Four Downs: Falcons beat Jaguars, end preseason on high note
T.J. Yates had a much-needed great game, and Antone Smith finally got his explosive play as the Falcons beat the Jaguars 24-14.
Blake Bortles (5) is sacked by Atlanta Falcons linebacker Paul Worrilow (55) in the first quarter of Thursday's preseason action. Worrilow finished the preseason with 1.5 sacks after just two all season in 2013.
1. ANTONE SMITH HAS SHOWN ENOUGH TO WARRANT LOTS OF TOUCHES IN 2014
It's not all that often that a fifth-year veteran enters training camp with the hype and upside potential of a high-round draft pick. Especially when the veteran has just six career rushing attempts like Smith.
But after Smith averaged 29 yards per carry on his five 2013 attempts, people wanted to know what he could do with more touches.
In Atlanta's four preseason games, Smith carried the ball 19 times for 36 yards, and caught three passes for 77 yards and a touchdown. But that stat line doesn't tell the whole story, not even close.
In the Falcons' first preseason game, a Harry Douglas illegal formation penalty negated a 34-yard catch by Smith. A Jake Matthews holding penalty called back a 76-yard touchdown run.
A couple of other penalties negated short runs in Week 2 and 3 of the preseason. But against Jacksonville, Smith finally broke off an explosive play, and had it stick in the stat book. There were no flags on Smith's 66-yard touchdown catch on Thursday, officially his first of the preseason.
Head coach Mike Smith calls explosive plays anything of 20 yards or more. While Antone Smith finally has one on record, had there been no penalties, he would have tallied three during preseason action. Smith's rushing total would have been increased from 36 yards to 117. His total of 77 receiving yards would have been 111.
On the pace of three explosive plays in four games (and Smith did that on just 6.5 touches per game, if you count the plays called back because of penalty), Smith would tally 12 in the regular season if he played all 16 games and touched the ball with similar frequency as he did in the preseason.
But Smith deserves more touches, and finding him 10 instead of 6.5 per game seems like a good idea after watching him explode over the past month.
Just to extend the prediction power of these stats, If Smith got 10 touches per game and played 16 games during the regular season, he'd pull off 18 explosive plays of 20 yards or more this season.
2. TACKLING MACHING PAUL WORRILOW IS ADDING SACK ARTIST TO HIS RESUME
The Falcons finished 29th in the NFL last season with just 32 sacks. Instead of signing a pass-rush specialist during free agency, or adding a pure pass-rusher in the draft, Atlanta stood pat.
The Falcons are looking at veterans like Kroy Biermann, Osi Umenyiora and Jonathan Massaquoi to increase their sack output in 2014. But seeing Worrilow get into the sack action too, is a bit of a gift.
As an undrafted rookie in 2013, Worrilow led the Falcons with 127 tackles and finished 12th among his NFL brethren. It's apparent he knows how to fight through traffic to get to the ball carrier.
After a sack against Tennessee in Atlanta's third preseason game, Worrilow notched another half sack Thursday against the Jaguars. That's 1.5 during the preseason after tallying just two sacks during his entire rookie campaign.
Getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks is of paramount importance, no matter which Falcons defensive player steps up. If Worrilow adds an increased sack total to his repertoire, he could quickly climb into national relevance.
The NFC South is filled with young talent at linebacker. Two of the best in the NFL are Lavonte David in Tampa Bay and Luke Kuechly in Carolina. If Worrilow can become an above average pass-rusher while maintaining his team-leading skills as a tackler, he'll add his name to the list of best young linebackers in the league.
T.J. YATES SURE MADE THE RACE FOR BACKUP QUARTERBACK INTERESTING
Even though the Falcons traded linebacker Akeem Dent for Yates in June to add a veteran presence to the backup quarterback picture in Atlanta, he didn't seem to be in the lead to win the role.
A combination of trouble learning the playbook, and the emergence of second-year pro Sean Renfree has spelled trouble for Yates' chances of landing as Matt Ryan's backup.
Entering Thursday's game against Jacksonville, Renfree had completed 56.3 percent of his preseason passes for 216 yards and a touchdown. Yates was only good on 39.4 percent of his throws for 195 yards, zero touchdowns and two interceptions.
While the coaching staff was very tight-lipped on who was winning the battle, Renfree's numbers and performances during camp session seemed to have him in the lead.
But Yates showed well on Thursday.
Yates was 15 for 20 (75 percent) for 243 yards and two touchdowns in work against the Jaguars. Renfree went 9 for 12 (66 percent) for 62 yards.
In most cases, Renfree's body of work through the preseason and training camp would likely be enough to stay ahead of Yates. But the Falcons have done things during games to seem to want Yates to win the backup role.
Yates, even when his numbers didn't warrant, spent extra time in preseason games with the first team offensive line, at least large chunks of it. His experience in the NFL (remember, Yates won a playoff game in Houston) is desirable to this coaching staff.
By most unofficial scorecards, Renfree did more than Yates to win the backup role. But Yates' performance on Thursday might sway the competition his way.
4. A BIG TOUCHDOWN CATCH MIGHT HELP FREDDY MARTINO MAKE A TEAM, BUT NOT THE FALCONS
In the second quarter, Martino got behind the Jacksonville defense and caught a 67-yard touchdown pass from Yates. With Geraldo Boldewijn on the sideline with a hamstring injury and Bernard Reedy only targeted three times for two catches for two yards, could Martino have done enough to stick around in Atlanta?
The short answer is no.
The Atlanta depth chart at wide receiver is going to be tough to crack. Roddy White, Julio Jones, Harry Douglas and Devin Hester occupy four of the likely five spots on the 53-man roster. That leaves one spot to fight over, and one, possibly two spots on the practice squad.
Reedy and Boldewijn have done more than Martino in camp and preseason action. They'll be given more consideration for spots on the 53-man roster or practice squad. New addition Eric Weems will also be considered before Martino.
Martino might get looks for a roster spot over the next week, but it won't be from the Falcons. His best bet is some other NFL team liked his big play on Thursday and will call him in for a shot.