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Falcons - Dolphins recap: Big plays highlight a rare preseason win

We tuned in for deep reserves and found an enjoyable football game, one with real import for several key reserves.

Atlanta Falcons v Miami Dolphins Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images

When we learned the Falcons were going to trot out reserves for Friday night, it was fair to prepare for something of a slog. Seeing Desmond Ridder running an offense that features Kyle Pitts, Bijan Robinson, and Drake London, however briefly, sounds far more enticing than Logan Woodside slinging it to Josh Ali and Xavier Malone. No offense intended to those guys, of course.

While the Falcons did park their starters, we got a compelling game, regardless. The Falcons offense did enough to at least make things interesting—Woodside avoided big turnovers, we got a handful of nice catches, and Carlos Washington and Godwin Igwebuike fared well on the ground—and the defense largely smothered Miami before late big plays turned a close game into something of a preseason blowout. The hard-fought battles in the trenches—and some red zone stands for Atlanta’s defense—helped to ensure this was interesting even when it wasn’t particularly lively.

As preseason games go, then, it was very worth our time, and gave the Falcons plenty to evaluate. Some penalties and miscues will earn particular scrutiny from the coaching staff, but the fine play of players from Dee Alford to Woodside will also garner plenty of attention, and should leave Atlanta feeling better about their depth than they’ve had any right to over the past couple of seasons. We wanted to see how the Falcons’ reserves would fare against a capable group of Miami backups, and while you still have to take some of that with a grain of salt given that it’s still just reserves against reserves, they acquitted themselves well and apparently escaped without any major injuries. That’s as much of a win as the actual win.

We’ll see if we see the starters in Week 2 of preseason, but regardless, this game gave us plenty to chew on. Here’s a recap of the good and the ugly from last night as you enjoy your morning (or afternoon, if you slept in) coffee.

The Good

  • The Falcons treated this a bit like a scrimmage, with very few starters getting any sort of time. That gave them an extended look at potential third quarterback Logan Woodside, and honestly I think he did himself a few favors in this one.

Looking increasingly decisive as time went on and throwing a few nice balls, Woodside looked like he’d be a fine emergency option at the position, which is all he really needs to do in order to at least hold on to a practice squad spot. With Desmond Ridder and Taylor Heinicke likely to get some run in the next couple of preseason games, this was potentially Woodside’s longest audition, and he did enough to make the most of it.

  • I like Carlos Washington, and not just because he spent time at my alma mater. The rookie running back started this game and looked good, running through contact to pick up yards and showing ability as a short-range receiving option for Logan Woodside in the early going.

I’d say he’s a shoo-in for the fourth running back role, but Godwin Igwebuike also impressed from there on out. In limited action in the first half, he wound up putting together some nice runs with some help from a very game Falcons offensive line, including a virtually untouched touchdown run where he showed nice burst. The Falcons may carry both players, one on the roster and one on the practice squad, given that both have looked good and have special teams value. Igwebuike handling returns and running back duties so well does bode well for him, and both players are likely to get major run again versus the Bengals to see if there’s any further separation.

  • Of course, those nice runs don’t happen without quality blocking, and the “starters” along the line did a nice job in that regard in particular.

One game isn’t enough to tell us how this is all going to shake out, but Miles, Mayfield, Neuzil, and Hinton in particular figure to benefit from tonight given their relative youth and quality play. For a team that wants to run effectively, the best thing a reserve lineman can do to make the team is to do just that in their limited opportunities. The Falcons won’t keep all of these players on the active roster, but continued solid play in the final two preseason games could keep them all around in some capacity.

  • A few receivers had impressive moments in this game, but I’d wager nobody did more to improve their stock than Xavier Malone. The rookie undrafted free agent led the team in receiving with two grabs for 50 yards and made one especially nice catch where he was hit hard and held on. In a group that’s crowded and where separation might be tough to achieve, Malone did himself a few favors Friday night.
  • Timothy Horne showed out last year, but I identified him as a player on the roster bubble because of all of Atlanta’s additions over the offseason. An Eddie Goldman departure and one preseason game later, Horne seems ready to put those concerns to rest.

One of the most visible and disruptive defensive lineman for Atlanta Friday night, Horne made multiple run stops and once again looked like an extremely capable run defender throughout the night. Atlanta may only have one or two spots available along the defensive line, but if Horne continues to show out in preseason, he should have little trouble securing one.

