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Camp Report: Catching up with Matthew Bergeron after first preseason start vs. Bengals

Plus more notes and observations from practice, including an update on the status of WRs Penny Hart and KhaDarel Hodge. 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- It may have been one snap in a preseason game, but Matthew Bergeron's first for the Falcons as the starting left guard meant a lot to him. He said when he was under the lights of Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Friday night, as the Cincinnati Bengals defensive line stood opposite him, he felt the weight of what that moment meant for him.

"Being from Canada, and I only had one offer out of high school, and just being able to play at this level, play at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which is one of the best stadiums in the NFL," Bergeron said. "... I think the experience, as a whole, was really special for me."

There were nerves -- of course -- as he got down in his stance, sandwiched between Drew Dalman at center and Jake Matthews at left tackle. He said he felt similar nerves when he got his first start for Syracuse not too long ago. That start was at tackle, and it was under the lights of Doak S. Campbell Stadium on the Florida State campus.

"It's the same stress -- same anxiety -- when you take that first snap," the Falcons second-round draft pick said. "My first snap in the NFL, I remember feeling that same thing when we were in Florida State. … But I got that feeling out of the way for the regular season so I can just play fast."

Despite the anxious jitters upon that first snap, Bergeron settled in, playing in two offensive drives Friday. The rest of the first-team offensive line only saw action in the first drive, but Bergeron got some more work in with the second-team on the next drive, too.

In all, Bergeron played in 23 offensive snaps at left guard in the Falcons' second preseason game. Those 23 snaps are important considering they are the only snaps Bergeron has ever taken at left guard in a game.

It's difficult to mimic the live feeling in the trenches of the NFL, so the more Bergeron can feel it in the preseason, the better for him as the expectation remains that he'll be the starting left guard for the Falcons when the regular season begins with Matt Hennessy on injured reserve. It's because of this fact Bergeron's development had to speed up. He knows that, too.

"I am trying to speed up the process because I got in the starting lineup and everything kind of fell fast," Bergeron said. "I am learning every day, learning from those guys (around me). Learning from Chris (Lindstrom), learning from coach (Dwayne Ledford). I feel like I've gotten better from Day 1 to now, and hopefully I can just keep growing."

Asked what he has improved upon the most throughout training camp, Bergeron said it has to do with his ability to process the game at a quicker pace, a usual response for rookies. Asked where he'd still like to improve, Bergeron fell back to the fundamentals, saying it's a daily process to break muscle memory of having played the tackle position up to this point in his career.

"You can see in my game that sometimes I tend to play a little higher," Bergeron said. "My hands tend to be a little higher, and that comes from playing tackle, playing outside. Sometimes I get happy feet, too, which comes from being a tackle for so long. But I am getting more and more used to it, and hopefully I am getting better as the days go on."

The Falcons have always had a plan for Bergeron, seeing as they moved up in the 2023 NFL Draft to acquire him. That plan may be moving at a new speed as Bergeron has transitioned into a starting role. However, it's because of that plan and the people around him that -- once the first-snap nerves settled -- Bergeron ultimately felt prepared to play in Friday's preseason game.

"I felt like I was prepared for that moment," Bergeron said. "Going up against Grady (Jarrett) and David (Onyemata), it's frustrating at times because sometimes you get beat, but when I lined up (Friday), I felt like I was prepared and I had confidence because of everything that I've been through in camp with those guys."


Notes, observations from practice

Roll call: A few injuries from Friday's tie with the Bengals will keep a couple wide receivers out of action this week. Penny Hart is in concussion protocol after colliding with the ground in the second half of the Falcons' second preseason game. KhaDarel Hodge -- who had a catch in the Falcons' first offensive drive -- is working through an ankle injury and will also miss practice this week, per head coach Arthur Smith.

Also not in attendance for Sunday's shells-only practice was DB Cornell Armstrong, who Smith said last week the Falcons were hoping to get back this week so they could see him in the final preseason game against the Steelers on Thursday. With two more full practices scheduled this week before a walk-through on Wednesday, Armstrong's status will be something to monitor. DE Calais Campbell did not practice Sunday as well, though it's safe to assume he was on a veteran rest day.

Also, as a reminder, RB Cordarrelle Patterson (soft tissue), DB Mike Hughes (soft tissue) and CB Jeff Okudah (ankle) will be out for the rest of the preseason but are expected to recover by the early weeks of the season.

