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What we learned from Falcons latest practice stretch, preseason game

Defensive pressure ramps up, though offensive showing raises red flags

Atlanta Falcons safety Jaylinn Hawkins #32 celebrates after making a sack during the Falcon’s pre-season game against the Tennessee Titans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia on Friday, August 13, 2021. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Atlanta Falcons)
Atlanta Falcons safety Jaylinn Hawkins #32 celebrates after making a sack during the Falcon’s pre-season game against the Tennessee Titans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia on Friday, August 13, 2021. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Atlanta Falcons)

Arthur Smith brought an appropriately measured, rational approach to the Falcons' 23-3 preseason loss to Tennessee on Friday night.

He made it clear several times during a postgame press conference that he didn't want to overreact to a disjointed performance where the offense especially struggled to do anything right.

"I don't want to overreact," could have several meanings in this instance.

The most obvious: "I don't want to overreact,"…before Smith had watched the film.

Another: "I don't want to overreact" … to a poor showing in the first preseason game

And another: "I don't want to overreact" … to anything positive after one preseason game.

Those amendments could have been combined or isolated depending on the context or content of the question being answered.


Smith didn't want to overreact to a lackluster showing before reviewing it in great detail. He didn't want to overreact to a singular performance in August where most every prominent player sat to preserve health. He didn't want to go too far praising a young player after a few good plays.

That's how we'll approach this review of the week that was, including three training camp practices and Friday's game. Let's do what we've done on recent off days in the Falcons camp schedule and take a look at what we learned during that stretch, as we head into a pivotal week featuring joint practices with Miami followed by a preseason game.

1. Defense looks lively

The Falcons defense got after the passer on Friday night. The unit had four sacks, seven quarterback hits and 13 total pressures, with help from all levels of the defense. That included an excellent takedown by safety Jaylinn Hawkins, who had a strong overall showing in the defensive backfield.

Defensive tackle Marlon Davidson’s performance was particularly encouraging considering the need for depth up front. He was good against the run and pass, routinely disrupting the pocket and plugging rush lanes.

Dean Pees is well known for bringing heat from all over, and that was evident even in a preseason game with relatively vanilla play calls. The Falcons were able to execute well in that area but must continue doing so as practice intensity rises against the Dolphins.

2. Offensive line has work to do

The Falcons have some issues to work out along the offensive front. That fact crystalized this week, when the Falcons tried something different with Willie Beavers took over at right tackle for Jalen Mayfield during practice. They're looking for someone to emerge there, though Kaleb McGary could take the reins over the upcoming stretch. The Falcons need a reliable swing tackle and some quality interior reserves. The group playing on Friday didn't inspire confidence in those regards. First-unit left guard Josh Andrews also struggled over 16 snaps on Friday, raising another red flag up front.

Panic not: there's time to work out kinks. Let's take Smith's advice and not overreact to the penalties and general miscues from one preseason game. Let's at least raise an eyebrow over a lackluster performance and keep close watch on that unit moving forward. They need to solidify the starting five and feel confident in the reserves behind them. We aren't at either point after the week that was.

3. Inside linebackers show depth

We all know this position group is a defensive strength. Deion Jones and Foye Oluokun make it so, especially with Mykal Walker's quality in reserve. That group might be deeper than originally thought, with the Dorian Etheridge flashing the way he did Friday night. The undrafted rookie had 13 tackles, including three for a loss. Smith was also impressed by Erroll Thompson and Emmanuel Ellerbee. All that said, don't forget that tempered preseason reactions goes both ways. Can't get too high on a guy. Can't get too low on them, either.

There should be a level of optimism associated with the level of linebacker play. That could lead to some tough roster choices down the line in that position group.

4. Falcons need better from backup QBs

This is the most obvious place to prematurely panic following Friday's performance. We're not falling into that trap, even after AJ McCarron and Feleipe Franks struggled throwing the ball against Tennessee. Their efforts haven't been top-notch in practice, either, but it's way too early in this process to make snap judgements.

We also must understand the offensive line didn't help either passer much, so it's tough to get a true gauge on them as individuals. Given the No. 2 spot is always a bad play away from being No. 1, coaches would sleep better having confidence in that spot. It has to be uneasy at best at this point. And while McCarron was the presumed backup and still could be during the regular season, this competition may be a bit more open than previously thought.

5. Falcons need help from McGary, Fowler

Edge rusher Dante Fowler and right tackle Kaleb McGary returned to action last week after missing the start of training camp, with both guys eased back into practice.

Solid play from both could ease concerns over their respective positions. The Falcons definitely need some stability that McGary can provide.

Fowler at his best brings the burst and explosiveness off the edge others in the position group can't match. Even if he ends up a sub-package pass rusher, Fowler can play an important role generating quarterback pressure.

Neither guy played on Friday night, though getting them fully back into the mix and playing to their talent level would upgrade both sides of the line of scrimmage.

Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and Tennessee Titans in the first preseason game of 2021.

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