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Falcons vs. Steelers recap: Preseason blessedly ends

There isn’t much to say about that game, but there is a lot to say about the players who participated in it.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The Falcons didn’t intend to go out there against the Steelers and get their asses kicked, but for all intents and purposes, that’s what happened. Faced with the starters for an AFC contender, Atlanta’s game-but-overmatched reserves fell into a hole they never even dreamed of digging themselves back out of. The end result was a 24-0 loss, and if this had been the regular season, we’d all be waking up surly as hell this morning.

It wasn’t the regular season, though. As Arthur Smith alluded to Thursday night, it was the preseason, and the team treated it like an opportunity to evaluate the last 10-15 roster spots and possible practice squad additions while ensuring starters didn’t get hurt.

Even though there are plenty of disgruntled fans and analysts—we’ll get to that below—this is the big picture for the Falcons. Arthur Smith and company genuinely wanted a long look at a set of receiver reserves who hadn’t really seized a fifth or sixth role on this roster. They wanted to see a group of capable defenders up front push for a roster spot. They definitely wanted to see whether the group of reserve tackles they assembled could hold their own—and were definitely disappointed with the results. They’ll go into Week 1 pretty healthy and are staking a lot on their ability to get this team ready to go with limited preseason work, and they’ll head into the next few days with plenty of tape on the players hoping to make the roster as they try to cut down to 53 players. That’s what the Falcons wanted; now they just need to deliver on the quality, copmetitive season we’re all anticipating.

In light of that, the result of this one doesn’t matter all that much, even if it was a brutal night of football for Falcons fans and a drag for those players who struggled. What matters are the individual performances with cuts looming, and as you’d expect, that will be the focus of the recap below. The rest is ahead. The Falcons have told us that that all the work they’ve done this spring and summer is in service of climbing a mountain the team has been camped at the base of for the last five seasons; now all that matters is the climb.

The Good

  • We’ll flip the usual order and start with defense. DeMarcco Hellams did it again, showing up for a nice early tackle and a touchdown-preventing special teams stop on a 21 yard Pittsburgh return to kick off their second drive and piling up five tackles in total in the first quarter alone. He just looks as sound and capable as advertised and then some, and he should be on this team as a key reserve and special teamer. Micah Abernathy should hold on to a practice squad spot if he’s not claimed on waivers—and despite his solid work all summer, I think he’d probably clear them—but Hellams is important depth both for the moment and for the future.
  • Demone Harris hasn’t been here long, but he’s flashed in his opportunities. In this one, he picked up a sack and a tackle for a loss, showing a nice motor even if a late facemask was the kind of mistake the Falcons won’t like. He’ll get a longer look for a practice squad spot than anticipated given that he’s been here only for a short time.
  • LaCale London will also get a long look for the practice squad. The former XFLer has shown pretty well throughout the summer, but he’s really turned it on over the past couple of preseason games, looking strong and capable up front as a run defender. The Falcons should and likely will consider keeping him around as emergency depth for a re-tooled defensive line.
  • While those two push for practice squad spots, I thought Joe Gaziano confirmed what I’ve long suspected: He should have a roster spot. It’s likely that he’s going head-to-head with Albert Huggins to determine who gets the last spot on the defensive line, with the loser sticking on the practice squad or heading elsewhere, and I thought Gaziano was the more impressive player as an active, disruptive presence on Thursday night. That doesn’t lock him into a spot—Huggins has had some killer stretches this year—but I think his track record of solid reserve work and the way he’s shown up in his playing time opportunities bode well for Gaziano.
  • Chipping in with a pair of special teams tackles, a key block on a 26 yard pass to Keilahn Harris, and bravery in running into the teeth of the Steelers defense, Godwin Igwebuike once again looked like a player who can help this Falcons team. If there are four backs on this roster, as I suspect there may be, Igwebuike should make it. If not, he’s a borderline practice squad lock, and one of the more impressive players of preseason for Atlanta.
  • Kyle Hinton and Ryan Neuzil were pulled when the “backup” offensive line came in, and that coupled with strong preseasons overall likely means both players are ticketed for roster spots, at least out of the gate. Neuzil isn’t a surprise given that he plays center and guard and has been close to grabbing spots in the past, but Hinton has worked his way up the depth chart all summer and was legitimately impressive at times in the second preseason game against the Bengals. Swing tackle may be unsettled—it should be—but it’s good that the Falcons have a couple of options on the interior that they feel good about.
  • I thought Tae Davis played really well last night, a must for a player looking to hold on as the fourth linebacker, and I fully expect him to make the team. Mike Jones Jr. and Andre Smith Jr. have both played well this preseason and Jones Jr. had the green dot last night and was calling plays, so you have to think one or both of them makes the practice squad given that both have a history of also contributing on special teams. I’d give the edge to Jones Jr. for the faith the coaching staff showed in him last night and the nice sack of Mitch Trubisky late in the second quarter. Frank Ginda, who piled up tackles, at least has to be in play for a practice squad spot, as well.
  • Logan Woodside wasn’t perfect, but considering that he was under significant duress throughout the night and working with fellow third-stringers, he once again played well in an extended evening. Looking mobile, showing a live arm and (mostly) sound decision-making, Woodside looked like a player who deserves to stick as Atlanta’s third quarterback. I have to think he will...assuming the injury he suffered near the end of the game isn’t significant. He did come back in the game, threw passes and scrambled just fine, so hopefully Woodside is fine.
  • I genuinely don’t know who is going to make this roster at receiver beyond Drake London, Mack Hollins, Scotty Miller, and KhaDarel Hodge, but I do know that Keilahn Harris made a late push that saw him vacuuming up targets effectively. He also mixed in as a returner, while Xavier Malone had a quieter night, Josh Ali had a couple of nice catches, and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside once again had a couple of standout grabs. Even Mathew Sexton, who had a nice kick return and scooped up a couple of nice catches of his own despite just joining the team recently, made a good case for himself. This is one of the last positions on the roster with legitimate intrigue as the Falcons prepare their cuts, and it’s thanks to solid work from several players.
  • The good news from Arthur Smith after the game was that he expected nearly everyone to be ready for Week 1, which underscores the extent to which this team wanted to ensure its starting lineup was ready to go.

