Four Downs: Falcons sink Fins with early run of perfection

There were many things to like and loathe about the Atlanta Falcons' 16-10 win over the Dolphins, launching the start of the 2014 preseason. Fortunately for Atlanta, Matt Ryan carries a lot of weight on the 'plus' side, especially when pitching a perfect game.

Veteran Jacquizz Rodgers (20 rushing yards), one of three Falcons backs vying for the coveted No. 2 spot (behind Steven Jackson), accounted for Atlanta's only touchdown against Miami.

Jason Getz / USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA -- Here are four things we gleaned from the Falcons' 16-10 victory over the Dolphins on Friday, a penalty-flag-filled preseason opener (19 total) that plausibly ended with a goal-line stand:

1. It was nice to see Matt Ryan and Ryan Tannehill bring some unofficial history to the first quarter

Can you ever recall an entire quarter of NFL action without a single incompletion?

Even the fourth quarter of famed Super Bowl III -- when Joe Namath and the Jets put the finishing touches on the most landmark upset in NFL history (over the heavily favored Colts), without tossing a single pass in the final 15 minutes -- had a few Johnny Unitas incompletions, here and there.

Fast forward to the present, as Tannehill (6 of 6 for 62 yards, one TD) and Ryan (7 of 7 for 53 yards) were brilliant in their respective cameo roles.

For Tannehill (3,913 yards passing, 25 total TDs last season), the majority of his early success entailed a slew of short, clean passes, essentially taking what the Atlanta defense yielded in return. But two throws, in particular, stood out from the possession:

In Atlanta territory (2nd and 8), Tannehill connected with Rishard Matthews for an easy seam-route completion down the right side, accounting for 36 yards.

Two plays later, with the Falcons defense overloaded on the left side, Tannehill executed a perfect read-option fake (to the left) and hit receiver Brandon Gibson near the right sideline for perhaps the easiest touchdown of his pro career -- a 6-yard scoring jaunt with no Atlanta defenders in sight.

It was a brutal series for the Falcons defense all around, with nonexistent pocket pressure on Tannehill.

Ryan was similarly stellar in his lone go-round for the quarter, eating up nine-plus minutes of clock with a 15-play, 77-yard scoring drive, capped by Jacquizz Rodgers' brawny 2-yard touchdown run.

Preceding that TD, Ryan found four different pass-catchers -- including Roddy White (four receptions, 27 yards) -- on the scoring drive, often hitting his guys just beyond the first-down marker.

It was a strong series, full of solid, but hardly spectacular plays, culminating with the Rodgers score.

"We were able to overcome a couple of penalties, we were able to keep going and punch the ball in the end zone," said Ryan. "It's exactly what you want for your first drive of the year."

In fact, the one electric play of the drive didn't even count: Antone Smith, who would later rush for a 76-yard touchdown that was nullified by a penalty, caught a short pass over the middle, stopped on a dime and then outsprinted the vast majority of Dolphins defenders down the right sideline, before being knocked out at the 12.

"Antone's a guy that can do some things when we get the ball in his hands," said head coach Mike Smith, sporting a grin when asked about Smith's (nullified) heroics. "I would imagine we would want ... to help him get some touches, put him in advantageous (situations). But I was very impressed."

Smith's golden moments, although wiped away from the preseason record books, serve as the impetus for our next discussion.

2. Antone Smith should start the Falcons-Saints opener at tailback, if Steven Jackson isn't ready to go

Let's be honest here: If Jackson (left hamstring injury) cannot play in Week 1, the Falcons (21 first downs, 372 total yards vs. Miami) will be at a major disadvantage in the running game, with the Saints essentially daring 'em to consistently run on first and second down.

Regardless of whom they choose among the backups.

Within that level of, uh, strategic disrespect from New Orleans, the Atlanta coaches would be wise to maximize Smith's home-run potential -- as seen in the two amazing plays from Friday (nullified by penalties), netting 110 total yards and one touchdown.

Officially, rookie Devonta Freeman (107 total yards; 50 rushing) and Rodgers (20 rushing yards, one TD) were the most productive backs against the Dolphins. But five years from now, we'll only remember Smith's cat-quick moves in the proverbial "box" before sprinting for the 76-yard touchdown.

Just like we might have total recall about how the Falcons passed on Eddie Lacy, Giovani Bernard, Le'Veon Bell and Montee Ball -- all Round 2 selections -- on Draft Day 2013 ... because Steven Jackson had already signed as a free agent.

3. It's hard to tell if Atlanta's pass rush has improved from last year

With Tannehill breezing through his only series and the Falcons not collecting a sack until the fourth quarter (rookie Prince Shembo), it's easy to blindly assign Atlanta's pass rush with a near-failing grade.

But let's also remember that most teams don't spend a lot of time blitzing during the preseason, meaning the linebackers and safeties are seldom called upon for high-risk advances along the line of scrimmage. 

Plus, NFL coaches are notorious for not game-planning against the competition in early August.

On the flip side, the Falcons (29th in sacks last year -- 32) will continue to carry this specific burden of mediocrity ... until it no longer stands as a tangible concern.

Coach Smith, undeterred by all the 'sack' talk, has his own point-of-emphasis with the defense.

"It's not about getting sacks," said Smith, the winningest coach in Falcons history. "It's about getting pressure on the quarterback and disrupting (their rhythm)."

4. The Falcons absolutely cannot afford to lose Matt Ryan for any sustained stretches

In today's passing-heavy NFL, most teams would incur a noticeable drop in win-loss expectancy without their starting quarterback. So, the Falcons would hardly be the only doomed club without their premier best passer.

That said, when watching the preseason opener from the comfort and serenity of the Georgia Dome press box, one prevailing thought hits you like a ton of bricks:

Three full quarters is a loooooooooooooooooooong time to go without Ryan in the game.

To be fair, No. 2 option T.J. Yates -- who was acquired via trade during the offseason -- was somewhat proficient during two-minute drill in the second quarter, hitting Courtney Roby (15 yards), Geraldo Boldewijn (18 yards) and Bernard Reedy (26 yards) for sizable gains during that last scoring drive (field goal before the half).

But there's also no fear factor with Yates (7 of 16 for 127 yards) running the show. Yes, the kid has a good arm and sound instincts as a quarterback, but it's also hard to imagine that skill set flourishing for four, five or six starts -- if Ryan went down with an unforeseen injury.

That's not to say Atlanta's 2014 squad should be locks for a winning campaign or an NFC South title with a healthy Ryan in the lineup. In 2013, he earned the following infamous distinction with the 4-12 Falcons:

In the Super Bowl era, Matt Ryan is the only NFL quarterback to pilot his team to 11 or more victories one season ... and then lead the same club to four or less wins the next year -- while starting every game of that losing campaign.