This season has certainly not gone the way the Falcons (4-9) had hoped, but that could actually provide the chance for something positive moving forward.
While there isn’t a full-blown youth movement going on in Atlanta, the Falcons’ current situation has allowed them to begin evaluating some of the younger players who could be a part of the future. There are already a number of young guys like Calvin Ridley and Foye Oluokun who have become impact players for Atlanta, so they won’t be discussed here, but several guys saw increased action last weekend against the Packers.
Here's what we saw from some of the players who could be a part of the Falcons’ future.
Running back Brian Hill
The Falcons seem to have an interesting idea in mind for what role Brian Hill could fill. Their former fifth-round draft pick has played in six games this season, but he saw his most action on offense against the Packers. Against Green Bay, Atlanta deployed Hill in three different ways: As a running back, fullback and wide receiver.
The most notable usage for Hill was at fullback. Starting fullback Ricky Ortiz has rotated between active and inactive status for the Falcons this season, and he was inactive for the Packers game. Hill has been working at both halfback and fullback this year in practice, and Atlanta now wants to see how he will fare in games.
“We tried Hill at fullback and halfback,” Quinn said. “We thought due to his size, it could be a role that he could have. He's been a good special teams player when we've had him up. So we thought it might be a chance to try to go special teams player and third halfback, and some fullback reps. So that's kind of how we utilized him in the game.”
Hill carried the ball just one time for 5 yards, and he ran a few routes but was not targeted by Matt Ryan. There are two plays worth pointing out, however. On the first play, Hill worked at fullback in front of Tevin Coleman, who got 2 yards on the carry.
Atlanta ran an inside-zone play that appears meant to have hit on the backside C gap, which is the hole Hill ran through. Instead of going up to the second level as a true lead blocker, though, Hill helped left tackle Ty Sambrailo block his man before trying to reach the linebacker. Hill didn’t seem decisive in his movements.
The second play is one in which Hill stepped up to take on an oncoming blitzer and allowed Ryan to get the ball out in time. He got run over on the play, but the effort potentially saved a sack.
This game was a mixed outing for Hill on offense, but these reps will be important for him. If the Falcons continue to use him over the final three games, they will certainly look for consistent improvement heading into the offseason.
Cornerback Isaiah Oliver
Atlanta has used Isaiah Oliver as a situational and rotational corner plenty this year, but the Falcons threw him into a couple of different looks on Sunday.
“We put him outside, we put him inside on the tight end,” Quinn said. “So we put him somewhere between 20 and 25 plays I think was the goal heading in. Maybe it was 21, 22 something in that space.”
Oliver played 19 plays on defense against the Packers, and he was targeted early by Aaron Rodgers. His first moment in the game came early in the second quarter when he replaced Robert Alford at right cornerback. Oliver passed his first test, showcasing his length to knock the ball away from Davante Adams.
A few plays later, however, Oliver was beaten fairly easily by Adams for a 22-yard gain. Oliver was in press coverage against Adams, but he couldn’t get his hands on the receiver and was left flat-footed and in a trailing position.
“For him, the work is mostly at the line of scrimmage,” Quinn said. “Just challenge him to stay down. If you're in the corner, stay down as long as you can … But now that he is staying at the line of scrimmage and been challenged, it has been excellent for him to have some of this on-the-job training at corner. So we'll continue to do that. Yeah, he's somebody that we definitely are excited about.”
Oliver has the skills and the demeaner to be a quality NFL cornerback. Now, he’s working on refining his technique and showcasing that technique consistently. He should get plenty of opportunity to do that over the coming weeks.
Offensive tackle Ty Sambrailo
Ty Sambrailo isn’t a young guy, per se, but the 2015 second-round pick is someone who the team will be watching closely the rest of the year. Sambrailo made his first start of the season against the Packers, replacing right tackle Ryan Schraeder in the lineup.
With Sambrailo in the mix, the Falcons ran for more than 100 yards for just the third time this season and allowed only two sacks, although one sack came as the result of Ryan losing control of the football not from a defender hitting him.
“I thought overall not just with Ty, but offensively more space in the run game,” Quinn said. “Protection was better, and then as it went to Ty, I felt his quickness off the ball. So I thought for him, he had a good performance.”
Sambrailo was involved on the one true sack for the Packers, as Clay Matthews and Kenny Clark ran a stunt against the right side of the Falcons’ offensive line.
Right guard Zane Beadles was playing in only his second game since joining the Falcons, so the communication breakdown is understandable but it’s still something you don’t like to see.
For the most part, however, Sambrailo fared well as both a run blocker and a pass protector. The Falcons are likely to take a hard look at their offensive line this offseason, and it would help if they saw some more plays from Sambrailo like this:
Tight end Eric Saubert
Eric Saubert has seen time at tight end in most games this season, but he received vastly more playing time against the Packers than in any other game. That may have been due to Logan Paulsen missing the game due to injury, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the Falcons to give their second-year tight end an extended look.
Saubert has been one of the standouts of the past two training camps, and he is a very capable receiver at the tight end position. The Falcons’ fifth-round pick in 2017 caught two passes for 15 yards against the Packers, but he is an intriguing option for this offense.
Of course, while the 6-foot-5, 253-pound Saubert is an athletic receiving tight end, he’s not a true asset as a blocker. That’s not to say Saubert can’t block defenders, but there will be some moments like this on film:
With Austin Hooper’s status up in the air for Sunday after he suffered a knee injury against the Packers, Saubert may be in line for his biggest role yet on this offense. He has shown the potential to be an exciting player for the Falcons, and he may get a good chance to prove what he can do over these final three games.
Running back Ito Smith
Falcons fans are pretty familiar with Ito Smith at this point, as he has been Atlanta’s No. 2 back for much of the season. Against the Packers, Smith provided a good look at what he brings to the table for the Falcons moving forward.
Smith was a decisive runner who showed how well he can put his foot in the ground and make defenders miss in a tight space, the same quality that has made Devonta Freeman so effective for the Falcons.
The leading rusher for Atlanta against Green Bay, Smith carried the ball 11 times for 60 yards while also catching three passes for 14 yards. It’s no secret that Tevin Coleman’s contract is up after this season. And while Quinn said there “for sure” is a possibility he returns to Atlanta, nothing is guaranteed.
Smith has gotten plenty of reps this season, which should bode well for the future, and he has the chance to finish the year strong.