The Ugly

  • There were a couple of hiccups in the second preseason game in coverage, but I thought Breon Borders had one of the better summers of any Falcons defender. In the final preseason game and rolling with the “starters,” though, Borders had a rough night that might hurt his chances of sticking. Shaky coverage and poor angles were a feature for him against (to be fair) the Steelers’ starters, and then he made contact with a Pittsburgh receiver down the sideline on a play that likely wouldn’t have been a completion in the second quarter and “earned” a flag.

I still Borders think showed himself to be an aggressive defender who would make a nice practice squad fit for Atlanta once his two game suspension is over, but it’s not a lock that he stays.

  • Borders was hardly alone in struggling. All three serious candidates for tackle spots on this roster did as well, with Josh Miles, Tyler Vrabel, and Jalen Mayfield all finding themselves badly beaten multiple times on the evening. Mayfield allowed the final sack of the game, which right now feels like it will be the lasting impression of his Falcons career, despite the team’s evident investment in his success.

Miles or Mayfield may well be the swing tackle when the Falcons cut down to 53 players, but it’s doubtful the “winner” of that competition will hold on to the job for long with a huge influx of tackles hitting free agency and the waiver wire in the days to come. That’s a disappointing result for Atlanta, which can ill afford to go into the year with nothing behind Jake Matthews and Kaleb McGary. I’d expect Vrabel to once again hold on to a practice squad spot to develop, regardless, and the team to find a veteran.

  • Sometimes one major mistake in this final game can doom your roster chances. Carlos Washington was already running behind Godwin Igwebuike for a hypothetical RB4 spot, and his third quarter fumble with the Falcons threatening to score likely put any doubts that Igwebuike would take that role (if it exists) to rest. He still may well land on the practice squad after showing well in pass protection and as a receiving option throughout the summer, however.
  • Other players make a visible mistake or two but rally, and it may still not be enough. That’s an ugly truth in and of itself, and it may well be the case for Natrone Brooks, an undrafted free agent defensive back who mixed a couple of big coverage struggles with plays on the ball and solid tackling. Brooks clearly has talent that’s worth developing and showed it, albeit unevenly, throughout the preseason and training camp. The question is whether that potential earns him a role, and the answer to that is very much up in the air.
  • I said I’d talk about this below, and here it is. Deciding to sit almost all the starters was guaranteed to open up Arthur Smith and company to more scrutiny, especially after they got blown off the field by Pittsburgh’s starters. The ugliness of the game and the ugliness of the anxiety that game and that decision have caused are unavoidable, and the big “are they ready?” question will linger until they can prove it one way or another against the Panthers.

I get the logic here completely: You have injuries along the offensive line that would’ve prevented you from fielding your full starting five, you’re looking to avoid injury, you think you’re ready based on the preparation you’ve done and will do. There’s just no question that if the Falcons come out flat against Carolina, fans will point to the lack of reps for starters as a major cause, and it will be hard to argue the point with just one drive for each side of the ball. My bet is that they’ll be fine and the discussion will be largely moot, but regardless of where you stand, we’ll only know whether this was a big deal or an overblown discussion a couple of weeks from now.

  • The whole game. It was 24-0, folks, you can’t put a pound of icing on that particular pile of manure and call it a cinnamon roll.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

The viewer at home, as it so often is in these third preseason games. If you hung in there and watched this whole thing, hoist that trophy.

One Takeaway

The Falcons wanted clarity on who should make the roster, and they got it, for good or for ill. What’s next is the vital work of building a strong, deep roster that befits a team that really wants to contend in 2023.

Next Week

Roster cuts are due, and then we’re looking forward to the 2023 regular season. This is an exciting time to be a Falcons fan at last.

Final Word