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Falcons - Bengals recap: An alright night as Atlanta warms up

Atlanta’s starters do fine work, while the reserves turn in an uneven night worth evaluating.

NFL: Preseason-Cincinnati Bengals at Atlanta Falcons John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

The goal with any preseason game is—or at least ought to be—making it to the end healthy and with plenty to work on. By those criteria, the Falcons had a successful Friday night against the Cincinnati Bengals, emerging with a tie, plenty of solid moments and performances to build on, and some clear areas of focus before the season begins.

Atlanta once again took part in a low-scoring affair against a quality squad, but this time the defensive heroics weren’t quite so heroic. The Falcons held the Bengals to 13 points but were far less sharp as a pass defense than they were against Miami, allowing a few wince-worthy scrambles, failing to close out some sack opportunities, and watching receivers come down with fairly wide open catches. They balanced that out with some key red zone stops, solid run defense throughout the night, and a timely DeMarcco Hellams interception.

Offensively, they actually did a little more than the last week, with the starters putting together a long drive highlighted by nice Drake London and Mack Hollins catches and Bijan Robinson runs that might’ve gone for six if not for some bad luck, a borderline pass interference penalty that wasn’t called, and penalties aplenty. Taylor Heinicke did enough as the backup despite some reckless throws to lead a touchdown drive and made things interesting at other points, and Godwin Igwebuike and Carlos Washington both had their outstanding moments as runners. We got competence and a couple flashes of something more.

Overall, it was not a standout performance but was a solid one, particularly from the starters. The fact that it ended in a tie, the most ho-hum outcome imaginable, is fitting for the game itself, but I saw nothing that indicates the Falcons are in trouble heading into a season we’re all salivating to see, and plenty to indicate that with a little work and continued good health, they can be a fun and competitive football team that should be far better than they have been the past two years. We’ll take appetizers that need a little work in exchange for a meal that’s worth celebrating.

On to the full recap.

The Good

  • We only got a glimpse of Bijan Robinson, but a glimpse was enough. The rookie back looked slippery, decisive, and dangerous with the ball in his hands, showcasing the speed and playmaking ability that made the Falcons fall in love with him. He’s going to be special, and I can’t wait until Week 1 of the regular season when he can prove it in a more extended look.
  • A pretty sharp opening outing from Desmond Ridder, who definitely was a little off-target on a couple of throws but otherwise played well. He made heads-up plays with his legs when he needed to, threw some zippy passes when asked to, and was able to spread the ball around to playmakers like Drake London, Kyle Pitts, and barefoot receiving god Mack Hollins. The interception was hard to pin on him, given that it appeared to be tipped at the line, tipped into the air, and aided by what looked an awful lot like pass interference. The fine work and rapport with his receiving options bodes well for the regular season, which is likely to be the next time we see him.
  • Taylor Heinicke was pretty sharp, too. A handful of risky throws that were nearly picked off marred an otherwise very strong evening that saw him move well in the pocket to evade pressure and throw some very sharp balls, including a deep touchdown strike to J.J. Arcega-Whiteside in the third quarter. Atlanta has an insurance plan if Ridder is hurt or falters, and thus far Heinicke has looked like a pretty good one.
  • Logan Woodside may not have stood out the same way, but there’s no denying he was dealing on the final drive, with a pair of nice throws over the middle and a close-to-caught end zone ball that would’ve won Atlanta the game. He’ll be the third quarterback, and the question is whether it’s on the 53 man roster or the practice squad.
  • Godwin Igwebuike has to make the practice squad, if not the roster outright. He picked up 43 yards on nine carries, averaging a tidy 4.8 yards per tote, and once again looked explosive and capable as a runner. With the ability to also field kicks, he should have the RB4 spot all locked up if the Falcons carry that many, with Carlos Washington (who also ran well, to his credit, and punched in a touchdown) set for a practice squad role. I’ve been beyond impressed with Igwebuike’s running over the past couple of weeks.
  • A lot to like from the receiving corps in this one. Drake London and Mack Hollins both made excellent grabs with Desmond Ridder throwing them the ball, and then they gave way to the likes of Josh Ali and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, who each put up 39 yards receiving. Ali was a factor over the middle of the field on all three of his catches, while Arcega-Whiteside made a nice grab on the sideline that nearly went for a touchdown. With Xavier Malone also making a couple of nice grabs—even if he ultimately didn’t quite make the catch on Woodside’s end zone heave near the end of the game—the battle for a spot or two on this depth chart likely isn’t settled yet. It’s still nice to see multiple reserves making strong cases.
  • Several of you said you’d be watching Matthew Bergeron closely in this one, and I expressed confidence in the comments on an earlier article that he’d excel. He did just that, looking outstanding as a run blocker and capable in pass protection. Matt Hennessy’s injury effectively gave him the left guard job, but Bergeron would’ve likely earned it anyways with the way he has practiced and played.
  • For reserves up front looking to make their cases, LaCale London’s very nice tackle for loss and the split sack between new signing Delontae Scott and Justin Ellis stood out. I’m not sure there’s room for any of those players on this roster—Timothy Horne, an effective Albert Huggins, and Joe Gaziano are the three I’m watching for a pair of spots—those efforts should at least give the coaching staff pause.
  • DeMarcco Hellams is a machine. With a team-leading number of solid tackles once more and a smart interception where he read the play very well and picked off Jake Browning late, Hellams has done nothing but make a terrific case for a roster spot. I think he’s done more than enough through two weeks to get it.
  • Breon Borders continues to make the looming decision about whether to put him on the roster when he returns from his two game suspension a more difficult one. He wasn’t quite as good as he was in Week 1 against Miami—it would be ridiculous to ask him to do that every game—but he continues to look physical and aggressive, a player worthy of a spot if the Falcons can find one.
  • A pair of roster hopefuls at linebacker showed up in this one. Andre Smith Jr. had a nice tackle for loss and looked alert and capable a week after barely playing against Miami, while Mike Jones Jr. also was active and around the ball during his playing time. I continue to think it’ll be Nate Landman and Tae Davis as the third and fourth inside linebackers, but Smith, Jones, and Frank Ginda are vying for a practice squad spot that I think the Falcons are very likely to carry. Kaden Elliss, who had four tackles and this one and looked active himself, will join Troy Andersen as a starter there.
  • A nice bounceback game for Younghoe Koo, who missed a pair of extra points a week ago against the Dolphins but was perfect on the night with two converted field goals and an extra point. Banging one home to get the tie late from 45 yards is, if nothing else, a nice warmup for the regular season.

