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Falcons - Lions: 9 takeaways from Atlanta’s preseason opener

The Falcons won in dramatic fashion, and we’re here to react rather rapidly.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Detroit Lions Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports

The Falcons’ first preseason game of the 2022 season is in the books, and it proved to be a fairly competitive and entertaining affair that featured a signature game-winning moment from a certain rookie. Fans worried about the quarterback situation in Atlanta perhaps came away feeling just a bit better, and there were a number of young players who helped their chances.

There will be plenty more to learn in the coming weeks, and with further reviews of this preseason game, but why wait? Here are some rapid-fire takeaways from Atlanta’s game action.

Marcus Mariota looked solid in his first action

The unenviable job of following Matt Ryan has fallen to Mariota, but he showed well in his first action as a member of the Falcons. The former No. 2-overall pick drew some comments on Twitter for taking some shots on a scramble instead of getting out of bounds, but maybe that’s just how he rolls.

Mariota didn’t pass up an opportunity to run the ball, carrying it three times for 23 yards, including a 6-yard touchdown run. Still, his two passes of the drive looked very crisp. His 24-yard pass to London was among his best of the summer, and he had another 12-yard strike to KhaDarel Hodge in the red zone. Mariota looked poised and confident running the show, which is a great first impression.

Desmond Ridder shows his upside in NFL debut

The overall numbers won’t due Ridder justice. He completed 10 of his 22 pass attempts for 103 yards and two touchdowns while also gaining 59 yards on the ground, but this is one of those very common instances where even decent stats obfuscate the truth. Fans should certainly feel more optimistic about what the rookie quarterback can be, and better about where he already is in his development.

A prime nitpick of Ridder among the draft community was his tendency to be inaccurate early in games. Ridder put the ball exactly where he wanted on his first drive Friday night, including a 20-yard dart to Damiere Byrd. Ridder’s first miscue would have resulted in an interception on a ball thrown behind its intended target, but a roughing the passer penalty negated the mistake.

He responded extremely well. Ridder put the ball in a near-perfect spot in the front corner of the end zone, but tight end Parker Hesse was just an inch short of reeling it in. That didn’t prove to be a problem, as Ridder connected with Geronimo Allison for a 20-yard gain on the next play, and then found Hesse for a redemptive 1-yard touchdown.

Ridder had scrambles of 20 and 19 yards just before halftime, showcasing the damage he can do with his legs if left alone. His passing seemed to waver a bit more from then on, but he didn’t receive much help from his teammates on the passes that were on the money.

Ultimately, though, Ridder made the game-winning play when it mattered. On a fourth-and-9 with under 2 minutes remaining in the contest, Ridder scrambled away from pressure, found space to his right and ultimately let loose a pass to give Jared Bernhardt a chance in the end zone. Bernhardt got free from his defender and secured the touchdown catch to give Ridder his first signature play as a Falcon.

Those who plan to check the stats as an indicator of tonight’s game might not be impressed with what they see from Ridder, aside from the two touchdowns. Those who watched him play, however, saw more than a couple of moments that were mighty impressive indeed.

Falcons starting defense gashed

Detroit began Friday’s game on offense, and it didn’t take the Lions long to get things rolling. A clear breakdown in communication on the game’s second play resulted in an 18-yard gain on a simple pass right over the middle. Jamaal Williams – the most emotional cast member of HBO’s Hard Knocks – shot up the middle for a 9-yard run, and DeAndre Swift also got free for a 7-yard run later in the drive.

The real dagger play from Detroit came just after Swift’s 7-yard scamper. Jared Goff connected with Amon-Ra St. Brown on a well-developed crossing route off of play action that found the gap just behind Mykal Walker and just in front of A.J. Terrell in Atlanta’s zone defense. Swift clinched the drive with a 9-yard touchdown run.

Most of the breakdowns looked to come in Atlanta’s front seven, and especially with the linebackers. There are certainly going to be some growing pains as the team continues to prepare for the games that matter, but we’ll be looking for a better showing in game two.

Drake London injured on big play

It didn’t take long for Atlanta’s first-round pick to make his presence felt. London slipped free at the line of scrimmage and maintained a step on his man while coming across the formation and snagging a well-thrown ball from Mariota for a 24-yard gain in the first quarter.

