Matt Ryan was perfect and was kept clean for the most part in his one series against Miami. (Photo Credit: Blogging Dirty)
It was one of the more anticipated pre-season openers in recent Falcons history. There are several question marks on both sides of the ball, along with many new faces. The most important part of training camp battles had begun for the three opening starting spots on defense. Despite most of the starters only getting about one or two series of action, it was still important to get an indication of where the players were at overall.
Even though it means nothing in the end, it was pleasant to see the Falcons actually squeak out a victory. In the past three years, they have gone 1-11 in the pre-season. The lack of depth proved to be evident in those losses. It was also an indicator of the debacle that occurred last season, when many backups were forced into action.
I’ll be breaking it down through the significant moments of the game. It will mostly contain action from the first half, considering that’s when the first and second string played. Then I’ll break down some of the fringe players on the squad, who are competing for a roster spot.
Getting back into game form
While scrolling through my timeline on twitter, some people were annoyed by the vanilla play calling. It’s understandable that fans want to see some intriguing play calls. They have been craving NFL action for months and want something to get excited about. Still, when you look at the Falcons starting lineup without Julio Jones and Steven Jackson, expectations shouldn’t be high.
Matt Ryan was efficient in getting the ball out quickly and moving the chains on a consistent basis. Many fans loathe the “dink-and-dunk” offense, but it was effective at times last season. I’m not expecting this to be the norm with a much improved offensive line and Julio Jones being healthy. It was more of Matt Ryan getting back into the groove and finding his targets.
Dirk Koetter is known for being one of the more innovate offensive coordinators. I’m sure he’ll be saving his best work for New Orleans, especially against a defensive mastermind like Rob Ryan. That may be a bit optimistic, but I’m expecting better play calling in favor of utilizing their explosive weapons. Even though Arthur Blank hasn’t said it publicly, I believe that everyone is coaching for their jobs this season.
The defensive alignment remains unclear
It wasn’t a pleasant start for the first string defense. It was very reminiscent of last season with the opposing quarterback having ample time to throw. Ryan Tannehill had a clean pocket throughout the first drive. Now similar to the vanilla play calling for the offense, Mike Nolan didn’t seem to be running any blitzing schemes or anything creative.
What puzzled me about the defense was how they remained in a four defensive line alignment on earlier downs. I’m aware of how the nickel defense will be a primary alignment on many occasions this year, but it was still odd to see the Falcons continue to use Jonathan Babineaux as an end, while Jonathan Massaqoui and Osi Umenyiora were on the sidelines.
Once again, I’ll remain optimistic that Mike Nolan was either seeing what he’s working with or will make changes. The pass-rush will be non-existent if they continue to run that alignment. Massaquoi, Umenyiora, and Biermann have to be used more frequently in order to generate any pressure on the quarterback. The lack of a pass rush is a glaring concern, which will more than likely hinder the defense throughout the season. I’m just hoping that Nolan utilizes the pass rush on earlier downs rather than completely focus on stopping the run.
Antoine Smith can be a game-changer
One of the few positive memories from last season was the odd emergence of Antoine Smith. He was always considered a special teams ace, but never had much value as a running back. During an embarrassing loss to Tampa Bay last season, Smith was given an opportunity along with all the backups. A draw play was designed for him and he took it fifty yards into the end zone. On the next drive, he took another run for 38 yards, showcasing his elusiveness and electrifying speed.
This led to fans pleading for Smith to get opportunities, although to no avail. In a crowded backfield of Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers, and Devonta Freeman all having important roles on the team, I’m not sure where Smith fits in, even though he’s proven to be the most explosive back on the roster. He proved it again on the first series, taking a simple check down pass and turning it into 32 yards, although it was brought back due to an illegal formation.
Then he goes untouched on a 75-yard touchdown, where he once again shows the knack of hitting the open hole, juking a defender, and showcasing his breakaway speed. Unfortunately, Jake Matthews was called for a slight hold and it was brought back. It’s still hard to see where he can fit in such a crowded backfield, and it doesn’t help that he allowed a sack in pass protection. Still, he needs to be utilized to some capacity, whether it’s on a toss or screen design.
Safety: Sean Baker: Not to be confused by left tackle Sam Baker, who had a solid night. Baker had a strong training camp so far and has started to move up the depth chart. He continued his strong training camp; with two passes defensed, including one on third down. Then he split through two blockers to make the game-saving tackle on a screen pass. Although he’s a bit undersized, Baker made a great impression in a crowded safety pool.
Left Tackle: Lamar Holmes: The often criticized Holmes looked more composed. Granted it was against second-string defensive ends, but still he looked more promising. I’m still waiting to see him overpower his opposition. He tends to play too straight at times, without using proper technique. That being said, he didn’t allow much pressure and seems to have a roster spot locked in for now.
TE: Mickey Shuler: This may be a surprise, considering the tight end position seems to be an afterthought to many Falcon fans. Levine Toilolo will start, but Shuler could find a role on the team. He showed some burst after the catch and seems like a capable blocker. I’m hoping he gets an extension of playing time in the upcoming weeks. At such a depleted position, any glimpse of a positive play will draw optimism.
FS: Kemal Ishmael: A disappointing night for Ishmael, who needed to make a good impression. He was in the starting spot in place of the injured Dwight Lowery. While playing for the first unit, he failed to close down Rashid Matthews that led to a big gain. Then he bit on a play fake and allowed Brandon Gibson to be wide open for a touchdown. With William Moore being the enforcer, Ishmael needed to make an impact with more coverage responsibilities. He failed to do so.
RT: Ryan Schraeder: After showing some promise last season, Schraeder failed to build off that. According to Pro Football Focus, he scored a -4.4 grade, which is abysmal for a lineman. He was out of position far too often in pass protection. While he’s known for being nasty, he struggled against the bull rush throughout the game. That isn’t acceptable for someone, who’s known for being a mauler. His lackluster performance stood out blatantly, as the pass rusher on his side was near the quarterback on numerous occasions.
WR: Geraldo Boldewijn: Although he’s a long shot to make the team, the Falcons gave Boldewijn ample opportunities to produce. He made a few decent catches, but it was a frustrating evening for him. His route running was sloppy, along with dropping a few passes. He remains relatively raw and should be a prime candidate for the practice squad. Bernard Reedy’s emergence will not be ignored by the coaching staff.