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Falcons - Jaguars recap: Atlanta’s reserves deliver in preseason finale

The starters were parked, but the backups provided an encouraging note even so.

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

What are the Atlanta Falcons? Depending on your perspective, they might be a contender or a pretender, a frustrating delight or something you delight in feeling frustrated about, and a million variations on the theme. Deciding how you should feel about a polarizing team that has delivered only fleeting success over a nearly 60-year history is not an easy thing, especially right now in a time of transition and tumult.

To their credit, the Falcons are trying to make it easier on us now. The Calvin Ridley suspension and Deshaun Watson pursuit were twin dark clouds on the offseason, with the latter casting some serious doubt over Arthur Blank’s judgement in particular. For some fans that was enough, and after all the things Atlanta’s put its fans through, that’s understandable. For those who are still clinging on to the hull, barnacle-covered and half-drowned, the the Falcons have since built patiently and shrewdly toward a brighter future. It may not arrive today, but I feel a lot better about it arriving at some point after the last couple of months.

That’s a big statement after a preseason game that featured primarily reserves, but the reasons for it were legion. Desmond Ridder continued to look like the kind of quarterback who could develop into a quality long-term starter, rebounding from mistakes and showcasing a live arm throughout. Troy Andersen was among several Falcons defenders who showed they have real potential, even if it will take time to arrive at greatness. And Atlanta’s run game was a lot of fun to watch, even though Cordarrelle Patterson and Damien Williams sat this one out, in part courtesy of third-string offensive linemen who were fighting like hell to prove themselves. This team is miles away from being great—and there are no guarantees the road they’re on leads there, of course—but all of the plans to get there that have been talked about and hinted have slowly been coming into focus.

This optimism will butt up against reality at some point this season, whether it’s against the Saints (ugh), Rams, or even an unexpectedly game Seahawks team. There will be flaws and cracks in the plan, whether it’s Mariota stumbling or Drake London having a quiet rookie season or Arnold Ebiketie not making an immediate impact. There will be hiccups we didn’t foresee from starters and ones that we did, and here I am thinking specifically of the offensive line, which is why I’ve had this team well under double digit wins since the spring and will continue to predict just that. There will be reasons to doubt and we will take them at times, because this team is not quite there just yet, but the offseason and the preseason when compared to 2021 have been noticeably sharper and more encouraging minus the very real miscues and misfortunes I mentioned above.

But we’re still talking about a preseason game, right? On Saturday night, we saw seemingly improved depth from a Falcons team that will need it in 2022 and beyond, and some spectacular moments from players like Desmond Ridder, Tyler Allgeier, Troy Andersen, DeAngelo Malone, and Arnold Ebiketie, the ones this team will be counting on if they are going to be terrific any time soon. Whether any of that translates over when the starters take the field against fellow starters is an open debate, but Atlanta’s reserves handled Jacksonville’s reserves effectively. Now we just wait to see how many of them actually make this roster, and whether this team’s planning and work this offseason leads to a better-than-expected 2022.

Let’s move on to the full recap.

The Good

  • It wasn’t all pretty for Desmond Ridder—two interceptions will ensure that—but I think he showed once again why this team believes in him. After mistakes and under pressure, Ridder kept rallying to deliver on-time throws and keep the offense moving. He’s a rookie and he’ll look like a rookie at times if he gets extended playing time, but Ridder’s potential is real and his opportunity will come.
  • The team has a good problem at running back, where multiple players looked pretty good on Saturday. Qadree Ollison ran well, Tyler Allgeier ran well and caught the ball effectively, and Caleb Huntley looked terrific and prone to a well-timed spin move. It’ll be a tough decision for a fourth and final spot in this backfield between Ollison and Huntley, but my gut says Huntley earned it. Allgeier is locked in.
  • The wide receiver battle is going to be a tough one to settle, but multiple players helped themselves on Saturday. Frank Darby would have had a touchdown to end the first half with better ball placement and had a nice 35 yard grab down the sideline later on, his most impressive action as a wide receiver this preseason, and continues to get significant special teams run. Damiere Byrd had a nice grab and almost had another, as well, while Cameron Batson was active and had more than one quality catch. Jared Bernhardt nearly scooped up a low ball and had another good catch, as well. Heck, KeeSean Johnson had a nice grab and good run after, as well.

What will the Falcons end up doing here? It’s an open question that depends on what they’re looking for, but I’d expect at least two of the four players minus Johnson that I’ve mentioned here to stick around via the roster and/or practice squad, and my guesses would be Darby and Bernhardt.

