Falcons vs. Ravens: Five observations

It’s telling that after the Falcons’ 31-17 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in their preseason opener on Thursday that the head coaches of both teams were displeased with their respective teams’ performances.

Maybe that’s just the nature of the preseason.

Falcons head coach Mike Smith concentrated his postgame remarks mostly on why his team didn’t win, as if it were a regular season game: too many turnovers, too many penalties.

On Tuesday, Smith observed that the Falcons probably only have 12 or 13 spots up for grabs on their 53-man roster. After Thursday’s game, Smith focused his displeasure mainly on the second- and third-teamers who will comprise the overwhelming majority of those 12 or 13 players who will fill out the lineup.

However, it wasn’t all bad. Smith pointed out some positives, as well. Here are five observations from the game:

1. Dominique Franks, punt returner. Among the first words of praise out of Smith’s mouth for a specific player were for Dominique Franks, who returned a punt 45 yards in the first quarter to the Ravens’ 15.

The Falcons are auditioning for returners since Eric Weems, a 2010 Pro-Bowler at that spot, departed via free agency for Chicago. Franks, a reserve cornerback in his third season, also had a nice return last year in the preseason and could have a good shot to win that job.

“It felt great,” Franks said. “I’ve got to give praise to the 10 guys in front of me who did the hard work blocking. It just gives me a chance to get free for a couple of yards and get a crease.”

Franks was doing his best to impress special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong with straight-ahead running, so he chose not to cut back on that return. He was tackled by Ravens punter Sam Koch, otherwise, he would have scored a touchdown.

“I’m still sad that I got tackled by the punter,” Franks said. “I didn’t want to do too much or do too much cutting back. I’m still trying to win a job.”

Still, it’s somewhat embarrassing for a player as fast as Franks to get tackled by the punter, even if the punter did a nice job angling him off towards the sideline.

“I seen him kind of slow down so I thought I could outrun him,” Franks said. “He took a great angle. Big ups to him. It was a great play on his part.”

2. Akeem Dent injured. While covering a punt, Falcons linebacker Akeem Dent suffered a head injury, which is code for a concussion. The Falcons were off on Friday and so Smith would likely update the situation on Saturday, although he is not obligated to under league rules.

Most likely Dent will enter the league’s concussion protocol. If baseline tests reveal he has a concussion, he could be out for a week, at minimum. If it’s severe, it could be longer. If tests don’t reveal a concussion, he could be back in a few days.

Depending on the length and severity of the injury, the Falcons could be forced to make a roster move. Dent, a second-year player out of Georgia, was expected to start at middle linebacker, winning the job by default with Lofa Tatupu suffering a season-ending pectoral injury before the start of camp.

The Falcons don’t have a ton of cap space and already signed 36-year-old Mike Peterson after Tatupu went out, but it’s doubtful that the Falcons would want Peterson to start. One option is North Springs High’s Channing Crowder, who played under Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan in Miami. Crowder did not play at all in 2011.

Fortunately for the Falcons, they have the luxury of playing more nickel in which the two linebackers are Stephen Nicholas and Sean Weatherspoon with Dent coming off the field.

Regardless, Dent needs his practice time and the preseason games. He’s learning a new defense and has very little experience. The Falcons need to hope for a quick recovery.

3. Matt Ryan stays clean. Another one of the positives was that starting quarterback Matt Ryan didn’t get hit during his one quarter and one play of action. It’s worth noting that while the Ravens own one of the NFL’s top defenses on an annual basis, they were without four-time Pro-Bowler Terrell Suggs (Achilles) and future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis (rest) and that teams don’t game plan for most of these games.

Nonetheless, the offensive line’s ability to protect Ryan is one of the biggest question marks – especially if left tackle Sam Baker can rebound from a benching in the second half of last season that the team says was related to his surgically repaired back. At least for now they and Baker passed with flying colors.

“I thought our offensive line did an awesome job tonight,” Ryan said. “I didn’t get touched once out there. That’s a credit to those guys up front. I think they’re doing a great job, and we’re going to continue to work as a team to get better.”

4. Dirk Koetter’s offense, Julio Jones shine. Many were underwhelmed when the Falcons replaced Mike Mularkey, who was hired by Jacksonville as its head coach, with ex-Jags offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to do the same job in Atlanta.

The Jags were dreadful offensively last season, but that might have had more to do with awful personnel. They cut quarterback David Garrard after the final regular season game and their wide receivers probably ranked among the league’s weakest.

Thursday’s game showed that the Falcons’ play-calling and plays themselves will be different and opponents better catch up on the video tape from that game. The screen game was effective, as was Ryan’s ability to spread the ball around on deep and intermediate routes to Julio Jones and Roddy White.

Kevin Cone, a member of the practice squad last season who is among those vying for the fourth and fifth wide receiver spots, caught two passes for 25 yards, as did Marcus Jackson, an undrafted rookie out of Lamar.

But the most impressive effort of the night belonged to Jones, who caught six passes for 109 yards and a touchdown in roughly a quarter against the Ravens’ first team. Jones showed the game-breaking capability that was the reason why the Falcons traded so many picks to move up from No. 27 overall to No. 6 at the 2011 draft to get him.

5. Robert James’ stock on the rise. The Falcons have more than a few defensive players who have sat on their roster for three or four years as reserves, ostensibly in the hope that they will blossom into productive contributors. Among them is linebacker Robert James, who was a fifth-round pick in 2008 – general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s first draft class.

James was placed on season-ending injured reserve his first season and on the practice squad in 2010, the same season he served a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. He has never registered a tackle on defense and had only two on special teams in 2011.

Nonetheless, his outing on Thursday was impressive, as he posted five tackles (third-best on the team), a sack, a tackle-for-loss and two quarterback hurries.

The Falcons have said that they will play their three best linebackers. James is currently behind Nicholas on the depth chart at the strongside linebacker, but if Dent is out for a protracted period they might be able to shuffle the deck and have a productive player in James.