After his exhibition debut, Bengals say Bijan Robinson is ‘going to be a problem’

The public unveiling of Bijan Robinson was but a brief affair, conducted Friday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in front of a crowd filling perhaps a quarter of its 71,000 seats.

But in the first snaps of the exhibition season for the ballyhooed running back, the Falcons rookie offered promise as the difference maker that he was drafted to be. Coach Arthur Smith limited Robinson and other first-stringers to the game’s first series, but it was enough for him to make an impression on the visiting Cincinnati Bengals.

“I think he’s going to be a problem,” Cincinnati linebacker Logan Wilson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

On Robinson’s second carry of the game, Wilson faced him down in a crease on the right side of the Falcons line, opened up by three tight ends lined up next to right tackle Kaleb McGary. A four-year vet who has led the Bengals in tackles each of the past two seasons, Wilson could get only an arm around Robinson’s midsection as he rocketed by, slowing him down slightly.

“Stocky, explosive, he can break tackles, make guys miss,” Wilson said. “There’s going to be a lot of things that he can do with the ball in his hands, and they’re going to find different types of ways to get the ball in his hands.”

Two of Wilson’s teammates shared similar assessments, which will be shared further on. But they offered firsthand confirmation of what was clear in Robinson’s first carry as a professional, even if in an exhibition. It was the takeaway that Falcons fans were most keenly interested in from the night – the young man in the No. 7 jersey certainly looks like the real deal. He ran hard, he slipped away from tackle attempts, broke others and didn’t shy from contact. The eighth pick of the 2023 NFL draft should be a lot of fun to watch.

“Nothing really surprised me, but it was definitely a good feeling to go out there and show what I can do,” Robinson said.

Robinson took the field before the game at 6:30 p.m., an hour before kickoff. Running out of the southwest tunnel, he slapped his chest twice and pointed to the MBS ceiling (or into the early night sky, if you’re more the poetic sort).

He fielded kickoffs, he caught passes, he took handoffs and performed other sundry running-back drills. He did catch one pass that startled. He ran downfield, leapt up and snatched the ball out of the air with the violent force of a basketball player throwing down an alley oop.

During the national anthem, we learned that he is the type to hold his helmet with both hands and sway side to side. The Falcons received the opening kickoff and after a penalty-heavy start to the game (on the kickoff and then the first play from scrimmage, both on the home team), Robinson’s time arrived, subbing in for starter Tyler Allgeier.

Robinson felt the weight of the moment. He has proved himself daily in training camp in Flowery Branch, but this stage was a little different.

“I was definitely a little nervous going into it, but I felt that was natural,” he said. “I’m just a human being. But I felt good right after I got that first one.”

That first one, it was something else. On a handoff to the right side from quarterback Desmond Ridder on a first-and-10 from the Falcons’ 27-yard line, Robinson followed fullback Keith Smith out of an I formation. He swerved inside at the 23, then cut back right at the 27. Gathering steam, he eluded safety Nick Scott at the 33 – three slippery moves in the space of about 10 yards. He was brought down at the 39, a gain of 12 yards.

Robinson’s workload for the night lasted 12 snaps in total, during which he gained 20 yards on four carries. A potential touchdown reception on a catch out of the backfield was scotched. Ridder hurried the offense to the line after an acrobatic sideline catch by wide receiver Drake London in hopes of getting off the next snap before the Bengals could call for a replay challenge.

The play was initiated, and in the chaos, Robinson looped out of the backfield completely unaccounted for. Ridder stepped up in the pocket and delivered him the ball, but officials whistled the play dead to grant the replay challenge. He also made a one-handed snag of a Ridder pass that was thrown behind him, after which he made another Bengals defender miss with a dosage of shake-and-bake. It was good for 6 yards.

The drive reached the Cincinnati 6, where Ridder threw an interception. Robinson spent the rest of the night on the sidelines kibitzing with a variety of teammates.

“It felt awesome,” Robinson said of his brief on-field stint, smiling ebulliently. “It was definitely a blessing to be out there and just show little snippets of the gift that God’s given me.”

Two more observations from the visiting locker room shared with the AJC:

Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard: “He was running really hard. … I think with what they do schematically, he’s going to really be a great player and a great fit for their system.”

Cornerback Mike Hilton (a Sandy Creek High grad): “He’s explosive. He can get downhill once he gets the ball. You can tell in this offense, they’re going to find ways to get him the ball.”

Most likely, it was the last that we’ll see of Robinson before the season opener against Carolina on Sept. 10 in the same MBS. The Falcons play their third and final exhibition game against Pittsburgh on Thursday, but it figures to be staffed entirely by backups.

It’s always helpful to note that exhibition games don’t serve well as truth-finding missions. For instance, Smith wasn’t overly alarmed over his team drawing 13 penalties, including a contagion of pre-snap wiggles that resulted in seven false starts. You’d like for Ridder not to have thrown the interception deep in the red zone that ended the sole starter-operated drive, although a defensive pass-interference penalty would not have been out of place on the play. The first-string defense, which also was on the field for one series, was pushed back for 57 yards on 10 plays by Cincinnati’s second-string offense before it turned the ball over on downs.

How much concern does that merit? Please accept a quizzical shrug. In their second exhibition game last year, the Falcons also were called for 13 penalties, and then went on to commit the fewest penalties in the league in the regular season.

But, the rookie running back breaking tackles and making professional defenders miss, that looked like usable intel. That can be enough for the night.

 Falcons running back Bijan Robinson (7)is pushed out of bounce during the first half in a preseason exhibition game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Friday, August 18, 2023, in Atlanta.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

Falcons running back Bijan Robinson (7) brakes the defense as he runs the ball during the first half in a preseason exhibition game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Friday, August 18, 2023, in Atlanta. 
Miguel Martinez/

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

Falcons running back Bijan Robinson (7) is seen leaving the field after his team tied to 13 in a preseason exhibition game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Friday, August 18, 2023, in Atlanta.

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

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Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC