How do you gauge a team when it's only preseason? It's the little things that matter.
When the Falcons kicked off the 2009 preseason, they were in Detroit against a team desperate for a win. The Lions came out on their game. On the first possession, they forced the Falcons to a third and long situation. Matt Ryan dropped back to pass and had no one open down-field. Jerious Norwood was about 5 yards away with a little room to run. Instead, Ryan scrambled around and threw the ball out of bounds. I'd seen all I needed to see of him to know he's the real deal.
Most quarterbacks in the NFL will try the short screen to the running back and that typically results in the back taking a pounding. So rather than getting Norwood killed, Ryan decided it was best to throw the ball away on his first drive of the preseason rather than being greedy. Jay Cutler, the highly touted quarterback traded to the Bears this off-season, threw the ball away nine times all last season.
Since that drive, the Atlanta Falcons offense is three for three at scoring touchdowns. Running back Michael Turner has only played three series in the preseason. He's scored two touchdowns and rushed for 128 yards on 16 carries. Matt Ryan is 12/15 for 114 yards and 1 TD to his new toy Tony Gonzalez. To him, completion percentage is just a stat: winning is what's important.
Roddy White has looked fantastic. If he had any rust from holding out this off-season he's hiding it well. His routes are sharp and his footwork is crisp. The terrible two, Harvey Dahl and Tyson Clabo, are dominating their opponents. On Turners second touchdown you will find Dahl lying on top the of the defender in the end-zone. Those two relish in the bad boy role they serve.
The starting defense played most of the first two quarters of both games. In total, they bent but did not break. On Detroit's first possession, Duante Culpepper beat the Falcons defense on a screen play and worked his way inside the five yard line. On 3rd and goal, second year defensive tackle Thomas Johnson busted through the line and hit Culpepper before he could come out of his play action fake. That was three points surrendered by the starting defense this preseason and it stopped there. In the following three quarters they have shut out the opponent. In the second quarter of the Rams game DJ Shockley was intercepted on Atlanta's 27 yard line. The defense came out, surrendered one yard and forced a field goal. That wasn't on them.
So that means in four quarters of football, the first string defense has given up 3 points. You can't complain about that.
Granted, the Falcons played the two worst teams in the NFL last season. Both are entering 2009 with new head coaches. You cannot walk away from two games feeling anything has been proven yet. However, that decision Ryan made on his first possession told me the Falcons will be a team defensive coordinators will stay up late at night worrying about.
So the real focus goes on the rookies and veteran free agents to see who starts and who will be dusting off that resume. Thus far, I believe these are the things to watch these last two weeks.
Jamaal Anderson vs. Chauncey Davis
It's hard to decide who should be starting opposite Abraham. Davis is a blue collar worker and Anderson is wasted potential. The Falcons coaching staff must see something in Anderson most observers have missed. He is slow off the snap and seems to be stood up on passing plays. Davis is a solid run stuffer but he too lacks that quick release off the snap. I look for those two to alternate on first and second downs. On third down, I would expect to see Biermann and Lawrence "Sid Vicious" Sidbury book ending Abraham.
Chevis Jackson vs. Chris Owens
Jackson was a solid player last season in the nickel package but hasn't developed into the corner the Falcons feel can start opposite Chris Houston. That was made apparent by the drafting of Owens in the 3rd round as well as 5th round pick William Middleton. The 2008 starter Brent Grimes appears to have the second corner role down which leaves the nickel back position up for grabs. Both Jackson and Owens have shown flashes of playmaking ability but both have also badly blown assignments resulting in big plays. Look for Owens to wiggle his way into the starting lineup at some point this season.
Peria Jerry vs. Trey Lewis vs. Thomas Johson
The expectant starter of this crew would be Peria Jerry. The Falcons used their first pick in the 2009 draft on him. When he was selected every Falcons fan knew Grady Jackson wouldn't be making a 3rd appearance on the team. He is competing with Trey Lewis who spent last season on injured reserve after showing glimpses of promise as Jackson's backup. In two games so far he's played well. Both Jerry and Lewis (no pun intended) need to be wary of the play of Thomas Johnson. He's had a fantastic camp and is showing no signs of slowing down in the first two weeks of preseason. It's quite possible Thomas Dimitroff has done it again and found a diamond in the rough. The next two weeks are very important for Johnson.
Thomas DeCoud vs. William Moore
After watching both preseason games I can't say much good or bad about DeCoud. Which may be a good thing. He's anchoring down a defense that has only allowed 3 points in 4 quarters but his name is rarely called. That means his coverage may be forcing Quarterbacks to throw away from his zone. William Moore just returned to practice this week and has a lot of catching up to do. While he was nursing his injuries DeCoud assumed the starting role uncontested. The coaching staff moved free safety Eric Coleman to strong in order to accommodate DeCoud's ability. If Moore can come in and impress it could either force Moore to the strong safety spot moving Coleman back to his normal free safety position, or create a spot on 3rd downs where Moore will step in for Coleman. Either way, it's good to have open competition in Falcons land.
Under prior regimes, your paycheck determined your role on this team. This 21st century version isn't your fathers Falcons. The new staff from the ownership to the coaches are doing it the right way. Work hard, improve and stay humble and you will be rewarded.
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