Halfway through the preseason the Falcons are 0-2, but what does that really tell us? While the first-team offense has played very well and the first-team defense has played well enough, the Falcons have lost games because of poor play by their Nos. 2 and 3 quarterbacks, penalties (some of which are a direct result of bad calls by outmatched replacement officials) and by their second- and third-team defenses getting outplayed.
Next Friday, the Falcons visit Miami in the only preseason game for which they will actually game plan. Unlike the first two teams they have played (Baltimore and Cincinnati), whose first-team quarterbacks have guided their respective franchises to playoff berths, the Falcons will face a Dolphins team whose quarterback situation might be as unsettled as any in the NFL.
With the starters set to play most of that game, it should prove the most telling test yet. For now, here are five observations off of Thursday’s 24-19 loss to the Bengals:
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1. Gambling defense. Everything that Mike Nolan has said about his defense is shaping up to be true: the pressure comes from everywhere. Whereas former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder preferred to play coverage the overwhelming majority of the time, Nolan often seems to favor rushing six players, who could be coming from any position.
Sometimes it’s two linebackers, sometimes it’s a linebacker and a safety or a cornerback and sometimes he’ll even drop an end back in coverage (the zone blitz) to confuse the offense.
While this hasn’t necessarily resulted in a lot of sacks so far – and, again, that could change when the Falcons actually create a game plan – it has seemed to cause enough pressure to force quarterbacks to get the ball out quickly and that has proved fairly effective, as the first-team unit allowed 10 points on Thursday. (About those penalties, a phantom facemask call against Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux on third down continued a drive that led to a Bengals’ field goal by their first team.)
The dramatic philosophical change also means that defensive backs in coverage often have no help. The Tennessee Titans in combined practices with the Falcons talked about how Atlanta’s defense played almost exclusively “Cover Zero,” which is straight man-to-man.
The risk of this approach was on display in the second quarter when Cincinnati’s A.J. Green beat Atlanta’s Asante Samuel deep for a 50-yard touchdown.
“I was surprised they left A.J. one-on-one in that situation,” Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton said.
Throughout camp, the Falcons have alternated Samuel and Brent Grimes at the left corner. Grimes, a Pro Bowler in 2010, has mostly played the left the last few seasons for the Falcons but Samuel, a four-time Pro-Bowler, said he prefers the left, as most quarterbacks are right-handed and that is where the action is.
Following his misplay on Thursday, it will be interesting to see if that play is determinant in who plays which side and whether Samuel is relegated to playing the right side only in nickel situations.
2. Quarterback questions. With the exception of one interception, starting quarterback Matt Ryan has played about as well as possible. He’s completed 27-of-34 throws (79 percent) for 329 yards and two touchdowns.
The big question, then, is what happens if Ryan gets hurt? Fortunately for the Falcons, for the second straight game, as Smith pointed out, the Falcons’ offensive line kept Ryan “clean” – that is, he wasn’t sacked or hit, really at all. The Falcons’ continued use of the no-huddle offense, along with offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter’s propensity for screens, and solid offensive line play have kept defenders at bay so far.
During his four seasons, Ryan has remained mostly injury-free, as he’s started 62 of a possible 64 games. However, those backing him up have struggled so far this preseason. To say that 35-year-old back-up Chris Redman has looked rusty would be polite.
Redman finished with a 59.3 quarterback rating and had one interception with no touchdowns on Thursday. While he completed 67 percent of his throws, he was often missing receivers badly at times. In his first preseason game, Redman went 1 for 6 and posted a 39.6 rating.
In former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey’s scheme, the savvy Redman could get by mostly by handing the ball off and managing the game. But in Koetter’s offense, the quarterback looks like he has to be the engine. Redman might not be up to that.
And it’s not like his No. 3 is pushing him. John Parker Wilson is in his fourth season with the team and in the league, making him out of practice squad eligibility, and probably won’t be around much longer. He looks too unsure of himself and held the ball for too long once on Thursday, resulting in a sack in one of only four chances to throw the ball.
For now, the revelation is undrafted rookie Dominique Davis (East Carolina) who almost drove the Falcons to victory in the two-minute drill but was victimized by two drops in the last 93 seconds. Davis threw for 121 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions and completed 10 of 18 throws.
He might force the Falcons to keep three quarterbacks – something they were reluctant to do at the outset of last season – or risk losing him to a team that will sign him to their active roster.
3. DeCoud benefiting. Among the talk of who Nolan’s defense will benefit, the safeties were paramount. Thomas DeCoud showed this on Thursday with a fumble recovery and a forced fumble.
Built slight as he is, DeCoud has shown he can be a hard hitter and he also does a fair job around the ball. In three years as a starter, he has eight interceptions, including four last season.
In VanGorder’s defense, the Falcons mostly played a two-deep zone and that meant that the safeties were put in a more passive posture, usually helping out in coverage. When DeCoud made a mistake, it often ended in a big play.
Perhaps being more aggressive will help him.
“The safeties are becoming more and more involved in the defense,” DeCoud said. “If there is a big play being made, then more than likely a safety is going to be making it, especially down the field. It’s one of those things where we’re just capitalizing on opportunities when we have them and it’s paying dividends.”
4. Jerry on the mend. Since 2009 first-round pick Peria Jerry blew out his knee in the second game of his career, it has been difficult to gauge his effectiveness. It often takes two seasons for a player to get back to 100 percent health after ACL surgery and for a defensive tackle like Jerry it has taken longer.
For one, he’s got all of that weight on top of the knee – 295 pounds – and secondly his position relies almost entirely on explosion off the ball. Jerry lacked that and lost out last season to Corey Peters.
However, Peters has been injured throughout much of the offseason and all of camp and that has given Jerry his chance with the first team again. He had two tackles and a sack on Thursday following three tackles and a tackle-for-loss against Baltimore.
Since the Falcons play a rotation on the defensive line, having a healthy and productive Jerry could wind up as a big bonus.
5. Returners seem settled. During the week, Smith wouldn’t say outright that Dominique Franks has won the job as the punt returner – he might have a more promising future there than as a cornerback – but he did say that Franks has a “leg up.”
Smith also said that Harry Douglas, who returned punts in 2008 as a rookie before blowing out his knee the following season, would not return punts in the preseason.
That almost seems a de facto declaration that Franks has won the job. He had a 45-yard return in the opener and two totaling 13 yards on Thursday. The only other player the Falcons used to return punts, Tim Toone, (12 yards on two punts, one for 13 yards and another for minus-1 – too inconsistent there) seems a long shot to make the team.
Jacquizz Rodgers also seems like the guy on kick returns. (Eric Weems, a Pro Bowler in 2010, did both jobs the last few seasons but signed with Chicago in the offseason.) Rodgers had three returns for 69 yards. The only other kick returner the Falcons used was James Rodgers, Jacquizz’s brother, who had two returns for 50 yards.
James Rodgers also seems a longshot to make the team.