Unfortunately, London came up hobbled and left the field to receive attention from the Falcons’ medical staff. He even took a short trip to the blue medical tent but eventually returned to the sideline with his teammates. Atlanta ruled London out for the remainder of the action with a knee injury, but it’s likely a good sign that he remained on the sideline and was shown moving around.

London showed enough to tantalize, and he’s left fans eager to see more. And, of course, praying they will.

Atlanta’s run game led the way on the opening drive

While Arthur Smith understands the importance of running an offense that maximizes his players’ talents, he also clearly wants to establish a consistent and successful run game. The 2022 season may feature a greater emphasis on the ground game than any we’ve seen since Matt Ryan’s early years, and it got off to a decent start in that regard.

Marcus Mariota showed off his wheels on the first play of the game, scrambling for 7 yards. Damien Williams salvaged the drive with an 8-yard burst up the middle on a third-and-5, and things picked up from there. The star of the drive was Qadree Ollison, who broke off 18- and 12-yard runs in succession to get the offense to the red zone. Mariota’s legs proved the difference in the red zone, as he capped off the first drive of the preseason with a 6-yard touchdown scramble.

All told, Atlanta ran for 61 yards on its first possession, which was an encouraging sight to see.

Friday’s roster battle implications

Perhaps the primary reason many of y’all tune into preseason games—aside from seeing new starters—is to gain your own insights into the training camp battles you’ve seen much written about. Well, here’s some more writing.

We’ll have to see what unfolds with the center rotation moving forward because it seems like Matt Hennessy made a strong statement on Friday. He was part of the starting unit that moved the ball well on the ground, and the interior of the offensive line held up well on the drive. Drew Dalman, who has been on a daily rotation with Hennessy, entered the game in the second quarter and had at least one notable missed block that resulted in a tackle for a loss. As with all true evaluations, watching the tape again is a necessity, but it looked like Hennessy had the better night.

Second-year linebacker Dorian Etheridge may have had the best night of all reserve players. He flashed all across the defense in the second and third quarters and finished with seven tackles while chipping in a pass deflection. Etheridge was the leading tackler last preseason for Atlanta with 16 stops, and he appeared in seven games as a key special teams player. He made a case to be more than that against the Lions. Nathan Landman, the undrafted rookie out of Colorado, also looked sharp while playing alongside Etheridge.

Atlanta’s starting secondary has been impressive throughout training camp, but there have been some intriguing young players looking to grab attention. Square among that group is undrafted rookie Dee Alford, who has flashed in various practice moments. Well, he stole the spotlight in the third quarter, breaking in front of a crossing route to secure a diving interception and set up a Falcons field goal. He also finished the game with a team-high eight tackles. Alford seems like a prime practice squad candidate, if not a lock, but he could be gunning for more at this point.

Rookies, and a few more guys who stood out

Jalen Dalton continues to make an impact in small ways on the defensive line. He set up his teammates well throughout the game, and his hard work finally paid off in the fourth quarter when he recorded a sack.

Like Alford, KhaDarel Hodge has quietly been putting together quite the summer. He has moved into part of the top reserve rotation, and he made a nice play with Mariota on the first drive.

I don’t believe Arnold Ebiketie’s performance warrants its own section, so I’m placing it here. That’s not meant to suggest we shouldn’t be encouraged by how he played. He disrupted the Lions’ passing game on a couple of occasions, and he looks confident coming off the edge.

Fans have been eagerly awaiting to see what Tyler Allgeier looks like running the ball, and he did not disappoint. He ran the ball hard, breaking a number of tackles, and showed some good burst when he did get space.

It was more of a right-place-right-time situation, but defensive lineman Timmy Horne, an undrafted free agent, made perhaps the play of the night by jumping on a fumble at the 2-minute warning in the fourth quarter.

Jared Bernhardt was already likely a lock to make the practice squad due to his background and skill set, but he helped his case immensely by catching the game-winning touchdown. He out-muscled his defender and made an excellent play to reel it in, setting himself up as a Falcons preseason legend at the very least.

A handful of key guys didn’t dress out

Before the game, the Falcons announced six players who would not be playing in Friday’s game.

The simplest explanation is that all players have been dealing with an injury to some degree. Some players, like Andersen and Hawkins, have recently sustained minor injuries that hopefully shouldn’t sideline them for long. In Isaiah Oliver’s case, they continue to bring him along slowly in his recovery from last season’s knee injury.

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