NFL exhibition games don’t count, which isn’t the same thing as not mattering. There are a handful of teams good enough not to sweat them. They don’t have much to figure out, and there are few holes to fill. No need to risk injury to their top players or worry much about subpar showings.
The Falcons aren’t one of those teams.
They’ve been a losing outfit for three years running. They were 4-12 in 2020. Their all-time great wide receiver is with the Titans now. Their head coach, Arthur Smith, has never done the job before. These exhibition games matter for the Falcons, and they’ve been bad in the two they’ve played.
Maybe they’ll be better when Smith finally plays his starters in the exhibition finale Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. This will be the public’s first look at Falcons regulars in a game under Smith. The Falcons can alleviate any anxiety among their supporters with a good showing against the Browns.
Their task became harder when Browns coach Kevin Stefanski announced he’ll play select starters. That’s a surprise because Stefanski, like Smith, has been conservative with his regulars. Unlike Smith, Stefanski is coaching one of those teams with not a lot to figure out. The Browns came close to making the past Super Bowl and might be better this season.
Stefanski said quarterback Baker Mayfield will play. He didn’t say which other starters will suit up, but no way Mayfield plays without the excellent first-team line protecting him. The Falcons could see Cleveland’s dynamic running duo Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Cleveland’s 2020 run was fueled by good offense. Good defense is a fading memory for the Falcons.
The Browns tried to fix their defense this offseason. They spent significant money on veteran free agents and used their top two draft picks on defenders. Pass rusher Myles Garrett and cornerback Denzel Ward, both Pro Bowl selections in 2020, are back.
The Falcons should learn more about their offensive line, one way or another. They still are trying to find the right combination, a process that’s been complicated by injuries. The Falcons need to identify which of their defensive backs can cover. Mayfield should help with that, even if Odell Beckham doesn’t play. Jarvis Landry might be the better receiver, anyway.
This is a chance for the Falcons to show us something before the games count. If their starters are sharp, no one will much care that Smith kept them mostly under wraps for exhibition games. Even better if the entire team plays well. It’s also possible the Falcons stink it up again, considering the opponent.
If so, they’ll go into Smith’s first season with no good efforts in live games. Lose the Sept. 12 opener at home to the Eagles, who’ve looked as awful in exhibitions as the Falcons, and Smith’s cautious approach with exhibitions will draw more scrutiny. Looking bad in games that don’t count is OK so long as you win the first one that does.
In their first two exhibition games, the Falcons had the ball for 17 full possessions. They scored three times, punted eight times and had as many drives end with interceptions (two) as touchdowns. Falcons opponents had the ball for 19 possessions and scored 10 times, including seven touchdowns. The Dolphins didn’t need the ball to score points: They tallied a safety.
Those poor showings by the Falcons can’t be dismissed easily. It’s not just about the starters in the NFL. The Falcons don’t have much proven, top-end talent. They can overachieve by developing a deep roster of competent players. There hasn’t been much evidence of that in exhibition games.
Yes, the Dolphins played a lot of their starters, and their defensive front showed some regular-season looks. It’s true that quarterback AJ McCarron’s poor play made it hard to evaluate the other skill positions. He wasn’t helped by shaky offensive line play. Those are mitigating circumstances for the Falcons.
But it’s not as if all the Falcons who’ve played in exhibition games so far will be cut when rosters are reduced by Tuesday. All of them won’t be inactive on real game days. Some of them will be key contributors when the season starts. A few will be in the starting lineup.
That’s how it goes in the NFL. Injuries happen. Some position groups rotate players. The Falcons enjoyed good injury luck last season and still had 38 players play at least 20% of the snaps from scrimmage (18 on offense, 20 on defense). They aren’t likely to be so fortunate with injuries this season, which has 17 games instead of 16.
The Falcons have one more exhibition game to figure out which of their backups to keep. Their starters will get one shot to work at game speed before the season opener. It would be worth something if their defense holds up against Cleveland’s bruising style. There would be value in Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan connecting with prized rookie pass-catcher Kyle Pitts.
It’s time for Arthur Smith’s Falcons to show us something.
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