Jones sends eyes a-popping in Falcons’ opener

ATLANTA — The Falcons thought a fresh set of eyes at their offensive and defensive coordinator spots would do them some good after last season and on Thursday in the team’s preseason opener, eyes were popping, at least on the offensive side, with the way wide receiver Julio Jones performed.

In the end, Baltimore’s second- and third-teamers outperformed the Falcons’ in a 31-17 victory at the Georgia Dome, but the Falcons had to be encouraged by what they saw from their offense.

In about a quarter of action, Jones caught six of the seven balls thrown his way for 109 yards and a touchdown. On the opening drive, he caught a 26-yard pass deep down the middle and turned a short screen — a fresh element of coordinator Dirk Koetter’s offense that the Falcons had lacked the past four years with Mike Mularkey running the unit — into a 19-yard gain. Jones closed the drive with a seven-yard touchdown reception on a fade pattern, his fourth reception of the drive.

Jones’ most impressive effort of the night might have been a 36-yard catch down the right sideline with 1:36 to go in the first quarter when Baltimore cornerback Ladarius Webb was flagged for an illegal contact penalty. The Falcons declined the penalty and three plays later Jacquizz Rodgers ran it in to put the Falcons up 14-0.

“Julio continues to progress like he did last year,” Falcons head coach Mike Smith said. “He made some real strong catches, great catch there in the end zone and he went over a 100 yards in the short time he was playing out there.”

Smith said the Falcons are continuing to identify what the players do well and said the game was simply an installation of the offense.

“It’s just certain stuff we’ve been working on,” Jones said of the mix of routes. “It’s no special play or nothing like that. Just basic stuff we’ve been working on, so we just went out there and executed tonight.”

While teams traditionally game-plan only for the third preseason game, the Ravens’ first-team defense, usually among the league’s best, nonetheless looked baffled in trying to stop the Falcons’ offense, which will look to emphasize the vertical passing game more this season under Koetter. Smith was happy that the Ravens, whom he said used a mix of pressures, did not hit quarterback Matt Ryan at all.

Ryan, who did not play after the first play of the second quarter, finished 9-for-13 for 155 yards and a touchdown with one interception and a 103.0 rating. Ryan worked out of the no-huddle offense on the opening drive and he said the communication in that phase was a positive.

“We moved the ball down the field pretty well, we were able to put the ball in the end zone and that’s what you want to do,” Ryan said.

In the first quarter, the Falcons outgained the Ravens in yards 191 to 9. Baltimore’s first team offense scored a touchdown on a nine-yard pass from Joe Flacco to Ed Dickson with 10:49 left in the second quarter, after a few of the Falcons’ first-team defenders were shut down for the night.

Smith was displeased with the fact that the Falcons lost and said these games are mostly to evaluate the second- and third-teamers, who, he said, will most likely have to play at some point this season and that they will have to play well. He also was upset at the Falcons’ four turnovers, including a red-zone interception by Ryan, and 10 penalties for 120 yards.

Among the positives, he said, was a 45-yard punt return by Dominique Franks, who is attempting to fill the spot left by former Pro-Bowl special teams player Eric Weems, who signed with Chicago. Smith also complimented the first-team offense’s third-down efficiency.

With the game tied at 17-17, Baltimore’s Deonte Thompson caught a 22-yard touchdown pass from Curtis Painter with 25 seconds left in the third quarter and then cemented its lead when Bobby Rainey caught an 18-yard touchdown pass from Painter with 12:20 left in regulation for a 31-17 lead.

The biggest concern for the Falcons coming out of the game looks to be injuries. Fifth-round draft pick Bradie Ewing, the heir apparent at fullback, suffered a knee injury and did not return. Ewing needed assistance to walk off the field and was driven to the locker room on a cart.

In addition, second-year player Akeem Dent, who is virtually assured of winning the starting middle linebacker spot, suffered what the team called a head injury when he banged helmets with a Ravens player covering a punt with 9:38 left in the second quarter. He did not return.

Dent was supposed to compete with former All-Pro Lofa Tatupu for the starting middle linebacker job, but Tatupu tore a pectoral muscle and was lost for the season before camp began. The Falcons signed 36-year-old Mike Peterson as an insurance policy, but it would be surprising if the Falcons wanted Peterson to play a starting role, if required. Robert James, who had a sack on Thursday, and Spencer Adkins could be the next men up on the depth chart.

With 5:58 left in the fourth quarter, tight end Adam Nissley, a local product out of South Forsyth High, went down and also needed assistance getting off the field with what looked like a knee injury. Nissley was attempting to make the team as a blocking tight end.

Smith said he had no updates on the injuries. He also said he had “no regrets” about having Dent cover a punt, as he said Dent is a “core special teams player.”

“He’s going to have to play some special teams throughout the season,” Smith said of Dent.

Fellow starting linebacker Stephen Nicholas said he talked to Dent.

“Akeem, he’ll be OK, he’ll be fine,” Nicholas said. “I talked to him a little bit. He’s a little shook up but he’ll be fine.”