Four Downs: Protecting the QB remains a lingering issue

Here are four observations from the Falcons’ 27-16 loss to the Tennessee Titans, dropping them to 0-3 in the preseason:
1. Offensive line looks worrisome
Maybe Titans senior assistant/defense Gregg Williams is a miracle worker. Maybe a more sophisticated game plan or pulling out all of the tricks in terms of pass protection will help. Or maybe the Falcons have something to worry about when it comes to pass protecting.
The Falcons first-team offense allowed five sacks, which is not exactly the best way to keep quarterback Matt Ryan healthy. The ability to protect Ryan was a concern entering the season after the Falcons cut former Pro-Bowl right tackle Tyson Clabo for salary cap reasons.
The man who looks to be Clabo’s replacement — Lamar Holmes — gave up two sacks. One of those sacks came against former Georgia Tech defensive end Derrick Morgan, the Titans’ left end. Morgan just ran right past Holmes en route to a sack. The second sack that Holmes allowed came in the second half against tackle Jurrell Casey, a different style of rusher who looks larger than the 305 pounds at which he is listed.
But it wasn’t just Holmes. The left side of the Falcons offensive line also was victimized. When a team gives up so many sacks, some are bound to come at inopportune times. Three came on third downs, killing Falcons’ drives.
This turn of events came against a Titans defense that allowed 471 points last season, one of the worst totals in NFL history. With the addition of Williams — infamous for his role in the New Orleans Saints’ Bountygate scandal but also that organization’s defensive coordinator when it won the Super Bowl in 2009-10 — maybe the Titans will be vastly improved.
But maybe the Falcons have something to worry about.
2. Samuel hurt and then Alford struggles
It’s hard to say which is more of a concern, the performance of the offensive line or the thigh injury that starting left cornerback Asante Samuel suffered.
Samuel provides a savvy veteran presence at corner — which the Falcons glaringly lack without him. After he went out, rookie Robert Alford took his place. That meant the Falcons starting cornerbacks were two rookies (including Desmond Trufant) and at the nickel Robert McClain, who owns but four career starts. If Samuel’s injury is serious, it’s a precarious way to enter the season.
It’s probably not a serious injury but the larger point is that since joining the team last season, Samuel, 32, is showing an increasing tendency to miss plays because of injury. (Defensive tackle Peria Jerry suffered a jaw injury, which also is not a positive for the defense, as veteran linebacker Stephen Nicholas missed the game with an injury.)
While Alford did come up with an interception, he gave up a 56-yard reception by Michael Preston and looked confused in coverage on a five-yard touchdown reception by Justin Hunter, who may or may not have been Alford’s responsibility. Alford again appeared to have been the defender on a fourth-quarter touchdown reception by Preston.
The second-round pick has impressed throughout camp but head coach Mike Smith said the preseason games matter most. If Samuel is injured, the Falcons don’t have much of an option besides Alford so they had better hope he can bounce back and improve.
3. Red zone failures
The Falcons failed to score a touchdown once they reached the red zone. Some of it was that inability to handle the Titans pass rush.
This has been an issue in recent seasons for the Falcons and also was a problem in the first preseason game against Cincinnati. The Falcons only touchdown came on a 41-yard touchdown by wide receiver Darius Johnson, who is bolstering his chances of making the team.
Steven Jackson was impressive with 12 carries for 51 yards and the red zone problems might have been an issue of the Falcons decision to hold back some of their more effective plays for that situation until the regular season. However, they are big on execution and the execution in the red zone was not good enough.
Quarterback Matt Ryan, who was effective but not overly so in going 11-for-19 for 138 yards, said in the television broadcast after he left the game that the Falcons have to play better, pointing out the red issues in particular. At this point, they might not get too many more opportunities until Week 1 at New Orleans.
4. Biermann a rare bright spot 
The coaching staff appears to have big new plans for Kroy Biermann, moving him from his habitual position of end to use him more at outside linebacker. On Saturday, Biermann posted two sacks.
In the first preseason game, Jonathan Massaquoi also totaled two sacks. While it’s not the tour de force that the Titans defense showed in terms of a pass rush on Saturday, individual Falcons have shown indications that they might be more effective in a pass-rushing role for this upcoming season. Corey Peters also had one great series, ending with a sack that resulted in a defensive stop.
It would be a bit more encouraging if Osi Umenyiora, signed to replace John Abraham and his team-high 10 sacks last season, put forth a similar effort. But, after all, it’s only important that he does it in the regular season.