EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Let's remember one thing before we start passing judgment on Friday night's preseason opener: these 2018 Falcons are still very much a work in progress.
And while we're at it, let's put some added emphasis on the word 'preseason.' These games are all about evaluating the roster and coming out of them with the players' health intact.
The outcomes mean absolutely nothing. Need proof?
The Falcons were 0-4 in preseason play a year ago and ended up finishing 10-6 and advancing to the divisional round of the playoffs. And don't forget that in 2012, your Dirty Birds went 1-3 during the meaningless portion of the season and finished 13-3 when it mattered. That Falcons team advanced to the NFC title game.
OK, now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's talk about the penalty-marred 17-0 loss the Falcons suffered here at MetLife Stadium. Keep in mind that all opinions here are mine unless otherwise noted.
Let's get some of the indisputable facts out of the way first.
Sure, the scoreboard was a skosh lopsided but this was by no means a complete one-sided affair. Look at these seven team stats:
- Total yards: Falcons 254, Jets 253
- Total plays: Falcons 62, Jets 60
- Yards per play: Jets 4.2, Falcons 4.1
- Total drives: Falcons 11, Jets 10
- Turnovers: Falcons 1, Jets 1
- Punts (yards): Falcons 6 (267), Jets 6 (264)
- Time of possession: Jets 31:10, Falcons 28:50
On the flip side, these are seven more team stats where the Jets separated themselves:
- Red zone offense: Jets 2 of 2, Falcons 0 of 1
- Field goals: Jets 1 of 1, Falcons 0 of 1
- Third down: Jets 7 of 16, Falcons 5 of 15
- Fourth down: Jets 1 of 2, Falcons 1 of 3
- Interceptions thrown: Jets 0, Falcons 1
- Sacks registered: Jets 3, Falcons 1
- Touchdowns: Jets 2, Falcons 0
If you've paid any attention to coach Dan Quinn's press conferences during the offseason and training camp, a couple of those stats above probably hit you like a brick in the face: red zone offense and turnover ratio.
Think back to the eve of training camp when Quinn was asked about why the 2017 Falcons fell short of their ultimate goals.
"We finished in the minus in turnover ratio and that's hard to do and play really good football," Quinn said. "When you're in the minus or right around zero or one, man, you're as average as can be."
The Falcons finished the year at minus-2 in turnover ratio.
And back in January, Quinn noted that the Falcons dropped off significantly in red zone touchdown percentage, going from ninth in 2016 to 23rd in 2017. After scoring a league-high 540 points in 2016, the Falcons scored 353 points in 2017. Atlanta converted 50 percent of its red-zone chances after converting 61.9 percent last year.
So, on Friday night, those two not-so-great trends continued.
And, as you'd expect, Quinn said the Falcons have "a lot to work on" following the loss. "We could be better at the ball and going after it. Those were two of the things at the top of the list going into the game where I thought we missed our mark."
But not everything was off the mark against the Jets.
One player who repeatedly hit the mark – and several Jets players – was safety Damontae Kazee. The second-year safety was a tackling machine against New York, finishing with 11 total tackles, including nine solo.
For a little perspective on Kazee's night, the next closest player on the stat sheet – and there were eight different Falcons – had three tackles. Kazee was flying around out there and, at times, looked like he was shot out of a cannon as he flew up to the line of scrimmage to make tackles. Watch for yourself:
Kazee's performance is not a total surprise. When asked about him earlier in the week, Quinn said Kazee is among a group of players going from Year 1 to Year 2 "as whole new players" because "they've improved so much."
And Kazee wasn't the only one who will make the coaches feel a little better as they head into their second preseason game against the Chiefs this week. Here are a few others:
- Quarterback Kurt Benkert didn't finish the night with an eye-popping stat line, but the rookie out of Virginia came in and gave the Falcons offense a much-needed jolt – with his arm and legs. Benkert completed a couple long passes – one to Devin Gray for 30 yards and another to Dontez Byrd for 27 yards – before finishing the game completing 9 of 17 passes for 125 yards with one interception. He also ran the ball twice for 11 yards.
- The aforementioned Devin Gray. Some might consider the undrafted rookie out of Cincinnati a longshot to make the final 53-man roster, but if he keeps playing like he did against the Jets he'll make it a tough decision. Gray was targeted five times and hauled in four passes for 83 yards – that's 20.8 yards per catch. That's not bad, regardless of who the Jets were lining up on defense at that point
- Linebacker Jonathan Celestin, an undrafted rookie out of Minnesota who grew up in Jonesboro, Ga., had the Falcons' lone sack of the night. Celestin also had three solo tackles and quarterback hurry while on the field.
There were more, but I'll stop there.
I wouldn't want to be accused of overreacting to a meaningless loss.