Are they ready?
Because they didn’t look ready the other night when they got whacked by a team projected to win seven games, albeit in an exhibition.
They didn’t seem ready when the starting quarterback (Matt Ryan) threw a red-zone interception disturbingly similar to ones he threw last season.
They don’t feel ready, not with this year’s first-round pick (Keanu Neal) expected to miss at least two games, and last year’s first-round pick (Vic Beasley) looking ordinary and the 36-year-old designated pass rusher (Dwight Freeney) already feeling backaches.
Justified? Consider the backdrop.
These are the Falcons. This is Atlanta, center of the pro-sports misery universe. Skepticism is never unjustified with so much emotional scar tissue.
“It didn’t jolt me,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said Saturday when asked about the performance of his starters against Miami on Thursday night in the third exhibition game, which generally is considered the closest thing to a dress rehearsal.
“Was I pleased? I was not. I let the players know that for sure. But I definitely didn’t feel a jolt. When you get into the game you’re moving guys around.”
The money guys have set the Falcons’ over/under at 7.5 wins this season. I still believe they have a good chance to go over that and win nine, even 10, games and make the playoffs. With all of their problems last season, they went 8-8. The schedule this season is more difficult, but every team in the NFC South plays a similar schedule, and the Falcons went 1-5 within the division last season, which likely won’t happen again.
But there are some troubling signs with the season opener two weeks away. The new offensive line, upgraded with the signing of center Alex Mack, managed no push in run blocking against the Dolphins. Was that an aberration or foreshadowing?
Ryan, who generally has looked more comfortable going into Year 2 in Kyle Shanahan’s offense, looked just OK at times against Miami and underthrew tight end Jacob Tamme at the goal line, with the pass intercepted by Reshad Jones.
Fans who refuse to blame Ryan for anything put it on Shanahan’s play-calling or Tamme’s route running. But neither was an issue. Ask the head coach. Quinn said Ryan should’ve gone to the next receiver in the progression. “The route was right against that coverage,” he said.
The Falcons have significantly more speed on defense now, but the team’s pass rush hasn’t been great, in part because edge defender Beasley looks lost at times, and Freeney has played only a handful of snaps. He missed the third game with a back strain and won’t likely plan in the fourth (joining most starters on the sideline).
None of this analysis will matter … until it suddenly matters.
If the Falcons stumble in the opener against Tampa Bay in the Georgia Dome, doubters will say, “Ah ha!” If they win and look good against the Buccaneers, public sentiment will shift.
Nobody really cares who wins exhibition games, the NFL’s pig-like, full-retail ticket prices notwithstanding. It’s about player evaluation, deciding who makes the roster and what roles those players are best (and worst) in. So certainly a case can be made that seeing a certain player, or package of players, botch situations isn’t necessarily horrible news because it was an experiment to begin with.
Also, teams don’t want to show all of their cards on offense or defense because that puts it on film for opponents to study before real games — particularly the first opponent. There’s little in the way of game planning.
But more weight is given to the third exhibition than any other, and the Falcons’ first units, playing into the third quarter, looked bad against Miami (a 17-6 loss).
“I have some agreement with (the dress-rehearsal analogy),” Quinn said. “But honestly I’m still digging into the guys to figure out what we can do.
“Can a guy cover this player? Can he match up on that back? We generally put guys in different areas to see what they can do?”
His summation: “We feel like we’re in the right spot to take on the season.”
On defense, the Falcons should feel good about what they’ve seen from three draft picks, Neal and linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell. All have speed and pursue the ball. But Neal’s loss for three to four weeks (arthroscopic knee surgery) means the Falcons will be without two regulars for at least two games. Cornerback Jalen Collins also is out while serving a suspension.
The curtain goes up in two weeks. Are they ready? The benefit of the doubt doesn’t come easy in this town.
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