The expectations for the Falcons this coming season are all over the map, but the clear assumption is pretty universal. Whether this team is good or bad, Atlanta figures to be a work in progress for the 2022 season.
The first preseason game can’t supersede those expectations, obviously, but it was a sign that we may be headed in a better direction than the one these listless Falcons have been charting the past few seasons. Against a game and physical Lions team, the Falcons stayed competitive until the end and ultimately won, showing more than a little bit of pass rushing acumen, a more than fair amount of passing acumen, and plenty of the toughness that Arthur Smith and company hope will carry the day this coming season. The end result was a 27-23 win, something we’re not used to seeing in August, and an unexpectedly fun game overall.
It is possible to get carried away—I know I did on Friday night, giddily trumpeting Desmond Ridder’s future as the team’s franchise quarterback with three-quarters seriousness—but even if you dial your expectations down appropriately there was something to like last night. Atlanta actually got after the quarterback at times, certainly displayed some rushing ability both from their backs and their passers, and saw both quarterbacks who will factor into the 2022 season putting forth solid performances. Nobody should rush out and drop hundreds of dollars on this team’s win total next season, but this team looked many miles from terrible, which is a victory in and of itself. If those glimpses of promise translate into even a solid regular season performance, the Falcons will be well on their way to being more than the sum of their parts in 2023, and they may make more of the 2022 season than I think they will today.
To translate that into the regular season, they’ll need a healthy Drake London, especially after he exited early on. They’ll need to show that the Marcus Mariota and Desmond Ridder performances weren’t just preseason flukes. They’ll definitely need to show that the offensive line shakiness and secondary woes were in fact flukes rather than signs of what’s to come, and that the final roster will be full of players who can deliver on the lofty promises Arthur Smith and Dean Pees keep making.
What was striking against a Lions team that has no lack of talent or motivation was that the Falcons appeared to be at great remote from the squad that regularly fell down from 2018-2021, especially in the preseason, and appeared a little closer to a football team on the cusp of figuring things out. When progress is the key metric, rather than wins, every inch and every gained yard does matter.
On to the full recap, as is our custom.
- Marcus Mariota did look sharp, which was very welcome. He had one dart to Drake London on the first drive and connected with KhaDarel Hodge on a low ball near the goal line on his own drive, but Mariota did most of his damage as a runner.
He scrambled three times for 23 yards in this one, including a bold touchdown that saw him diving near the pylon, and we now have a first-hand look at what he can do when the pocket breaks down and receivers aren’t open. Mariota’s going to hopefully slide more often to protect himself in the future, but the fearlessness combined with the speed makes it clear that he’ll be able to escape bad situations well. This, in addition to his widely praised leadership abilities, is why Atlanta clearly wanted him this year, and it’ll be fun to watch him even if the team struggles. Ideally we’ll see more of his passing acumen the next time out, as well, but Mariota’s locked in as the starter right now for good reason.
- I was anxious to see how Desmond Ridder would fare, and mostly impressed once I saw him in action. A would-be interception erased by a penalty marred his day and he did make a couple of ugly throws that would have hurt him in a regular season game, but otherwise Ridder looked like he was in command of the offense and making pretty sharp throws throughout the evening, even if his receiving options sometimes let him down.
Pair that with consistently effective scrambling and the rookie looked like he was ready for primetime, which was exactly what I was hoping to see from a player who might be the team’s long-term solution at quarterback. There will be hiccups as he develops and I can’t guarantee he’ll look this sharp against the Jets and Jaguars, but the ability and poise appear to be there.
- The ground game was not always working with quality blocking—the second-team offensive line in particular was justifiably criticized—but in general the backs had a nice game. Tyler Allgeier shone late and delivered a key block on the final play of the play, Qadree Ollison did well when he had any room at all, and both Caleb Huntley and Damien Williams had their moments. Allgeier should be locked into a significant role, but this is otherwise a real competition for roles that doesn’t look like it’ll be settled immediately. Ollison did the bulk of his work against starters and immediate backups, so you do have to give additional weight to that.
