The good the Atlanta Falcons showed in last night’s preseason opener will not, on the whole, overshadow the bad. The Falcons’ 31-17 loss to the Baltimore Ravens will not be marked by Julio Jones’ 109 receiving yards. Matt Ryan’s 155 passing yards are not enough to sugar coat more than a quarter or so worth of preseason rust.
Even the capital “L” in the results column won’t deprive Mike Smith of sleep this weekend.
The 24 unanswered second half points Baltimore’s reserves were able to rack up against Atlanta’s lower tier defensive units, however, may do the trick.
Led by former Colts’ back up Curtis Painter, the Ravens orchestrated four scoring drives in quarters three and four, and overcame a dominant showing from Atlanta’s first team offensive and defensive units en route to a two-touchdown road win. Atlanta reserves gave up three touchdown passes on defense, and went 3-and-out on six of eight drives on offense in the second half.
There were some ugly bits as well from last night, most of them injury related. Rookie Bradie Ewing’s rookie season could be over before it really even started, and linebacker Akeem Dent may be just the latest Atlanta defender to land on the shelf. Chris Owens was unable to go for the Falcons in the secondary, and hasn’t been at 100 percent for the better part of a week now.
But there were some good things, too. Julio Jones and Roddy White through the air. Dominique Franks on punt returns. Peria Jerry getting a chance to start at the nose. All three are positives that should bring at least some optimism to counter the widespread pessimism.
Here’s a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from preseason week one, a 31-17 loss to Baltimore:
-Matt Ryan and the Receivers.
Harry Douglas was inactive last night, and Tony Gonzalez wasn’t targeted. That didn’t seem to restrict Matt Ryan, who threw for 155 yards and a touchdown, along with one interception. All 155 yards came as a result of completions to Roddy White and Julio Jones. That bodes well for the Falcons, who would love to be able to rely on those two for aerial yardage when Michael Turner isn’t running the ball. It’s hard to think of a better 1-2 wide receiver punch in the NFC this season should both White and Jones stay healthy, and it was impressive to see Ryan be in such good form with his top targets so early in the season. Unlike some of the better wide receiver tandems in recent years, such as Welker and Moss, Jennings and Nelson and even Wayne and Garcon, White and Jones are both big play threats. That should bring about plenty of double teams and leave guys like Douglas, Gonzalez and Michael Palmer open either in the slot or out in the flank. Ryan and his top guns looked to be in midseason form right from the opening gun. Let’s hope it lasts.
-Peria Jerry Filling in for Corey Peters and Vance Walker.
Jerry finished last night’s game with 3 tackles, one of which came on a nice rush in which he entered the Raven backfield and stuffed running back Anthony Allen for a solid two yard loss. Jerry showed decent burst, and most importantly looked like he belonged in the starting 11. Jerry won’t start once Peters and Walker return to full health, and because of that may still be regarded as a draft day bust. That isn’t to say Jerry doesn’t have a spot on the defense, however. Teams today are employing more and more sack/run stuff specialists, and while TFLs haven’t been Jerry’s game since entering the league, he wouldn’t be a bad option for the Falcons as an extra guy to have line up at the nose. Veteran Nick Eason played a similar role last year in his debut season with the Arizona Cardinals after arriving from Pittsburgh. In the Steel City, Eason served as a seldom mentioned reserve behind Casey Hampton. Jerry could certainly play that type of a specialist role, and excelled last night. Depending on how long linebacker Akeem Dent remains out though, and given that Peters likely won’t be ready for preseason weeks two and three, Jerry could see much more of an opportunity than that in the weeks to come.
-Linebackers who Figure to See the Field and aren’t named Akeem Dent
Like the majority of the starting defense, linebackers Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas looked just fine in their few chances to see the field. Weatherspoon, picked by myself and pretty much everybody else I’ve read to be the breakthrough Atlanta defender this year, recorded a tackle and a QB hit in limited action. Stephen Nicholas, one of the better coverage linebackers on the roster excelled in that area, defending a Joe Flacco incompletion and also recording a tackle. Any rumors that Nicholas could be a camp casualty should be put to rest after Akeem Dent went down with a concussion. Also impressing was second year linebacker Robert James. James had five tackles including a sack, and finished with two QB hits. He very well could be the top guy off the bench now that Dent is out, especially given Dent’s knack for rushing the passer.
