Without preseason games the Falcons are relying on intra-squad scrimmages to get them prepared for the season, and they held their first one on Thursday, the third day of AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp.
After splitting into their usual position units for the first half of practice, the Falcons' offensive and defensive units gathered on opposite sidelines for the scrimmage. Starters competed against starters, while the second- and third-strings groups were mixed in to compete against one another.
Overall, it was a strong showing for the defense. The starting defense did not give up any points and only ceded a handful of big plays – most of them coming courtesy of Julio Jones. The second- and third-team defense only gave up one big run that resulted in the only touchdown scored by either team.
For fans hoping that Atlanta's defense takes a step forward in 2020, and it will need to if the Falcons are to be serious playoff contenders, Thursday's scrimmage was a great start.
That's why turnovers are so important
Dan Quinn has always stressed the importance of having a defense that forces turnovers, and Thursday's scrimmage illustrated exactly why he feels that way.
During the final moments of the scrimmage, both defensive units forced turnovers to get off the field. Each offensive group gained possession in its own territory with just over one minute left in the first half and only one timeout. The starting group began marching downfield thanks to some precise passes from Matt Ryan, but their drive came to an end near the red zone after Calvin Ridley lost control of the ball while trying to cut upfield on a screen pass. Foye Oluokun was there to scoop up the loose ball, ending the threat and getting the defense off the field.
The second-team offense began in the same situation, but they couldn't manufacture much of a drive thanks to good play by the secondary. That strong defensive effort culminated in a tipped pass by Blidi Wreh-Wilson that rookie linebacker Mykal Walker intercepted. Walker has shown a knack for getting his hands on the ball thus far in camp, securing at least three interceptions.
In both two-minute-drill scenarios the defense not only prevented a touchdown, it prevented any points and gained possession back for Atlanta to potentially strike before the half. If those moments translate to the regular season, the Falcons will be in good shape.
Matt Hennessy gets run with the first-team offense
Perhaps the most notable observation for today's scrimmage was that rookie Matt Hennessy was playing left guard with the first-team offense. Previously, Hennessy had been working mostly with the second-team offense in practice while James Carpenter and Matt Gono were splitting reps with the starters.
While out there with the starters, Hennessy performed well. He held his own against players like Allen Bailey and Tyeler Davison, and the running backs had some big plays while running behind Hennessy.
As for Carpenter and Gono, they were both working with the second-team offense for much of the scrimmage – Carpenter playing left guard and Gono playing left tackle. It's worth noting, however, that Carpenter was with the first-team offense during the two-minute drill, while Hennessy was next to Gono with the second-team offense.
Big day for Brian Hill
Although it was the defense that shined during the scrimmage, Brian Hill was a notable standout on offense. He single-handedly led the second-team offense during their lone scoring drive, carrying the ball three straight times, including a goal-line touchdown run.
"I would say Brian came back in fantastic shape," Quinn said Thursday. "He is 100 percent a guy on a mission. You see his speed at practice, his ability to catch has certainly improved."
Hill bounced his first carry of the drive out to the left end of the offensive line and broke contain, racing down the sideline for a huge pickup. This run alone put the offense inside the 10-yard line, and his next carry took them down to the 1-yard line. From there, he punched the ball in, showcasing his vision and power.
The Falcons have a lot of depth at running back entering the fall, and players like Hill, Ito Smith and Qadree Ollison should each have roles on this offense. Hill has shown the ability in the past to break off some big runs, and Thursday was a reminder of how that can change a game.
More camp observations
Isaiah Oliver continues to perform well and was step-for-step down the left sideline with Calvin Ridley before breaking up a pass early in the scrimmage.
Younghoe Koo made his lone extra-point attempt during the scrimmage, but he missed a 48-yard field goal, his one field-goal attempt of the afternoon.
John Cominsky continues to show improvement as a run defender and was rotating in with the first-team defense at times during the scrimmage.
Kurt Benkert was mostly given some short throws on rollouts during the scrimmage, but he made a couple of downfield throws on the run after avoiding some pressure in the pocket.
The Falcons like the versatility and talent in their safety group.
Julio Jones doesn't show any signs of slowing down, and he was the most effective offensive player for either side on Thursday.
The Falcons had coaches standing in as refs during the scrimmage, and there were a lot of penalty flags thrown. Of course, now is the time for all of that to get corrected.
Quinn has said he wants the team to run more outside-zone plays and marry that to their play-action passing game, and that approach was on display a lot in the scrimmage.