ATLANTA -- For the first time this preseason, the Falcons played their would-be starters. Arthur Smith said throughout the week that, while fans would see the first-team offense and defense, how much or how little would depend on the flow of the game.
Well, in Friday night's 13-all tie with the Cincinnati Bengals, the majority of the Falcons first-team offense and defense saw only one series, with players like Grady Jarrett and David Onyemata only getting a few reps within that singular series. It's the preseason, though, so this should be the expectations for some of these starters. Still, fans in attendance got their first viewing of Bijan Robinson, as well as witnessing Kyle Pitts' return to Mercedes-Benz Stadium after a season-ending knee injury last year.
Regardless of how much they played, the starters did play. So, who stood out and what did we learn? Glad you asked. Let's take a look.
Yes, Ridder's first -- and only -- drive on Friday night ended in an interception in the red zone. But that's not what I want you to take away from that drive. The throw itself wasn't a terrible decision on Ridder's part, and was there early contact? Perhaps. Take it as an unfortunate end to a productive drive, though, not as a reason to lose all confidence in the young quarterback. That's an overreaction, and we're not going to do that.
Look at the drive in its entirety: 16 plays, 78 total yards, spanning the majority of the first quarter, Ridder going 7-for-9 through the air with a key scramble to pick up the first down in the red zone. Ridder showed obvious command of the offense and an ability to take what the defense was giving him. He used almost every weapon in his offensive arsenal, getting the ball to Pitts, Drake London, Mack Hollins (twice) and KhaDarel Hodge. He also took some chances. Case in point: The third-and-long, 50/50 ball he threw up for London, who came down with the 21-yard grab.
Are there things to clean up? Yes. Ridder had a few passes that needed a little more zip to them. He needed to lead his receivers a little better with his throws at times, too. But these are things that can be remedied with a bit more work in timing. The good news for the Falcons is that there's plenty of work left to do in the preseason.
And when you think about Ridder's performance on Friday, don't overlook the drive because of the way it ended. If it's the regular season, this conversation is different. But we're two weeks into the preseason. It's OK to say this ... for now.
Robinson was as advertised on Friday night. His very first carry -- which ended in a first-down pick-up and 12 yards -- was the epitome of why the Falcons drafted him with the No. 8 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. Seeing a hole, he bounced through, only to pick up an extra few yards with an elusive move to juke out a Bengals defender. It was a moment that got the crowd at Mercedes-Benz Stadium excited.
Robinson finished the drive with four carries for 20 yards with an average of five yards per carry. And that was all Smith wrote for Robinson on Friday night.
Would it have been nice to see a little more of Robinson, especially in the red zone? Sure. But as I said in our article on Friday morning, the expectation for Robinson was to actually just see a glimpse of him, not the full picture and scale of who he is and what Smith plans to do with him. You better believe Smith is saving a lot that Robinson play calling for Week 1 and beyond.
What we did see of Robinson was continued evidence that he can do things as a runner that not a lot of people can do. If anything, this glimpse should only excite Falcons fans for what's to come with Robinson in this offense.
The Falcons second-round pick got his first taste of live-game reps at left guard on Friday. After not playing in the Falcons first preseason game, we finally got a glimpse of the young lineman working at a new position.
Matt Hennessy was on schedule to be the starting left guard come Week 1 of the season, but a knee injury in the first week of training camp accelerated Bergeron's development. Hennessy is now on injured reserve, and the starting left guard spot is Bergeron's for the taking. He has been sandwiched between Drew Dalman and Jake Matthews since Hennessy's injury, but Friday was the first time Bergeron could really experience a live scenario in the trenches. He seemed to hold his own. Ridder didn't have very many dirty pockets, and as a collective unit the offense line produced a few holes for someone like Robinson.
While the rest of the Falcons starting offensive line only got one series, the Falcons coaches kept Bergeron in for another series with the second team. The additional reps were likely good for someone like Bergeron, who up until Friday night had never played inside at guard in a game before. Those reps matter for him.
In conclusion, I will add that I'll need to go back and watch the tape to really zero in on Bergeron, but upon initial viewing it didn't seem that there were many glaring issues in regard to Bergeron. We'll keep an eye on his development, though.
Josh Ali | J.J. Arcega-Whitesive
The Falcons don't have very many receiver spots available on the 53-man roster. You're talking one, maybe two, spots that a group of four players are fighting for. In my mind, those four players are Ali, Arcega-Whitesive, Penny Hart and Zay Malone. Frank Darby would have been on this list, too, had he not suffered a soft-tissue injury against Miami last week, landing on injured reserve this week.
Of this group of four, Ali was someone who caught the eye in the first half on Friday. Ali actually got a couple reps in with the first-team offense and Ridder, which was a little bit of a surprise considering how deep the Falcons skill group is right now. But perhaps this means good news for someone like Ali come a 53-man roster cut down.
Ali ended up staying in when the other first-team players subbed out in the second quarter, and that's when he really shined. With Taylor Heinicke as his quarterback for a couple drives, Ali had two catches for 26 yards, the big one coming on a 21-yard grab to flip the field for the Falcons to start one of their final drives of the first half. Ali continued to work with Heinicke into the third quarter, and he finished the game with 39 receiving yards. With a lot of reps on Friday, Ali is building his case to be a part of this Falcons wide receiver corp come Aug. 29. But so is someone like Arcega-Whiteside, who had an equally noteworthy evening with 39 receiving yards, too.
Arcega-Whiteside is a different body type than a lot of receivers vying for a roster spot in the WR room. He's bigger, bulkier and has some heftiness to him that wouldn't be uncommon in a tight end (a position the Eagles tried to convert him to in 2022). Also working with Heinicke for much of the night, Arcega-Whiteside finished the game with two catches for 39 yards and a near touchdown that was called just short of the end zone upon review.
The Falcons have a lot of decisions to make regarding who makes this 53-man roster. Players like Ali and Arcega-Whiteside (and their individual performances on Friday night) make cuts difficult.
This is less about Ebiketie standing out, per se, and more about the fact that he's playing quite a bit in the preseason. If I am being honest, I didn't expect to see him as much as we have. But here we are, having seen Ebiketie lining up for a rush in the fourth quarter of the first two Falcons preseason games.
Ebiketie played in 38% of the defensive snaps against Miami last Friday night, and 50% of the special-teams snaps. Without seeing the snap-count percentages of the Falcons' Friday night game, it felt like Ebiketie continued to be used within a similar snap count. It's interesting because Ebiketie is someone who holds the expectation to be a heavy part of the starting rotation come the regular season, and yet, he has spent more time on the field in the preseason than many of the other could-be starters.
Perhaps the Falcons are workshopping things with Ebiketie this preseason, asking him to work on specific rush moves to prepare for Week 1. The best way to do that is against an opposing tackle in a live-game scenario. Whatever the case may be, it'll be interesting to see how Ebiketie continues to progress as a pass rusher in his second year with the Falcons.
Hellams continued to show up for the Falcons on Friday, making a case for himself yet again that maybe he should be on this 53-man roster despite being in a full safety room.
After playing the most snaps out of any defender last Friday in Miami, Hellams got significantly less playing time this Friday against the Bengals. But he made the most of the opportunities he had. Hellams continued to show a knack for open-field tackling, and he earned himself another preseason pick. Last week, Hellams got his hands on a tipped ball in the end zone. This week, he jumped a route to give the offense good field position in the fourth quarter.
Hellams continues to make plays in the preseason, making him hard to miss when the Falcons suit up.
Call for questions
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Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the Cincinnati Bengals during Preseason Week 2.