The Falcons’ first dress rehearsal for the 2012 season was a near disaster.
After a stellar start by the first-teamers, the Falcons’ reserves couldn’t stop the Ravens or move the ball on offense. They coughed up 24 consecutive points as Baltimore blasted the Falcons 31-17 at the Georgia Dome on Thursday night.
In addition to taking the thumping, the Falcons suffered two potentially major injuries in their lightly attended exhibition opener.
The Falcons’ starters came out with a strong performance. The first-team offense featured second-year wide receiver Julio Jones and scored two touchdowns.
The first-team defense, playing new coordinator Mike Nolan’s marauding style, dominated the Ravens’ starters, won on third downs and put some thunderous hits on quarterback Joe Flacco.
“We got three three-and-outs in a row and that is something people might have questioned about us in the past,” linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. “That has definitely been an emphasis that we’ve been working on because that’s one of the things that’s been a thorn in our side. We’ll take the positive from that.”
Linebacker Mike Peterson said, “I think it was pretty good. Early on, the first unit played good. We had three three-and-outs. That was good but you know how it is in the preseason so you can always find something to get better at.”
On special teams, punt returner Dominique Franks had a dazzling 45-yard punt return.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, in an extensive exhibition-opener appearance, directed four series and played into the second quarter. Ryan was 9-of-13 passing for 155 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. He finished with a quarterback rating of 103.
Ryan and the offense opened in their no-huddle attack and marched down the field. After two carries by Michael Turner, Ryan went to work. He completed a 13-yard pass to Roddy White, followed by 26-yarder to Jones.
Then Ryan tossed a wide-receiver screen to Jones that gained 19 more yards. That play was the most important of the drive and was wildly received by the fans. New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has been charged with improving the team’s screen attack.
Three plays later Ryan found Jones in the end zone for a 7-yard touchdown.
“We moved the ball down the field pretty well,” Ryan said. “We were able to put the ball in the end zone and that’s what you want to do.”
The offense was stymied on its next two possessions before it got back on track.
On the Falcons’ fourth possession, Jones caught passes for 15 and 36 yards to help set up a 2-yard touchdown run by running back Jacquizz Rodgers that made the score 14-0. Jones finished with six catches for 109 yards
“It felt great,” Jones said. “We’ve been working during OTA’s plus the offseason; this is kind of my first offseason and OTA’s. But just being able to go out there and connect like that was a really good feeling.”
Flacco picked on the Falcons’ linebackers, who had trouble covering the Ravens’ running backs. He drove the Ravens for a touchdown, a 9-yard pass to tight end Ed Dickson that made the score 14-7.
Ryan was replaced by Chris Redman and then John Parker Wilson, who drove the Falcons into Matt Bryant’s field-goal range late in the second quarter. Bryant added a 31-yard field goal to make the score 17-7 at halftime.
The Ravens added two touchdowns in the third quarter and another in the fourth for the final margin.
The mood at the Georgia Dome turned dour when second-year man Akeem Dent, scheduled to replace Curtis Lofton at middle linebacker, left the game with a concussion with 9:38 left in the second quarter.
Also, rookie fullback Bradie Ewing, a fifth-round draft pick competing with Mike Cox to replace former Pro Bowler Ovie Mughelli, left the game with a severe knee injury. He left the field on golf cart.
Neither Dent nor Ewing returned to the game. Dent likely will head into the NFL’s concussion-protocol program and could miss valuable time, and Ewing, depending on the severity of the injury, could be lost for the season.
Smith said he had no regrets that Dent was playing on special teams.
In addition to Dent and Ewing, the Falcons also played without wide receiver Harry Douglas, who suffered a rib injury in the controlled practice with the Tennessee Titans in Dalton on Monday.
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–D. Orlando Ledbetter, The Atlanta Falcons beat blog