Ravens vs. Falcons: Handing out Awards for Atlanta's Preseason Debut
The first preseason game is in the books for the Atlanta Falcons.
The Falcons hosted the Baltimore Ravens Thursday at the Georgia Dome and took a beating, 31-17.
Don't read too much into the score if you're a Falcons fan. Baltimore did its damage in the second half against the non-starters. The Falcons took a 17-7 lead into the half and then took most of the first- and second-string players out of the game.
Atlanta's Matt Ryan-led offense seemingly moved the ball at will. The new Mike Nolan defense, with the starters in the game, slowed the Ravens to a slug-like slither.
The Falcons coaching staff will begin grading player performances Friday, for both the starters and the reserves. But there's no time like the present here at Bleacher Report.
Here are some superlatives from Thursday's game.
Best First Impression: Falcons' 1st Drive on Offense
The Atlanta Falcons won the toss and took the ball—there was never a doubt head coach Mike Smith would want to put this offense on the field first.
Quarterback Matt Ryan handed the ball off on the first play to Michael Turner, then executed the rest of the eight-play, 80-yard touchdown drive from the no-huddle offense.
Ryan was 5-for-5 for 71 yards while Turner carried the ball three times for nine yards. Julio Jones caught four passes—including a 7-yard touchdown pass—and Roddy White one.
The drive never stalled, Atlanta’s offensive line gave Ryan plenty of time, and new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter even showed off two new facets of the offense—his new screen game with a 19-yard receiver screen to Jones and a deep pass to Jones for 26 yards.
Most Likely to Test the Replacement Officials: Falcons head coach Mike Smith
On Atlanta’s second drive, quarterback Matt Ryan couldn’t find an open receiver and scrambled to his right towards the sideline. He threw the football and hit an open Drew Davis as he fell out of bounds.
The officials’ call on the field was incomplete, but Mike Smith didn’t believe the call was accurate.
The newly trained officials—the ones replacing the locked out crew from last season—looked over the play for quite some time (in reality too long) and upheld the original call on the field.
It might have taken too long, but the call and review was accurate and the official explained it well and without hesitation.
Most Trustworthy: Falcons Head Coach Mike Smith
Who says you can’t win two awards? Not me.
Falcons head coach Mike Smith told the media Tuesday that he thought the starters would play the first quarter, maybe into the second.
No one believed him. I didn’t believe him.
Preseason games—especially Game 1 of the preseason—are usually a one- or two-series and done situation. But the new rules governing practice time seem to be forcing teams into more preseason game evaluation.
Because teams can only practice once per day, and padded practices are very limited, it's entirely possible that the new trend is to keep the starters in for longer during preseason games to work on timing and get starters in the flow for the regular season.
True to his word, Smith left the starters—mixed with a few key reserves—in the game for the entire first quarter.
Biggest Surprise: No Sign of Harry Douglas
When the Atlanta Falcons lined on offense and went three-wide, Kerry Meier was in the game. When the Falcons returned their first punt, Dominique Franks handled the duties.
That’s odd because both of those jobs are slated for Harry Douglas.
Douglas did not dress Thursday and watched the game from the sideline.
There are no official injury reports during training camp, but head coach Mike Smith spoke Tuesday (the team's final practice before radio silence with the media) about a few of the bumps, bruises and minor scrapes, and not once mentioned Douglas.
Scariest Moment: Akeem Dent Falls Prey to Injury
Akeem Dent was supposed to have to battle Lofa Tatupu for Atlanta’s open starting middle linebacker job. But Tatupu was lost for the season with a pectoral injury before training camp, handing the job to Dent.
Dent, who is likely capable of the job but very raw in just his second season, was injured in the first quarter of Thursday’s game working as a special-teamer in the punt return game.
He was removed from the field after being down for some time and the team later announced that he had suffered a head injury and would not return.
If the injury was a concussion, Dent will have to enter the league-mandated concussion protocol and will miss significant practice time. If the injury is worse, the Falcons will be forced to scramble to add depth to a unit that was already bone thin.
Offensive MVP: WR Julio Jones
After orchestrating an amazingly clean opening drive, quarterback Matt Ryan was the front-runner for this award. But wide receiver Julio Jones kept catching passes. He kept running great routes.
And then Ryan threw an interception in the red zone, and it was all on the quarterback. He locked in on a receiver and linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo jumped the route.
Jones then moved to the top spot.
Jones caught six passes for 109 yards and a touchdown, and he was used on a multitude of different routes.
Jones and Ryan connected on two deep routes for 26 and 36 yards. Jones caught two short passes—including his 7-yard score, and also gained 19 yards on a wide receiver screen.
More important, Jones abused whichever Baltimore defender was unlucky enough to line up opposite the second-year star in the making.
Questionable Coaching Decision: Using Akeem Dent on Special Teams
Starting middle linebacker Akeem Dent is in his second season with the team, but first as a starter on defense. He was a special teams ace last year as a rookie, but rarely saw playing time on any other unit besides special teams.
Because Lofa Tatupu will miss the season with a pectoral injury, Dent will be forced into action. To get Dent comfortable playing in the middle of the defense for the first time as a pro on a regular basis, he needs as many reps as he can get—practice, scrimmage, preseason game, you name it.
Why was Dent on the punt return team Thursday?
Dent proved everything he needed to last season as the Falcons special teams MVP. It was well known he could do that job.
But he was still out there in preseason Game 1, and got hurt.
Dent left the game after being knocked to the ground on special teams. The Falcons announced that the injury was a head injury and that he wouldn’t return to the game. But nothing else was revealed.
At best, Dent got his bell rung but it wasn’t a concussion and he’ll return to practice on Saturday.
A much worse scenario would be a concussion and Dent would have to enter the league’s concussion protocol and wait until he was symptom-free before he could work his way back onto the field.
That would take away valuable practice time from a second-year player—a first-year starter with little experience—who greatly needs all the reps he can get.
The Falcons are very thin at middle linebacker. After releasing Tatupu, the team signed veteran Mike Peterson. He’s listed behind Dent on the depth chart and is a capable fill-in. But that’s not the route the Falcons wanted to take.
Atlanta needs Dent on the field and learning. The team needs him on the field and healthy.
All the more reason why it was a questionable move to have him in the game on special teams Thursday.
Defensive MVP: The 1st Quarter 3rd Down Unit
Last year Atlanta’s third-down defense left a lot to be desired. Opponents kept drives alive on third down just over 44 percent of the time in 2011.
The Falcons went out and traded a seventh-round draft pick for Asante Samuel, in part, to rectify the third-down situation.
Thursday against the Ravens—when the first-team defense was in the game—Atlanta’s third-down defense was impeccable.
The Falcons held the Ravens 0-for-3 on third downs in the first quarter. The defense forced two incomplete passes from Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco and then Kroy Biermann pulled down Flacco for a sack on the third attempt.
At halftime, Dunta Robinson said the unit felt good.
“Our third-down defense has been an issue for us the past few years, so we wanted to come out here right away and set the tone on third down and get off the field because it’s critical,” said Robinson. “The averages are always on your side when you can put a team in third and long situations. We just felt good. It felt like we were clicking on all cylinders out there.”
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.