-Punt Returns by Dominique
Dominique Franks became the instant favorite to handle punt return duties for the Falcons last night when he returned a punt 45 yards. This may be the most encouraging news of the evening for the Falcons, as the off-season departure of Eric Weems left a huge hole on PRs. Franks only had one chance though, as six of Sam Koch’s eight punts went unreturned, and Tim Toone got his chance on the eighth. Toone got seven yards. This is now Franks’ job and competition to lose.
-QB Dominique Davis
You almost get the sense the Falcons would really, really like to hand the third-string QB job to Davis rather than hand it back over to John Parker Wilson, as Wilson doesn’t appear destined to be any higher than 3rd on an NFL depth chart despite his relatively young age. Last night however it was Davis who struggled, noticeably in fact, completing 6 of 11 pass attempts and throwing an interception. Though he has a mobility advantage over the other three QBs on the roster, Davis faces even more of an uphill battle after a forgettable showing last night.
-Linebackers who don’t figure to See the Field and are Named Akeem Dent
At the center of the Falcons’ defensive woes in the second half were the second and third team linebackers. While this group isn’t much of a threat to get to the passer and weren’t given much help from the D-line in that area, they also showed far too little in coverage. Pat Schiller, Rico Council and Max Gruder, all rookies and all undrafted, are especially concerning seeing as it appears one of the three of them will be forced to pick up some of the slack left by the now-concussed Akeem Dent. Seeing action in the second half, the Falcons’ reserve linebackers gave up three TD passes; one to a receiver, one to a running back out of the backfield, and one to a tight end/ fullback down near the goal line. Diversity is a good thing, but not when you’re talking about the opponent’s passing game. All types of targets were available to Curtis Painter, and even Curtis Painter didn’t miss them. The Lofa Tatupu experiment, which we unfortunately for now must call a failed one, may loom larger than anyone anticipated.
Harry Douglas will be the Falcons’ third receiver, but after that not much is certain. One or possibly two spots are up for grabs at wide receiver, and fighting for them are Kevin Cone, Tim Toone, Marcus Jackson and D.J. Davis. Despite playing roughly two quarters more than White and Jones, none of the aforementioned receivers did much last night to help their stock. Not all of that is the receivers’ fault, of course, as Chris Redman, John Parker Wilson and Dominique Davis all struggled at times, but depth should still be somewhat of a concern. Toone would make his money on special teams, and returned one punt for seven yards last night. Cone meanwhile, who is the favorite to be the fourth receiver, caught two of his five targets for 25 yards.
Already down one Harry Douglas on offense, the Falcons lost rookie fullback Bradie Ewing to a knee injury mid-way through the opening quarter as the former Wisconsin Badger was in on the punt return team. There’s already strong speculation that Ewing’s injury is an ACL, which would all but guarantee the rookie misses the 2012 season. Ewing was in a battle for the starting fullback spot with Mike Cox after longtime Falcon Ovie Mughelli, now a member of the St. Louis Rams, was let go this summer. If another lead blocker isn’t brought in and Ewing’s injury is as serious as people think, a roster spot may be up for running backs Dimitri Nance or Antone Smith. Smith was the better of the two last night, and has more experience with the offense. Nance is the bigger body, however. Also lost to injury was projected starter Akeem Dent. Dent’s concussion, as mentioned above, is cause for concern at linebacker.
Short Ewing’s services, the Falcons gave Baltimore good starting field position on three occasions. With three different return men Baltimore produced returns of 32, 29 and 26 yards. A touchback (theoretically, with the replacement officials) puts the ball at the 20. Punt coverage was better, fortunately, likely due to Matt Bosher and Dawson Zimmerman both nailing punts of over 50 yards. Bosher actually had two punts die within the 20 yard line, and boomed a punt of 57 yards. Still, roster spots are given and taken away on kick coverage, and last night few if any spots were earned. Chris Owens, who sat out with a minor injury will help this unit when he returns. We hope.