobe Jones play in a moment, but Dwayne Johnson Jr. picking off a pass and then fumbling it was a good example of something the Falcons did frequently on defense: Make a play or come awfully close to making a play only for disaster to strike shortly after. Kudos to J.R. Pace, at least, for recovering it.
  • I was going to single out Chris Williamson for getting burned on one touchdown, but the Browns threw for nearly 400 yards and Williamson has had a solid summer at worst. Suffice to say the secondary had its adventures in this one, and figuring out who sticks in the final couple of open spots in this group based on last night might be tricky.
  • The general ugliness of the effort probably only makes the cuts easier. The Falcons sat enough players to field close to a starting lineup, and with their depth they’re looking for reserves capable of keeping them afloat and rotating in without a major loss in effectiveness. Atlanta didn’t lose by much but did generally struggle mightily against a quality Cleveland team, and I don’t think Terry Fontenot, Arthur Smith and company will really struggle to find obvious candidates to cut ties with in the next 48 hours.

This is not the easiest time of year for players fearing for their jobs or fans investing in undrafted players, but the reality is that only a handful of guys really boosted their stocks against the Browns, and most of them (Rosen, Foreman, Green) were probably headed for the roster or practice squad anyways.

  • I’m not sure it qualifies for “the ugly,” but the fact that the Falcons elected to barely play their starters this preseason is fairly new to this team and this fanbase, who generally got accustomed to seeing starters receive quite a bit of action ahead of the season in one or more preseason games. With all the uncertainty around this team’s fortunes, the kind of start they get off to will determine whether we end up thinking that was a brilliant move or a costly one. Obviously, the depth has not looked good enough to feel confident if Atlanta suffers any kind of real attrition this coming season.

The very Falcons moment of the day

  • The Kobe Jones play was essentially Falcons in a way few plays manage to be. He got an interception so straightforward he almost seemed surprised by it, but it was genuinely a nice play to snag it and then rumble for a significant gain. Then he fumbled it forward about ten yards and the Browns recovered, erasing all that good work. A subsequent call on Tuzar Skipper made the play even worse.

If you were going to try to summarize the Falcons in a single play, it might be this. A bit of a luck, a courageous but doomed effort, and an excruciating result. Jones tried and deserves credit for that effort, but rarely do the Falcons write their franchise history large across a single play like that one. Whether Jones lands a practice squad spot for the strength of his effort here or winds up cut for his ball carrying technique, this play felt captured the highs and lows of Atlanta football fandom very well.

What’s important

You know, extremely limited time for starters means we’re reacting to backups and third-stringers in a way that probably isn’t close to fair. What does matter is how those plays impact the roster, and whether the Falcons’ almost deliberate ineptitude during preseason translates to the regular season.

The roster cutdowns on Tuesday (or earlier) will be worth watching closely, but the true test of all their tinkering and fretting will start Week 1 against the Eagles and continue from there. I don’t expect a new regime to be able to turn this mess into a Super Bowl team in year one, but the push to keep the starters healthy and ready to go is something I hope will translate into long-overdue improvement right now. Lord knows we put up with some ugly preseason games if that wasn’t the case, so what matters right now is whether that faith is misplaced or not. My honest inclination is that it is not, but after watching three very ugly preseason games where the starters were essentially absent, I don’t blame you if you don’t agree.