  • The third team offensive line was working against Jacksonville’s deep reserves, but they did a nice job. Tyler Vrabel probably helped himself at least push for a practice squad spot with a quality night after Rick Leonard was cut, Ryan Neuzil’s ability to play center and guard is going to secure him a practice squad spot once again, and Justin Shaffer showed the ability to move people in the run game very effectively. Shaffer and Neuzil feel like borderline locks for the practice squad, and we’ll see if Vrabel or Leroy Watson has done enough to make a push to stay on as a tackle.
  • Arnold Ebiketie looked strong and tough in this one, helping out as a run defender, getting key stops, and putting pressure on the quarterback. If things are clicking for the promising rookie heading into the regular season, and if he’s looking this well-rounded early on, that’s very good news.
  • DeAngelo Malone looked good, too, and his instincts and ability in coverage are legitimately intriguing. In this one he batted down a pass on a heads-up play and showed he can move well in space, and should be locked into the #4 outside linebacker role this year, meaning he can expect consistent snaps.
  • I’m not sure if he’ll wind up sticking around after the Falcons go mining for other teams’ roster cuts, but Abdullah Anderson has looked good enough to make the 53 man roster. In this one he was active and effective throughout, his second straight strong effort, and the Falcons’ thinned-out depth chart along the defensive line has left a real vacuum. Hopefully he can stick around.
  • This was Derrick Tangelo’s best game. I’ve been intrigued by Tangelo since the Falcons added him this spring, but he had been quieter in preseason action until he started showing up as a run defender and ultimately a pass rusher in this one. He picked up a clean up sack, looked like a sound tackler, and seems to have all the ability to be a useful reserve, so I’d expect him to make the practice squad.
  • Big play for Troy Andersen, who came in screaming hot and with the help of Quinton Bell forced an awful throw that Nate Landman took full advantage of. Andersen’s going to be a work in progress in 2022, but the talent is there for him to be a huge pain in the ass for opposing offenses.
  • As our own Everett Glaze noted, Dee Alford got pulled quickly, which probably means he is indeed a roster lock. It’ll be interesting to learn what his role for 2022 will be, but the front office went for a Canadian lottery ticket and it paid off, which is nice.
  • Corey Ballentine has had a very uneven preseason, but he authored a very big play in this one with his interception, which along with his return ability and experience should at least give the Falcons reason to weigh keeping him.
  • Quinton Bell had perhaps the play of the game in this one, a diving maximum effort punt block that set the Falcons up to score just one play later. Bell has played well as a defender this summer, but making a huge play like that on special teams may well push him over the top in his quest for a roster spot. It helps that Bell also helped out with pressure late in the fourth quarter on the play that ultimately led to Nate Landman’s interception. Kudos to Landman for that play, as well.

He’s been a bundle of promise since he arrived in the league as a Buccaneers seventh round pick, but Bell has done enough in July and August to make me think he’s putting it together. The Falcons will find space for him if they agree.

  • Finally, I think Aaron Freeman is correct when he suggests that some players who didn’t play at all were major winners.

We knew Williams, Hodge, and Mayfield were safe (even if not everyone was ready to admit the last one), but Hesse and Gossett were less certain. I had thought Gossett had likely secured a spot but thought Hesse and MyCole Pruitt would come down to the wire in a way it did may not have. Gossett will likely be the team’s final offensive lineman, while Hesse should be the third tight end and a player with interesting upside and a large role as the best blocker in that group.

The Ugly

  • An opening play interception by Desmond Ridder? Well, perhaps the hype was in danger of getting out of control. The rookie made some ill-advised throws in the first week of preseason but wasn’t punished for them thanks to penalties, but this one will be one he’ll be spending a lot of time re-watching and thinking about. He had another interception at the end of the first half, but that was a desperation heave and not something I’m going to fret about. Before he gets on the field as a full-time starter, the hope will be that he’s savvier about those throws and better able to connect on ones like the shot over Damiere Byrd’s head that was agonizingly close to being complete, but these are blemishes rather than fatal flaws.
  • Jonotthan Harrison was this week’s Rick Leonard/Jalen Mayfield, picking up more than one unfortunate penalty on the day, both of them false starts. With Ryan Neuzil working at center and having experience at guard while drawing praise from the coaching staff, the veteran may be looking elsewhere for his next role.
  • Mistakes were magnified in this one. Timothy Horne’s neutral zone infraction on 4th and 5 probably didn’t erase a quality summer, but it could be the difference between him beating out Derrick Tangelo for a practice squad spot when all is said and done. Corey Ballentine has stuck around throughout the summer but has had an uneven preseason, with a big play and a pass interference in this one before a late interception on a tipped ball balanced the scales. Penalties and coverage miscues were still plentiful, and a Falcons team that hates those kinds of mistakes will be scrutinizing them closely.

It’s tough to tell exactly how heavily these mistakes will be weighed versus the quality plays and the overall strength of the summer for these guys, but Terry Fontenot did say in an interview during the broadcast that every snap mattered.

  • Injuries reared up again to cause problems, though our fingers are crossed they’re not serious. Anthony Firkser and Dorian Etheridge both left the game, with Etheridge exiting on a cart, and the fear that both could miss time is a real one. Firkser is the #2 tight end and another quality pass catching option behind Kyle Pitts, while Etheridge is a quality special teamer and run-stopping reserve at inside linebacker, making their losses unfortunate ones. Fingers crossed both are okay.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

Handing it to Quinton Bell for livening up the proceedings with his stellar special teams play, but he can share it with Caleb Huntley and his sterling day on the ground.

One Takeaway

This team is relatively healthy and seems ready for the regular season, which is all you can really ask for. Now to see how good they are.

Next Week

It’s actually two weeks away, but the Falcons open the 2022 regular season against the Saints. Can’t wait to see New Orleans lose! Please let them lose.

Final Word