With the Jets declining to play most of their starters, we knew what we were getting into. I was looking to see how the Falcons would impose their will on the Jets reserves, how Desmond Ridder and company would look once they got into the game, and whether preseason Week 1 standouts like Dee Alford and Jared Bernhardt would continue to play well.
Until the wheels came off and everything caught fire late in the game, the Falcons played well and satisfied everything I was looking for...except for discipline. We’ll get to that later. The highlights included Marcus Mariota playing pretty well, Ridder doing much the same, the team’s receiving options shining in their opportunities, some stretches of terrific pass protection, and a defense that clamped down hard on the Jets’ reserves until very late in the game. That’s all a cause for celebration, however muted.
Atlanta’s second string was a cause for concern a year ago—the team simply was not that deep—but last night suggested they’ll be a bit better off in that regard this year. The meltdown late in the game, featuring a mix of backups and roster hopefuls, suggests that the Falcons will have plenty to consider when they go to make roster cuts today and following their third preseason game. It also suggests, particularly on the defensive side of the ball and along the offensive line, that the team’s scouting of other rosters may pay off when they want to bolster the roster very soon.
But we shouldn’t let the performances of players likelier to be on the practice squad or headed elsewhere sour us on a quality Falcons effort, one that showed some creativity and verve regardless of the level of the competition. Atlanta’s progress isn’t likely to translate into any playoff magic in 2022, but after a shaky 2021 we did want to see this team learn from their mistakes, stock the roster with talent and depth, and start making strides so that they can be a serious threat in the NFC sooner than later. While preseason is preseason and big conclusions are always fraught in August, they appear to be moving in the right direction at last.
Take a few notes today with a grain of salt, given that the Jets had their backups in, but this was a damn fun game until late in the evening. Here are my takeaways, as is custom.
- I wanted to see how Marcus Mariota would look throwing the football more than he did against the Lions, and while it was against Jets backups, Mariota made some very sharp throws. The best one of the night was his back-of-the-endzone dart to Olamide Zaccheaus for a touchdown, but even on the move Mariota was able to connect. Combined with his heads-up scrambling against the Lions, we’ve seen enough to think this team’s Week 1 starter will be a capable steward of the offense, however long he’s at the helm of it. The only thing I’d really like to see him clean up is the deep shots and hitting the likes of Kyle Pitts and Anthony Firkser in stride, considering that’s a point of emphasis for this team and something fans were wont to knock Matt Ryan for.
- He’ll certainly have Desmond Ridder breathing down his neck. Ridder’s working against backups too, but also with backups, and he continues to impress with his poise, command of the offense, and quality throws. The Falcons were repeatedly doomed by penalties on his drives, but it’s fair to say that Ridder looks ready for primetime when he does get into the lineup, likely partway through the 2022 season. I don’t pretend to know just how good Ridder can be, but I won’t pretend that I think he’s anything less than a starting-caliber quarterback in the NFL. Neither will Arthur Smith, who admitted he’s willing to be hard on Ridder because he’s “too talented” to be treated like a rookie.
- Tyler Allgeier is headed for a prominent role sooner than later, as I’ve noted more than once, and we saw flashes of his potential on Monday night. Allgeier was heavily involved as the Falcons got down near the goal line with Ridder under center, showing physicality on his runs and good hands in his opportunities as a receiver, and that plus quality blocking will help him earn the role he’s destined for sooner than later. Particularly with Qadree Ollison and Caleb Huntley playing solid but not truly standing out, Allgeier’s spots feels assured.
- It was nice to see the Falcons’ roster locks at receivers all making plays. Bryan Edwards got his first game action and made a nice grab, Olamide Zaccheaus did an excellent job on his touchdown catch, and KhaDarel Hodge looked tough and physical on his opportunity, even if some of the yardage he picked up was called back. The last spot or two on the depth chart might be unsettled, but it’s hard not to be encouraged by what the team has for their top four spots, especially when Drake London is healthy and on the field.
- Tight end may have clarified a bit, too. Anthony Firkser figured to be locked into the #2 job and looked really good as a pass catcher out there, but MyCole Pruitt’s excellence as a receiver really stood out last night. Given his ties to the coaching staff and excellent career as a blocking tight end, Pruitt may well have a leg up on Parker Hesse and John FitzPatrick for the #3 role on the depth chart. The only question is how many tight ends the Falcons will keep.
- Jared Bernhardt is ticketed for a practice squad spot, at least. He’s earned the trust of Desmond Ridder and has done well this preseason, and his wide open 34 yard grab and 22 yard pickup late in the second quarter showcased his ability. The Falcons have had a lot of promising receivers pass through for one summer and then fade into obscurity, but Bernhardt is likely to get a longer look.
