There was one area of the game that new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen said the Falcons can improve in earlier in the offseason.
In light of that, it was fun to be able to see the Falcons go up against a team other than themselves for the first time this season, as they held joint practices and the first preseason game against the Miami Dolphins. While the starters didn’t partake in the Friday festivities, everyone could sense and feel those changes already, as described by Dolphins’ quarterback Tua Tagovailoa after one of the joint practice sessions.
“They look really good and are executing defensive wise. I have to give them props,” Tua on the Falcons defense, which ended his series with an INT.— Omar Kelly (@OmarKelly) August 9, 2023
Even more specifically, the line of scrimmage proved to be much better than in past years, continuing a trend of what we were hearing from joint practices as well through certain periods. Now, were starters not out there? Of course. If anything, that makes me even more excited of what could be to come.
When you have two against twos, you’d expect your twos to win, even if that hasn’t always been the case for Atlanta. The Falcons’ twos won. Below I’ll talk about one player that stood out to me from the game on Friday, my favorite play of the game, and what I took from the performance on a go-forward basis.
Albert Huggins stood out
One of my favorite parts of camp and the preseason is seeing which players (especially at the line of scrimmage) make the most of their opportunities and flash. Throughout the week, Albert Huggins has been one of those players.
On Friday, Huggins played 28 snaps and made the most of them, racking up a half a sack and 4 total tackles. I’d love to see how he was graded out by the coaches and how he had been graded out throughout the joint practices as well, but Pro Football Focus had his Friday performance graded as an 84.7 including a 90(!) in pass rush.
As mentioned by our Adnan Ikic, one theme of the Fontenot regime has been finding young and cheap defensive tackles that turn out to be very important depth pieces. This is already one of the deepest defensive lines the Falcons have had in a long time.
Adding Huggins into that mix would only make things that much better if he can continue to play like this. He was a Nielsen guy in New Orleans last season, so obviously the Falcons defensive coordinator knows there’s something there that can be valuable to the team this year.
Arnold Ebiketie’s big moment
Time for me to put on my pass rush nerd hat for a minute. Arnold Ebiketie had my favorite moment and pass rush of the game. Late in the 4th quarter, Ebiketie used a spin move and got the pass rush trifecta: sack, forced fumble, and fumble recovery. When it comes to the meeting room, that is the highest combination of production points you can get on a play outside of scoring a touchdown.
Again, yes, it was against a backup. It isn’t even the fact that he had a sack that I’m excited about. It was the technique and the confidence with the approach of the rush that I’m looking more into. If you look at the earlier point of last season, I felt that Ebiketie would telegraph the inside move a tad bit. There was a rep in the early Tampa Bay game where he showed the chop a little to early, letting the offensive tackle know what’s coming. Here is a video from X account @DiehardFalcFan that illustrates this point:
the evolution of the Ebiketie spin move pic.twitter.com/Jyo0tjkRL1— London/Ebiketie Breakout ‘23 (@DiehardFalcFan) August 12, 2023
Notice how much later he’s showing (if any) that the spin is coming later in the season versus Washington and then on Friday against Miami. Also, watch the finish of the move between Washington and then Miami. Yes, he does a much better job hiding the spin against Washington compared to the first rep, and as a result he had the tackle in his own spin cycle.
The only critique there is that once he spins, he couldn’t get the “ice pick” in. What that means is he wasn’t able to get the lead hand to the center of the back of the tackle to fully clear him. With the help of the white gloves on Friday, you can see that left hand reach the center of that tackle’s back to help Ebiketie clear him, and then he uses that athleticism to finish to Skylar Thompson.
In total, there was a lot to like from the defense, especially up front. Their efforts helped lead the Falcons to three picks and five sacks in the 19-3 win. Not only are new players making some noise here and there, but the development and improvement of people who were already on the roster has been obvious, as well.
Next week will be even more fun as Arthur Smith has already announced the starters will be out there against Cincinnati. I can’t wait to see even more of the new look defensive line and defense as a whole, even if it’s only for a little bit of time.