The Ugly

  • The penalties! Atlanta was hit with several on the first drive, all of them either false starts or holding calls which slowed down an otherwise impressive effort. Then the Bengals were aided by a pair of holding calls on the Falcons’ defense, making the need to knock some rust off very evident for an Atlanta team counting on crisp performances this year. The fact that the penalties continued into the reserves’ playing time means it’s going to be a very long week for a bunch of Falcons forced to review their mistakes, and Arthur Smith made it clear after the game he wasn’t happy about the sloppiness.

It’s worth remembering that the Falcons of the past two seasons were unexpectedly competitive in part because they were able to limit those kinds of errors, especially last year, so this will be a point of emphasis between now and Week 1.

  • The first-team line did a nice job, but the pass protection from there on out was often shaky. Jalen Mayfield has been in line for a roster spot after continually getting work as the second team right tackle and dabbling at left tackle in practice, but even a coaching staff that obviously likes him can’t deny that this was a rough effort from him on that side, with a pair of sacks allowed and shaky pass pro work throughout his time in there. His only saving grace might be that at least on first watch, Josh Miles and Tyler Vrabel (who got a lot of work at right tackle) weren’t considerably better.

Mayfield remains in the driver’s seat for the swing tackle role at the moment, in my humble opinion, because the team still likes his potential and they lack other compelling options. It goes without saying that depth at tackle and really across this line is worrisome at the moment. The Falcons may well go outside of the organization after cuts to shore things up, with only a solid Ryan Neuzil seemingly locked in right now.

  • Also, the pass rush was pretty limited throughout the night, with a handful of quality pressures and a split Justin Ellis and Delontae Scott sack being the exception to the rule. The result was that the Bengals’ lackluster set of backup quarterbacks actually looked pretty solid throughout the evening against Atlanta, the kind of result none of us were hoping for after such a good game against Miami. The Falcons are unlikely to have an elite pass rush this year, but obviously competence should be a minimum requirement, so we’ll have to hope this was just a tune-up that isn’t a bellwether.
  • I was discouraged by how often the Bengals were able to find an open man and get away with scrambling for significant gains. The lack of pass rush is a factor there, too, but a lack of attention to Jake Browning’s scrambling ability—look, I didn’t know about it coming into the night, either—and some coverage lapses from the reserves will be something the Falcons try to work on before Pittsburgh comes to town.
  • I noted that the Falcons came out of this pretty healthy, but unfortunately not entirely healthy. KhaDarel Hodge left the game with a limp and Penny Hart may have a concussion, leaving the Falcons thinner at receiver. Hart is a roster hopeful with a solid case for a spot and Hodge is down for that fourth receiver spot in pen, so extended absences could cost Hart a role and could cost the Falcons crucial special teams and receiver depth in Hodge. We’ll hope for good news.
  • Ending a preseason game in a tie just feels wrong to me. I can’t articulate why, but I don’t like it, as little as it matters.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

Bijan Robinson. The statistics might not blow your doors off, but the fact that he looked as good as advertised is both very important and very fun for an offense that’s going to rely on him this year.

One Takeaway

The Falcons have everything they need to be good this year, but that many penalties from the starters simply can’t happen once the games start to matter. That’s kind of gloomy, but it’s something the Falcons certainly took notice of and will look to correct before Week 1.

Next Week

The Falcons cap off preseason with a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at home, which comes this next Thursday night. Expect a heavy dose of the backups.

Final Word