- Bulls...um...horsecrap roughing the passer penalty aside, Adetokunbo Ogundeji looked every bit the player the Falcons are hoping he can be. He was active and aggressive as a pass rusher and as a run defender, showing well in his snaps. Arnold Ebiketie has sky-high upside and DeAngelo Malone remains intriguing, but Ogundeji has done enough to start opposite Lorenzo Carter and has probably convinced the coaching staff of that, too.
- Dorian Etheridge isn’t guaranteed a spot with Deion Jones uncertain for a role and Nick Kwiatkoski competing, but he’s been really good two preseason in a row and had a big tackle for a loss in this one. Given his special teams value and ability against the run, I’d find him a spot.
- Dee Alford has done nothing but earn a spot, too. Once again in this game, he stood out thanks to quality coverage and good instincts, the kind of essential abilities and qualities Alford has shown throughout the summer. He was even a major contributor late in the game, when the Falcons’ defense was otherwise not doing much of note. It would be a major upset if he didn’t make the roster at this point, and if he does, it’s a credit both to him for the work and to Terry Fontenot and the front office for landing him.
- Quietly, Quinton Bell and Jalen Dalton have been making their own cases for roster spots. Bell has been with the Falcons since last year and is young and athletic, and things appear to be clicking for him in an encouraging way. Dalton has intriguing potential but had yet to put it together, but it seems like landing in Atlanta has been a boon for him. It’s possible both will make the roster, but if not, they seem assured of practice squad spots and the occasional appearance on Sundays.
- Teez Tabor had a nice interception to make the fourth quarter a little bit more bearable. It’s unclear whether there’s a fifth safety/sixth cornerback role to be had, but Tabor should be in the driver’s seat for it, especially with Mike Ford (at least on first viewing) scuffling once again.
- Younghoe Koo appreciation note: All this man does is hit field goal tries.
- The Falcons essentially handed the punter gig to Bradley Pinion when they cut Seth Vernon, and while one bad punt isn’t going to make them regret that, Pinion’s first quarter leg blast was...lacking. He didn’t show us a lot last night, which hopefully was more of a function of the team trying to get a closer look at would-be special teamers on returns than what Pinion is capable of offering to the Falcons. We’ll see.
- Jalen Mayfield needs some stellar performances to even dream of catching Elijah Wilkinson, and multiple penalties in the same game is a very poor way to get there. Mayfield may not be in danger of getting cut given this coaching staff’s investment in him, but he has looked largely lost in preseason action and Wilkinson shouldn’t be looking over his shoulder at all at this point. He’ll need to improve throughout the year to have a prayer of being anything more than a backup offensive lineman going forward, because Mayfield’s progress has been disappointing to this point.
- Ditto Rick Leonard, who is hoping to snag a swing tackle role in Atlanta but found himself penalized multiple times. The Falcons don’t have any other obvious candidates to take over that role, but Leonard’s going to need to be awfully sharp in the preseason finale to convince the team to not go looking for an alternative.
- Of course, if you saw Feleipe Franks under center, it’s hard not to come away feeling like Mariota and Ridder are stellar. The would-be jack-of-all-trades has been the talk of the summer given how well he’s fared at tight end, and both in that role and as a dangerous runner when operating under center, Franks clearly has value for this team. As a passer, he showcased shaky accuracy and decision-making last night, and also coughed up the ball on a sack, which in turn became the winning Jets score. Franks has the arm strength and ability to be very dangerous situationally as a quarterback, but while he was thrust into action to help keep Ridder out of danger and this wasn’t the best we’re going to see from him, the team would probably be wise to continue to focus on showcasing his talents in other ways.
- Atlanta’s penalty picture was godawful, something that clearly was driving Arthur Smith berserk on the sideline. Multiple would-be touchdown drives were doomed by false starts and holding penalties, and during a regular season game it’s entirely reasonable to suggest that the sheer number of penalties and how costly they proved to be would cost Atlanta a win that mattered. Preseason or no, the Falcons are unlikely to wave that lack of discipline and abundance of errors away, and you should expect cleaning all of that up to be a focus in the team’s limited practices and the preseason finale on Saturday.
- Frankly, the whole late second half. Arthur Smith put it best in comments to reporters, including our own Allen Strk:
Arthur Smith: I’m sorry you had to watch some of that second half. There were ugly inexcusable things we have to clean up.— Allen Strk (@allenstrk) August 23, 2022
Kyle Pitts. Yes, it was just one play, but it’s preseason and Pitts showed us just how spectacular he can be in the regular season. I can’t wait to see what Year 2 looks like for him.
Honorable mention to Dee Alford, whose all-over-the-place playmaking would earn him mention in a real game, as well as Marcus Mariota, Desmond Ridder, and Anthony Firkser.
The Falcons’ offense looks really fun. It’s not all going to be roses and bombs once we get to the regular season, but Arthur Smith has been interesting even in preseason and the strength of the supporting cast in Atlanta is improving.
Less than a full week later, the Jaguars come to town for the preseason finale before Atlanta gets down to a 53 man roster. Check out Big Cat Country for more.