Notably, Cordarrelle Patterson did not get any run, because Cordarrelle Patterson is locked into a significant role on the ground and through the air. The battle for the remaining spots appears to be fierce.
- Drake London had very limited action owing to injury, but that was a very nice catch. If the injury is relatively minor, as it seems to be, we should see plenty of those in the regular season.
- Give Jared Bernhardt credit for taking a desperate Desmond Ridder heave on the final play of the game and turning it into a touchdown. The converted lacrosse star is probably ticketed for practice squad duties in 2022, but he is intriguing and this was the kind of play that might make the coaching staff weigh your value more carefully in the future. If he can build on that in the next two preseason games, especially after nobody stood out on Friday night, it’ll bode well for him.
- Matt Hennessy looked pretty good in his limited action, while Drew Dalman appeared to struggle as a run blocker. That battle isn’t settled just yet, but Hennessy helped himself last night.
- It’s early, but the pass rush showed some signs. Arnold Ebiketie was active and impactful, pressuring Tim Boyle on a key third down in the second quarter, but that was helped by DeAngelo Malone getting Boyle moving in the first place. That duo feels like it might be at least a good one for the Falcons sooner than later.
Add in a nice Ta’Quon Graham would-be strip sack erased by a penalty and Jalen Dalton thriving in pass rushing situations and you have an encouraging start for the Falcons’ young defenders up front, who need the confidence boost early on.
- The secondary may have struggled at times, but Dee Alford still found a way to make a big play. His third quarter interception put the Falcons in excellent scoring position, and was exactly the kinds of heads up play the CFL star needs to make to stick on the roster. Alford also did solid work in coverage on a night where not everyone did. I truly believe he will, especially after he continued to play well in coverage in an otherwise shaky Falcons defense.
Kudos to Darren Hall for bouncing back after some early shakiness, as well, as he had a nice pass breakup and overall fared well in coverage.
- Younghoe Koo is remarkably reliable. It’s just something I like to note in these recaps.
- The flashes from the defensive line were nice, but both lines continued to be worrisome heading into a season where line play is going to be critical. The first-team line featuring Matt Hennessy and company did pretty well, but Mariota still felt the need to scramble multiple times and Aidan Hutchinson made short work of Jake Matthews at least once. The backup lines had their moments, but those moments were marred by missed blocks and mishaps, making the team’s pledge to add talent to the offensive line in particular something that needs to be honored. The fact that the starting line was largely manhandled by a very capable Detroit offensive line is not particularly encouraging, either.
That said, one game, right? In the same way we ought to temper expectations for Ridder and company based on a single effort, we need to give these lines time to gel. Chalk it down as concerning but not fatal just yet.
- I’m a big Darren Hall fan and Mike Ford has turned heads in camp, but both ran into the Tim Boyle buzzsaw in this one. Kalif Raymond dusted the combination on a deep pass that allowed Detroit to pick up 40-plus yards in the second quarter.
Ford unfortunately did not stop having struggles after that, allowing a catch late in the second quarter for a first down and adding a facemask penalty to it. His special teams history and impressive training camp ought to help him find a roster spot, but it was a rough first preseason game for him. Hopefully he’ll bounce back next week.
- Hell, it was a rough game overall from the defense, which allowed Jared Goff and Tim Boyle to do plenty of damage despite their middling careers to this point. You can only put so much stock in preseason, but the Falcons’ defense has enough talent to be at least a very solid unit in 2022. They only delivered on that sporadically in Week 1 of preseason, and they’ll need to improve before the season kicks off if they want to deliver on that modest (at least to Dean Pees) progress.
We don’t really give these out in preseason, but full credit to Mariota and Ridder for capably managing the offense, and to Alford for a very big play that helped turn the game.
This team, while a work in progress, appears to have the makings of a fun squad. If you’re like me and don’t expect them to be legitimate contenders until 2023, the promise and the enjoyable plays are a good sign.
Atlanta gets Monday Night Football against the Jets, who may have just lost Zach Wilson for the season. Given New York’s young talent this is another quality matchup that will help Atlanta to get ready for 2022, but unless you love Joe Flacco, it should not be viewed as a looming challenge.