Four Downs: Falcons fall to Titans, but starters impress

In new roles, Jake Matthews (left) and Lamar Holmes (right) did a good job of protecting Matt Ryan on Saturday. The Atlanta Falcons lost to the Tennessee Titans, 24-17.

Jason Getz/Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons enjoyed an early 17-3 lead on Saturday, but fell to the Tennessee Titans in the Georgia Dome, 24-17.

The loss drops Atlanta to 1-2 this preseason, with one game left to go in Jacksonville next week against the Jaguars.

Here are four observations from the Falcons’ loss to Tennessee:

When the Falcons signed Hester to a free-agent contract in March, the easy take was that Atlanta was attempting to bolster its return game. In 2013, the Falcons ranked 28th in kick-return yards (659 yards on 27 returns) and 20th with an 8.3 yards per punt return average.

The team needed some help.

Since Hester didn’t catch a pass last season in Chicago, and only had 23 receptions in 2012, thinking his addition to the Atlanta roster was anything more than a special teams move wasn’t really applicable.

But the Falcons insisted they had signed Hester as a return specialist and a wide receiver. The way Atlanta used him Saturday against the Titans, the front office may have been telling the truth.

On Atlanta’s first possession of the game, Hester capped the drive off with a 31-yard touchdown catch. With just under four minutes to play in the half, he was targeted in the end zone again, but the play was broken up by a defender.

On the day, Hester had four receptions for 56 yards and a touchdown. Add that to his two catches and a score against the Houston Texans last week, and it sure seems like Hester is going to play a big role in Atlanta’s offense this season.

The Falcons signed Eric Weems, a return specialist as well, earlier in the week. Instead of simply to add depth, could that have been a move out of necessity? Might Weems be needed regularly to return kicks because Hester will be playing a lot of offensive snaps?

The Falcons jumped out to an early 17-3 lead. Everything seemed to be clicking on both offense and defense.

Atlanta scored on its first offensive series, as it used up 6:22 on an 11-play, 79-yard drive that was capped by a Hester 31-yard scoring grab. The defense then forced a three-and-out, and two series later; Julio Jones caught a 52-yard, catch-and-run touchdown.

With 3:44 to play in the first half, Atlanta had a two-touchdown lead and looked in command.

But then an explosive play happened.

Tennessee quarterback Jake Locker connected on a 63-yard touchdown strike to Nate Washington, a play that looked bad for cornerback Desmond Trufant, who was in coverage. But Atlanta head coach Mike Smith later revealed there was more blame to be handed out to the rest of the defensive backfield.

A 17-10 halftime lead quickly evaporated into a 24-17 defeat as the second- and third-string defense did little to stop the Titans in the second half.

There have been too many times in recent memory where the Falcons jumped out to big leads and then slowed down, allowing their opponent to either make the game close, or in the case of Saturday, come back to win.

No one will ever forget the 21 points the Seattle Seahawks scored in the fourth quarter in 2012 to almost come from behind to beat the Falcons in the playoffs. A week later Atlanta blew a 17-0 lead in the first half to lose the NFC Championship Game to the San Francisco 49ers.

This is absolutely a preseason game. And most of the damage done to the early lead was allowed by second- and third-stringers. But there was a letdown late in the first half too, and that has to bring a little doubt and worry into the minds of this coaching staff.

After the game, Mike Smith said his offensive line looked like it played well, especially rookie Jake Matthews at left tackle and Lamar Holmes at right tackle. Both were playing new positions. Smith wanted to look at the film before he elaborated.

Quarterback Matt Ryan said he like what he saw, and called the pass protection "really good." He admitted that there was need to clean up both protection and schematic matters, but thought his pockets were clean for most the night.

Ryan didn’t have a lot of trouble throwing the football on Saturday. And there was really only one time in the first half where Holmes was noticeably beaten by his pass-rusher (the play was later negated due to penalty).

After Holmes’ 2013 season where he finished second in the league by giving up 76 total pressures, and allowed Ryan to be sacked 10 times, only noticing Holmes once in the half he played–either for good reasons or bad–was a definite step in the right direction.

Ryan was sacked once on Saturday by Tennessee. After being taken down 44 times last season, once per game is likely something Ryan would agree to instantly.

With 13:20 left in the first half, Freeman touched the football for the first time. he caught a 10-yard pass from Ryan to set up a short third-down play. Freeman’s first rushing attempt came a little more than 10 minutes later when he ran for four yards near the end of the first half.

That was all the time Freeman had getting involved with the first team.

Jacquizz Rodgers and Antone Smith both touched the football before Freeman did, and the final stats show Rodgers (eight) with twice as many carries as both Freeman and Smith (four).

Rodgers was targeted five times in the passing game and caught all five passes for 31 yards. Freeman caught every ball thrown his way too–four passes for 33 yards.

Almost 10 touches seems like a fine night for a rookie playing in his third professional game, but the distribution is a little weighted toward the second half.

While Freeman had eight touches in the game, only two came in the first half with the starters. Rodgers, who seems to be the clear starter with Steven Jackson sidelined with a hamstring issue, got 13 touches (eight carries and five receptions) in the first half, and Smith had three carries in the first half with the starters, two more than Freeman.

Freeman has shown flashes of exceptional athleticism and running ability in training camp. But the coaching staff is on record saying his playing time will be limited until he becomes a better blocker in pass protection.

On Hester’s touchdown catch in the first quarter, Rodgers cut down a would-be pass-rusher to allow Ryan enough time to find the route and receiver he wanted. It’s possible that Freeman wouldn’t have made the block as effectively as Rodgers did, which is why Rodgers is in the game with the first-team.

This is likely an issue of Freeman needing more time to develop as a blocker in the NFL. It’s also likely an indication that he won’t be challenging for extra touches in the early part of the regular season.