Preseason Takeaways: Atlanta Falcons

By Thomas Willoughby

The new era of Falcons football has begun. Under the watchful eyes of first time head coach Arthur Smith, and first time general manager TerryFontenot, the Falcons are marching into 2021 with a wind of optimism behind them. Despite that, they’re 0-2 in pre-season, and looking a million miles from competing this season. But are looks being deceiving? Let’s have a look at how things are shaking out!

Trouble Under Center

The decision to not draft a quarterback back in April raised more than a few eyebrows at the time, and the performances from the guys behind Matt Ryan have only compounded those questions. Heading into pre-season, the Falcons QB2 and QB3 roles were filled by former Browns target A.J. McCarron, and 6 foot 7 rookie Feleipe Franks. Over four quarters from two games each, McCarron managed 79 passing yards, and Franks 62. No matter which way you try to cut it, that’s simply not good enough. It’s fair to say that the pair have done little to suggest they’re capable of filling in on any given Sunday.

A further spanner was thrown in the works just before halftime against the Dolphins, as McCarron succumbed to an ACL injury that has ended his 2021 season before it began. With the steady experience of McCarron fallen to the wayside, Atlanta faced the prospect of a season with Feleipe Franks as the defacto QB2. That led them back into the market, and to the door of former top 10 draft pick-turned current bust: Josh Rosen.

Heading into the final week of pre-season, the Falcons need to establish a level of competency from the role of QB2. It’s unlikely either Franks or Rosen are the long-term answer for the Falcons at quarterback, but Matt Ryan has missed time as recently as 2019. The ever-present signal-caller simply cannot be expected to play injury-free forever, and they’ll need someone to step in and keep the offense ticking. If neither Rosen or Franks impress against the Browns, expect the Falcons to dip back into the market after the final round of cuts.

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Defense With A Pulse

The Falcons brought in (and persisted with) Dan Quinn, on the basis that the 2013 and 2014 Seattle Seahawks had a mean, mean defense. The Dan Quinn Falcons, by and large, barely had a defense. Let alone a mean one. The first thing Arthur Smith did when coming into the role was hiring Dean Pees, who’s something of a guru when it comes to defenses. The early signs are positive.

Through two pre-season games, the Falcons have managed seven sacks. Without a starter to be seen on defense. In a joint practice, the Falcons front seven was described as “killing” the Dolphins offensive line. That might not feel like a lot of onlookers, but that is sweet music to the ears of fans who’ve been watching how this side over the past few years.

With the likes of Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones, and A.J. Terrell, to see the field, Falcons supporters are allowing themselves to dream of how this defense might look mid-season. For the first time in a while, those dreams may actually come close to resembling reality.

Offensive Line Needs Work

In 2021, the Atlanta Falcons will start an offensive line where three of the five starters will have been first-round picks. It beggars belief, then, that there are this many question marks over who will be starting. Through two games, we’re not closer to really knowing how this line will operate.

Right off the bat, Jake Matthews and Chris Lindstrom have nothing to be concerned about. Matthews has shown, over his seven-season career, to be reliable and steady. Over two seasons, Lindstrom has emerged as one of the league’s best young offensive guards. Kaleb McGary, however, goes into his third season needing to show his worth. A career of peaks and valleys have McGary teetering on borderline “liability” territory. The right tackle role isn’t certain.

Then we’re onto the role of left guard, and center. At the time of writing, the Falcons have listed Josh Andrews and Matt Hennessey in each position respectively. With the greatest of respects to both men, who are far more capable of filling those positions than I, they don’t exactly fill you with confidence. Behind them, rookies Drew Dalman and Jalen Mayfield offer the most likely competition, but neither have really shown up in pre-season.

The offensive line has been an issue for Atlanta for years, and it doesn’t appear those issues are likely to be alleviated. Chalk it down as something to work on.

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Conclusion: More Questions Than Answers

You can’t take a great deal from pre-season, in any sport. And you certainly can’t take a lot from a pre-season run that has barely seen a starter make the field. The 2021 Atlanta Falcons are no exception. I can tell you with certainty that this period has taught us the VAST majority of these backups aren’t going to challenge the first-stringers.

Those first-stringers are likely to play in some capacity in the final game of the pre-season, and I suspect we’ll have a better idea of who these Falcons are after that. To what extent they play remains to be seen, of course. The most likely scenario is a quarter or so total, but we should be able to take a little more from that than we did two quarters of Atlanta’s reserves against Miami’s starters.

When all is said and done, there are just too many questions surrounding this team to have many expectations. Who will be Matt Ryan’s primary back up? How will they pick up the lost yards from the Julio Jones trade? Who can generate take-aways in the secondary? We simply do not know at this stage. We might know come Monday morning. We’ll probably know come week three.

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Thomas Willoughby