Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan goes over what the offense hopes to achieve in exhibition game against N.Y. Jets. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC)

Cover 9@9: Ryan sings praises of three young players

1. Ryan praises three young Falcons: Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who’s had time to observe more while not playing in the first two exhibition games, has been impressed with a few young players.

Ryan had kind words for the play of wide receiver Russell Gage, running back Brian Hill and cornerback Isaiah Oliver. 

Ryan is set to make his debut when the Falcons (0-2), who have dropped 10 straight exhibition games, face the Jets (0-1) at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. 

With Julio Jones out, Gage has been getting plenty of practice time and he’s making the most of it. 

“Well, I think he’s a lot more comfortable in terms of all that we’re asking him to do,” Ryan said. “He wears a lot of different hats for our team. He’s a big special teams player for us. I think his role on offense will continue to increase as he continues to show that he can make plays.”

When backup quarterback Matt Schaub needed some help against the Dolphins, he went to Gage on two consecutive third downs on the opening drive. Gage made a difficult catch on the first situation and handled a better pass on the second third-down fluidly. 

“He just has such a better understanding of the offense, too,” Ryan said. “You can tell that when we break the huddle and he’s kind of shooting right to the spot where he’s supposed to be. Route conversions, all of those things are further along than they’ve been in the past. He continues to impress us every time he steps on the field.”

Hill’s play has jumped off the screen at more than a few folks. 

“I think he’s hungry,” Ryan said. “You can tell that every day he steps on to the practice field, there’s a real intent for him to get better. To me, that’s been very impressive to see.”

Hill’s pass catching, which has been praised by Falcons coach Dan Quinn, has also caught Ryan’s attention. 

“I think his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield is something that he’s greatly improved on, and you’ve seen that this (exhibition) season,” Ryan said. “In practice he’s been catching the ball extremely efficiently for us. That’s a big part of what we ask our backs to do, is to make plays out of the backfield in the passing game. I think he’s really improved there.”

Our fine columnist Mark Bradley mined this gem from the folks over at Football Outsiders.   

“Arguably the worst cornerback in the NFL,” the analytics folks wrote about former Falcons cornerback Robert Alford. “He allowed the most receiving yards in the league last season, and his 34.7 percent coverage success rate was the lowest for a qualifying cornerback since 2016.” 

That explains why the Falcons were ready to move on from Alford and handed his job over to unproven second-year cornerback Isaiah Oliver. 

Ryan has been impressed with Oliver’s play. 

“He’s got a swagger to him,” Ryan said. “You can see it when he’s out there. He’s confident. He has belief in what he’s doing.

“That translates into him being aggressive on certain routes, to go out and showcase his athleticism. I think he’s done a great job for us and he’s one of the guys that I’ve had my eye on, as a second-year guy, how much he’s matured. It’s been impressive to see that.”

2. QB class of 2018: For the second game in a row, the Falcons will face a quarterback from the 2018 draft class. 

Last week, linebacker Jermaine Grace intercepted Miami’s Josh Rosen.

Sam Darnold was solid in his second-season debut against the Giants as he completed 4 of 5 passes for 68 yards and a touchdowns in seven plays of action.

Cleveland selected quarterback Baker Mayfield No. 1 overall. Darnold went two picks later to the Jets. 

Buffalo selected Josh Allen with the seventh pick before Arizona selected Rosen 10th overall.

After earning the top pick in the 2019 draft, the Cardinals traded Rosen to the Dolphins and hitched the wagon to No. 1 overall pick Kyler Murray. 

3. Injury report: Running back Kenyon Barner, who suffered an ankle injury late in practice Monday, did not practice Tuesday.

Barner, who broke loose for a 37-yard gain on a screen play against the Dolphins, is the top candidate for the punt and kickoff return jobs.

“He’s had an excellent offseason,” Quinn said. “He’s been very sure-handed in the returns.”

Left guard James Carpenter (hip flexor), linebacker Foye Oluokun (groin), defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman (groin) and cornerback Taveze Calhoun (undisclosed) were working with the trainers on Tuesday and are not expected to play against the Jets. 

4. Last win: The Falcons last won an exhibition game in the finale of the 2016 preseason when they beat the Jaguars 17-15 on Sept. 1. The quarterback was Matt Simms, who completed 16 of 23 passes for 217 yards. Running back Terron Ward rushed 22 times for 62 yards and two touchdowns. 