Having fun again: The title of this section is not meant to imply TE Jonnu Smith did not have fun in his last two seasons with the Patriots. I am sure there are a lot of things he got out of his years in New England. The title is meant to imply it's obvious Smith is happy to be with the Falcons now. It's also obvious he is having fun in this scheme as he reunites with Arthur Smith, who coached him for four years at Tennessee.

In one of the 7-on-7 periods, Jonnu Smith made an acrobatic grab as he launched himself into the air to come down with a pass from QB Desmond Ridder. It was one of the best catches of the day and showed Smith's athletic ability in full. With so many skill players on this offense, perhaps it is easy to forget Smith is a part of this group, too. That one catch Sunday was a reason to not forget him.


A moment for the rotation: During the Falcons' 7-on-7 period, DeAngelo Malone actually got in on a few reps with the first-team defense. Malone was in coverage against the Falcons tight ends as the defense worked the look. DB Dee Alford subbed in for Malone a couple plays later, putting the defense in a nickel package. DB Clark Phillips III then subbed in for Alford.

This is noteworthy because it shows the Falcons continuing to workshop Malone and how they plan on using him in 2023. He has played a little bit of Sam this preseason, as well as his more traditional defensive end looks. He has dropped into coverage (like he did during this period Sunday), and he has worked his rush moves on the Falcons tackles. He's kind of a tweener right now, but that's OK. Figuring out how best to use him in this defense is what the preseason is for. Sunday's practice was yet another example of the Falcons coaching staff trying to do this.

Moving up the depth chart: You've heard a lot about DL Zach Harrison throughout training camp. I know, because I've written a lot about him. I am going to go out on a limb and say all of those wanderings and notes were warranted, though, as Harrison's opportunities along this defensive front grows. Harrison got some earlier work in with the first- and second-team Sunday. With the Falcons' ability to sub in different defensive packages, it has become normal to see Harrison lining up opposite DE Lorenzo Carter at times, DE Arnold Ebiketie at others, as well as DE Joe Gaziano, too.

Harrison is going to be an important part of this depth within the defensive-line rotation. It's a role he has grown into throughout training camp.


John FitzPatrick, situational asset: As Terrin Waack pointed out in our most recent Bubble Watch article, TE John FitzPatrick is someone to keep an eye on come the 53-man cut down date in nine days' time. He's building a case for himself, though, and he's doing it by becoming an asset in some key situational moments.

In the final minutes of the Falcons-Bengals tie on Friday, QB Logan Woodside found FitzPatrick in 1-on-1 coverage down the middle of the field. He connected with the tight end for a 25-yard gain that flipped the field. It was a catch that helped set the Falcons up for a game-tying field goal.

In Sunday's practice, FitzPatrick showed continued value in end-of-game situations. With two seconds on the clock, the offense needing a touchdown from only a couple yards outside the end zone, FitzPatrick began his route with QB Taylor Heinicke in the pocket. For Heinicke's part, he scrambled as the pocket collapsed around him. For FitzPatrick's part, he improvised as the play began breaking down. Running along the back of the end zone, mirroring Heinicke's scramble, FitzPatrick was able to get enough separation from the defender assigned to him. Sending the ball up over the receivers and defensive backs at the front of the end zone, Heinicke connected with FitzPatrick in the back of the end zone for a touchdown to end practice. Can't help but think this moment is indicative of the continued value of keeping FitzPatrick on the 53-man roster.

End-of-game, end-of-practice: You just read about the key moment for the offense in the Falcons' final period of Sunday's practice, so let's not forget the defense. They deserve their note as well.

The situation in the final period was as followed: 1:10 on the clock, the offense down 19-14 with two timeouts remaining. The drive started around the offense's 30-yard line.

The first-team defense got the best of the first-team offense, who was unable to get farther past the midfield mark. I thought the secondary did a nice job keeping the Falcons receivers in front of them. They didn't give a lot of space for Ridder to work with. The first-team defense won the period before the second-team came out.

Despite the FitzPatrick touchdown that ended the period, the second-team defense would have had a few splash plays that -- if live -- would have been key wins for the unit. DL LaCale London got a significant push upfront, which ultimately got him back in the pocket far enough and quick enough to have been a sack in a real game scenario. A few plays later, DL Kemoko Turay got a hand on a pass that ultimately fell incomplete. Harrison continued to create dirty pockets, too, when he rotated in.

Even with the defense giving up a touchdown to end the period (and the practice), there were a few moments in the drive that showed a disruptive defense.

Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the Cincinnati Bengals during Preseason Week 2.

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