Matt Ryan couldn't be happier to have Julio Jones back to make life easier for him.
When the third pre-season game is played, we begin to see glimpses of what a team is preparing to do for the regular season. Whether it’s more four receiver sets or putting a particular defensive end as defense tackle on third down, you begin to pick up on alignments. That’s what occurred during the Falcons impressive first-half performance against the Titans.
It was refreshing to see the team get off to a hot start by scoring on the first drive and forcing a three-and-out on the following possession. It reminded me of the 2012 Falcons, who made it an emphasis to start fast. They did that through much better pass protection on offense and better alignment on defense.
The secondary is still trying to gel together as a unit. There were clearly some miscommunication issues throughout the second quarter specifically. The pass rush is still non-existent on far too many occasions, although Tennessee has one of the better offensive line units in the league. It wasn’t a perfect performance, but it generated much-needed optimism following an abysmal showing against Houston.
The Devin Hester receiver experiment has been revitalized
The days of Devin Hester playing as a receiver seemed over in 2012. Jay Cutler never gelled with him and grew frustrated of trying to force him the ball. When Hester signed with Atlanta, I mostly expected him to be a returner. It was unforeseen that he would actually receive a significant amount of snaps at receiver.
They made it an objective to include him and it paid off. Hester ran a slant route that left Jason McCourty in another town. From that point on, he made Bernard Pollard look 40 years old in the open field with a juke move that propelled the Falcons speedster into the end zone. Hester's always been fast, but it was his route running that caught me by surprise.
The jury is still out on how much Atlanta will run four wide receiver sets. I’m not expecting Hester to be the next Randall Cobb or anything to that extent. If he was given 10-12 snaps a game, it could be greatly beneficial towards the offense generating big plays. A playmaker has to be properly used in some capacity. Chicago failed to utilize that, so it will be up to Dirk Koetter to create designs for him to excel. His emergence as a receiver on Saturday was the biggest highlight in my eyes.
Steady play from the offensive tackles
While Tennessee doesn’t have a great pass rush, they have good talent such as Jurrell Casey and Derrick Morgan. Jake Matthews and Lamar Holmes handled them relatively well throughout the night. Holmes has always been better as a pass blocker, mostly due to his agility. He quietly shined by not allowing even a pressure throughout the first half. Besides Casey beating Matthews on a beautiful swim move, Matthews more than held his own.
It was a minor confidence booster to see them keep Matt Ryan clean, although I’m aware of New Orleans posing a much bigger threat. Cameron Jordan is on another level from Casey. That will be a stiff test for him to start the season. Junior Galette’s speed could give Matthews some fits and force him into some penalties. That will be a matchup to closely watch in two weeks.
This performance should give Holmes the starting spot for now. His run blocking still needs improvement on non-stretch plays, but Mike Tice has clearly had an impact on this unit. The offense line is far more composed in pass protection and knowing their assignments. After being annihilated by various pass-rushing stunts last season, Atlanta’s interior line held it together thoroughly.
Battles for starting positions remain unclear
Dwight Lowery had a productive game by being active. He had a key third down pass breakup and his tackling was more technically sound, mostly due to being more engaged. Lowery seemed far too timid last week in run support, but as the game went on, he began to embrace contact more. Similar to Holmes, I gained a small boost of confidence going into the season with him starting.
The issues still remain at linebacker and nickel corner. None have truly stood out through three games. Prince Shembo has been solid at best. He continues to impress in run support, but I’m not so sure about him being an all-around upgrade as a starter. Joplo Bartu will still be a factor on defense. He’s far too versatile as a cover linebacker to completely write him off. Nobody has stood out from the nickel cornerback slot either. Javier Arenas seemed a step behind on several plays.
The battle seems certain to come down to whoever allows the least amount of plays in the regular season. Many people are favoring Robert McClain due to familiarity in the system. I’m sure we will see some rotating against New Orleans, but a set rotation would be valuable. Josh Wilson and McClain are undersized and aren’t very good against speedy receivers. That’s a bad combination to have, although McClain is a much better tackler and knows how to play physical. Wilson hasn’t shown that he’s capable of that in the past two years. Brandin Cooks should be the perfect test for these two veterans, while Arenas will probably be relegated to special teams coverage.
Julio Jones: It seems tacky to choose Jones, but he deserves some sort of mention. Not many receivers can turn a simple slant route into a touchdown through evading two tacklers. Jones didn’t even seem to hit his fastest gear when outrunning Michael Griffin to the end zone. A few more weeks of preparation for New Orleans to shake off the rust and the nightmares will commence for New Orleans’ secondary.
Malliciah Goodman: I’ve always seen upside in Goodman through the course of last year. He seemed to be the prototypical fit for the 3-4 scheme given his size. Instead the Falcons added Tyson Jackson and Ra’Shede Hageman to become integral parts of the defense. So far, Goodman has outplayed them both significantly in run support and pass rush. Whether it’s by playing in a tackle role in the 4-3 or playing as an end in the 3-4, his explosiveness and bull rush have been on display throughout the pre-season.
Stansly Maponga: Another second-year player that has somewhat become lost in the shuffle with Kroy Biermann, Osi Umenyiora, and Jonathan Massaquoi expected to receive most of the snaps this season. Maponga hasn’t been talked about much from writers and fans, but he made everyone talk about his play on Saturday. His speed was impressive, along with having a deceptive spin move. He even stuffed Bishop Sankey in the backfield for a five-yard loss. Don’t write off Maponga from the rotation just yet.
Tyson Jackson: I usually try to avoid criticizing veterans in the preseason when it’s evident that they aren’t going at full speed. Besides that overall judgment, I’ve still been disappointed in Jackson’s play. Whenever you watch him closely, he’s stuck at the line of scrimmage without moving his lineman back an inch. He looks heavier than he was in Kansas City. I’m not sure what to make of him, but he should certainly be on a short leash if this continues.
Pat Angerer: Expectations were never high for Angerer coming off major knee surgery. He still seems to be shaking off the rust in run support and covering tight ends. Angerer was a step slow and committed a foolish penalty on third down that erased a sack from Hageman. He should receive plenty of snaps against Jacksonville on Thursday. That game will give an indication if he’s worth keeping on the team as a backup inside linebacker.
Levine Toilolo: This doesn’t completely fall on Toilolo’s shoulders, as Atlanta should have brought at least one veteran in to compete with him for the starting spot. It also comes down to the coaching staff not having much faith in him. He wasn’t running many routes on Saturday and seemed to be reduced to just run blocking. Even when he did run routes, Matt Ryan never seemed to look his way. Toilolo is still relatively raw and does struggle to get open. I’d like to see him work on his route running and become a force in the red-zone. A six foot eight specimen has to be utilized in some capacity, and what better place to use him in the red-zone, where it’s much more difficult to find open receivers.