PITTSBURGH, Pa. -- The Falcons came up on the short end of a close game for the second time this preseason, losing 17-13 to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.
Despite the loss, there was another good showing by the starting offense and a strong defensive performance for much of the afternoon.
"I thought, right off the bat, both sides really had intent mindsets - really ready to play," coach Dan Quinn said after the game. "You felt that kind of energy right from pregame, and to have two good first drives - we stalled at the second one and didn't get the score that we had hoped - but I was pleased to see, offensively, (us) move down the field. I felt the speed, defensively. Early on, especially."
Quinn said earlier this week that evaluations were the most important thing during the preseason, and he will have plenty of film to review after this one.
Here are the main takeaways from the Falcons' loss to the Steelers on Sunday.
Another fast start from first-team offense
Thus far, the transition from Kyle Shanahan to Steve Sarkisian hasn't slowed down the Falcons' starting offense. Neither have their two preseason opponents.
Starting on his own 9-yard line, Matt Ryan helped engineer a 10-play, 76-yard drive that resulted in a 5-yard touchdown run by Terron Ward.
Ryan was 4-of-6 for 57 on the opening drive, which came one week after the starting offense covered 36 yards in five plays on its first possession against the Miami Dolphins, scoring on a 15-yard reception by .
The longer drive provided new challenges for the Falcons' starters, but Ryan said it also offered some insights as well.
"I think we were more detailed than we were in Week 1," Ryan said. "There is a calmness in that huddle, especially getting into a longer drive. You kind of see where guys are at with conditioning and that kind of stuff. I thought the guys looked good."
Shanahan's departure to become the San Francisco 49ers' head coach was expected by many to lead to a drop-off in production for Atlanta's offense. It's still extremely early, and preseason concepts are simplistic to those used during the regular season, but the back-to-back fast starts are encouraging for Sarkisian and the Falcons.
Defense shuts down Pittsburgh in the first quarter
Atlanta's long scoring drive was sandwiched by two impressive defensive possessions. For the second-straight game, the Falcons' defense was the first unit on the field. And for the second-straight game, the result was the same.
Pittsburgh gained just five yards on its first possession, ending with a three-and-out. The Steelers' second drive was much of the same. Atlanta's defense yielded just seven yards and forced another punt.
"I'm happy with the speed," Quinn said of the early performance from his defense. "I felt that intent. We had a couple of good third-down stops. One I thought we got fortunate on - they dropped a pass, which may have been converted - but past that, I felt the energy; I felt the speed, the get-off. That's the things that I'm looking for, first."
It was truly a group effort for the Falcons' defenders. Keanu Neal, Vic Beasley, Robert Alford, Duke Riley, Brian Poole and Grady Jarrett all made stops for Atlanta in the first quarter.
The strong start carried on throughout the rest of the game for Atlanta. Chris Odom delivered the first sack of the preseason for the Falcons in the third quarter, and the Steelers did not score their first offensive touchdown until midway through the fourth quarter.
In total, the Steelers gained just 189 yards - 99 rushing and 90 passing - with a good portion of that amount coming in the fourth quarter.
McKinley makes his debut
The much-anticipated debut of first-round pick Takkarist McKinley came against the Steelers. McKinley has been recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, but he is progressing in practice and continues to learn from coach Quinn and the defensive coaching staff.
McKinley was officially credited with one quarterback hurry, but his presence in the game is really the biggest takeaway. Seeing the rookie pass-rusher on the field signifies that the coaching staff felt comfortable with his rehab and how he has performed in practice.
"He was very excited to get going," Quinn said of McKinley. "He played, on defense, a little bit of right end in our nickel package and a little bit on the punt-return game. For him, getting his first NFL action was exciting for him. ... He didn't get a lot of turns, or a lot of what we call 'opportunities,' but, man, it was good to have him out there."
This was just the first step in a long process of improvement and growth for McKinley, but it was an important one.
Struggles for the punt team
The first half ended with some trouble by the Falcons' punt team. With just eight seconds remaining, Matt Bosher's punt was blocked, and it was recovered by the Steelers as time expired in the first half.
On Atlanta's previous possession, Bosher was heavily pressured and run into after punting the ball. It was determined that a Steelers defender was pushed into the Falcons' punter, and the pressure caused the punt to net just 31 yards.
The hiccups continued into the second half. Pittsburgh punt returner Trey Williams broke free for a 64-yard touchdown late in the third quarter to give the Steelers their first touchdown of the afternoon.
Ward has another strong outing at running back
After leading the Falcons in rushing against the Dolphins, Terron Ward had another positive performance in Pittsburgh.
The third-year back capped off Atlanta's opening drive with a five-yard touchdown run, his second of the preseason. Ward once again led the team in rushing, gaining 37 yards on nine carries.
Following the game, Ward gave this assessment of his performance:
"I think I had some good plays, and I had some bad plays," He said. "I think there are things I need to work on. Overall, I think I started fast. That first quarter was a blur; I was on a lot of special teams and we had a few long offensive drives."
Ward is competing for the Falcons' third running back spot behind Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Rookie Brian Hill is considered to be the other primary contender for that role. Hill finished the game with 14 yards on seven carries.
To see all of the updates from Sunday's preseason game, you can check out our live stream archive below.