  • Breon Borders had one of the plays of the night, knocking down a pass on 4th and 2 that otherwise might have been a touchdown, before he had perhaps the play of the night with a pick-six off Skylar Thompson that effectively ended the game. Borders also didn’t quit on a pursuit later on that saved a possible touchdown from Miami, so even if he had hiccups in coverage, it was a great night for a player who has shown himself to be an aggressive, instinctual defender over the past month or so. Post-two-game suspension, he might be in the mix for a reserve role on this defense.
  • DeMarcco Hellams has drawn a lot of praise from this coaching staff, and you saw why against Miami. The rookie safety made a heads up play on a tipped ball and intercepted it, ending the first and productive Dolphins drive, and showed an ability to get himself in the right position and tackle well throughout the night. Given the limited competition for the fourth safety role and Hellams’ real special teams value on top of his strong play, I think the job is likely his. The crushing hits don’t hurt, either.
  • Tae Davis had a couple of nice tackles, and that plus his considerable special teams value should put him in a good position to win a roster spot. However, the competition is stiff. If there’s only one role available for him, Mike Jones Jr. (who had a sack and was all over the field Friday night), Nate Landman (who had a sack and a nice tackle of his own in the first half), it’ll be an interesting competition the rest of the way.
  • Dee Alford has done nothing but impress since he arrived in Atlanta, with his coverage chops putting him in a good position to win the nickel cornerback role. It was his special teams work that really stood out, however.

Alford took advantage of quality blocking and housed a punt return that went more than 75 yards, making it clear he can handle that job too if the Falcons want him to. The characteristically solid work on defense and the flashy work on special teams should ensure not just a roster spot for Alford, but potentially a major role on defense and special teams.

The Ugly

  • Am I going to overreact to Younghoe Koo missing a pair of extra points in preseason? No. Is missing an extra point or two sort of a feature and not a bug with Koo in spite of all his excellence, given that he’s done so in three of the past four seasons? Yes. Let’s hope he got it out of the way in Week 1 of preseason, because obviously those kinds of misses are costly in regular season action.
  • Players vying for roster spots can’t afford major mistakes, but J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and Josh Ali both had passes in their hands that they ultimately dropped. I thought Ali in particular did some nice things otherwise, but in a position group as crowded as receiver, those mistakes hurt.
  • Missed tackles reared their head briefly in this one, and it was an unpleasant flashback on an otherwise solid night for the Falcons’ defense. For an aggressive, physical unit like the one Ryan Nielsen envisions, having a ball carrier in your grasp and letting him get away is a sour note, and one that will certainly be harped on this week in the run-up to a game against a speedy Bengals team.
  • The Dolphins did rush for 168 yards in this one, including a disconcerting number of big chunk gains. While the starters were out t
  • We’re going to get the same debates about Falcons preseason we got two years ago, when Arthur Smith and company sat the starters pretty much all preseason on the principle that they were ready and it was best to avoid injuries, only to watch the team go through an excruciatingly slow start to the season. Atlanta once again parked their starters in this one, including second-year quarterback Desmond Ridder, who many fans clearly feel would benefit from the tune-up time in preseason.

The Falcons might change things up a little bit next week with no joint practices and have the starters get some run, which would likely alleviate some of that angst. But there is a palpable level of concern that the Falcons are setting themselves up to be rusty and slow in Week 1 of the regular season, particularly with a relatively unproven option under center, and that’s unlikely to be alleviated until the regular season proves otherwise (or doesn’t). At least the reserves are in the process of putting concerns about depth to bed, at least.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

I’ll give this one to Breon Borders, who had a bit of an uneven day but also authored some of the biggest plays of the evening, including a pick-six that put the final nail in Miami’s aquatic coffin.

One Takeaway

If this is what the defensive depth is capable of for Atlanta this season, all those rosy predictions here and elsewhere about major defensive improvement feel like they’ll be justified come this fall.

Next Week

Next Friday, the Bengals come to town. We’ll likely only get a look at their reserves, but that’s a fine challenge given that Cincinnati figures to once again be one of the AFC’s better teams. Check out Cincy Jungle for more on how the Bengals are faring heading into that matchup.

Final Word