5. Last loss: Simms, back with the team after Kurt Benkert suffered a toe injury and was placed on injured reserve, couldn’t rally the Falcons to victory in a 34-27 loss to the Dolphins last Thursday. The Falcons went for it on a fourth-and-9 from their 16-yard line and got sacked. Simms drove the backups down the field, but couldn’t connect with wide receiver Devin Gray.

6. Starters to play vs. Jets: Quinn pulled several starters against the Dolphins, but expect them to play against the Jets.

“Definitely our plan heading in with a number of the guys is to get more work,” Quinn said. “That will depend a little bit by the player, it won’t be just one unit for these extended amounts of plays. Some guys need the work, some guys need the reps. We’ll take a look on an individual basis, but for sure, we’re going to extend a lot more players in this game.”

7. Exhibition losses matter: The Falcons started 1-3 last season after going 0-4 in the exhibition season. The Falcons started 3-1 after going 0-4 in 2017, but barely squeaked by the Mike Glennon-led Bears and needed a 10-second run-off to beat the Lions. They could have very easily started 1-3. 

8. Fast start in 2019: The Falcons open the season with four of their first five games against playoff teams in the Eagles, Colts, Titans and Texans. They open at the Vikings on Sept. 8. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer is 3-0 against the Falcons. 

9. Depth chart: Here’s the third official depth chart of the season released by the team: 

OFFENSE

WR 11 Julio Jones, 83 Russell Gage, 15 Devin Gray, 17 Olamide Zaccheaus, 16 Shawn Bane, 19 Kahlil Lewis
LT 70 Jake Matthews, 75 John Wetzel, 67 Dieugot Joseph
LG 77 James Carpenter, 68 Jamon Brown, 64 Sean Harlow, 66 Tommy Doles
C 51 Alex Mack, 71 Wes Schweitzer, 61 Chandler Miller
RG 63 Chris Lindstrom, 72 Adam Gettis
RT 74 Ty Sambrailo, 76 Kaleb McGary, 73 Matt Gono, 65 Jaelin Robinson
TE 81 Austin Hooper, 80 Luke Stocker, 82 Logan Paulsen, 87 Jaeden Graham, 89 Alex Gray
WR 12 Mohamed Sanu, 18 Calvin Ridley, 14 Justin Hardy, 3 Marcus Green, 13 Christian Blake, 7 C.J. Worton
QB 2 Matt Ryan, 8 Matt Schaub 9 Matt Simms
RB 24 Devonta Freeman, 25 Ito Smith, 23 Brian Hill, 38 Kenjon Barner, 32 Qadree Ollison, 46 Tony Brooks-James
FB 30 Ricky Ortiz

DEFENSE

DE 98 Takkarist McKinley, 99 Adrian Clayborn, 62 Austin Larkin, 49 Tre’ Crawford
DT 97 Grady Jarrett, 95 Jack Crawford 79 Jacob Tuioti-Mariner
DT 96 Tyeler Davison, 92 Justin Zimmer, 94 Deadrin Senat, 90 Ra’Shede Hageman
DE 93 Allen Bailey, 50 John Cominsky, 91 Chris Odom
DE 44 Vic Beasley Jr., 48 Durrant Miles, 52 Yurik Bethune
LB 59 De’Vondre Campbell, 54 Foyesade Oluokun, 42 Duke Riley, 61 Stephone Anthony, 35 Chase Middleton
LB 45 Deion Jones, 55 Bruce Carter, 53 Jermaine Grace, 46 Del’Shawn Phillips, 69 Richie Brown
CB 26 Isaiah Oliver, 33 Blidi Wreh-Wilson, 20 Kendall Sheffield, 23 Jayson Stanley
CB 21 Desmond Trufant, 27 Damontae Kazee, 28 Jordan Miller, 40 Ryan Neal, 39 Taveze Calhoun
S 37 Ricardo Allen, 41 Sharrod Neasman, 34 Chris Cooper
S 22 Keanu Neal, 36 Kemal Ishmael, 43 Parker Baldwin, 32 Ronald Martin

SPECIALISTS

K 4 Giorgio Tavecchio
KO 5 Matt Bosher
P 5 Matt Bosher
LS 47 Josh Harris
H 5 Matt Bosher

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About the Author

D. Orlando Ledbetter
D. Orlando Ledbetter
D. Orlando Ledbetter is the Atlanta Falcons beat writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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