If there is one absolute about NFL exhibition games, it’s that it never is a good idea to make blanket statements about how great or dreadful something or someone is.
The games don’t matter. More often than not, coaches don’t scheme. Players don’t care. Or maybe one guy cares but the guy who’s supposed to be guarding him is just trying to remember whether he Tivo’d “Shark Week.” And then sometimes, as was the case again Thursday night, NFL replacement officials who in their normal everyday life would be pointing you to the historical biographies section at Barnes and Noble, are so completely botching calls that it’s easy to miss that somebody made a great play.
(Example: The Falcons’ Jonathan Babineaux tackled Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton, but was given a personal foul for grabbing the facemask, even though Dalton’s facemask was nowhere near where Babineaux grabbed. I can’t figure out if this is better or worse than last week when the referee kept referencing “Arizona” on the microphone, either because he forgot where he was or he just hadn’t made his way through all of the “A” teams yet in his homework.)
Anyway, back to the Falcons. They played their second exhibition Thursday night against the Cincinnati Bengals. In short, they were just OK.
On defense, actually, they were less than OK.
More like, just, oh …
They lost again, this time 24-19. That really doesn’t mean anything. (Somewhat amusing stat: The Falcons have lost seven straight preseason games.) Maybe none of this will mean anything when they open the regular season in a few weeks in Kansas City. They can only hope.
It wasn’t just that A.J. Green (50-yard touchdown catch) shifted into fourth gear just as Asante Samuel popped a clutch. The Falcons showed some liabilities when the first-team defense was on the field against Cincinnati, and that’s a concern for a team that has been trying to improve its pass rush and third-down defense (and because they’re a team that has allowed 40, 48 and 24 points in consecutive playoff losses).
There was some good. The defensive front was able to pressure on Dalton. Peria Jerry and Babineaux in particular were strong inside. Jerry got called for a borderline roughing-the-passer penalty, throwing down Dalton when it probably wasn’t necessary. But the Falcons probably would take that mistake right now over not getting to the quarterback at all. (It’s easier to coach down than coach up.)
Defensive end Ray Edwards, who needs to have a strong season after a mediocre first season, fell short of impact again. He pressured Dalton but failed to wrap him up for a sack. (Dalton eventually scrambled out of bounds for no gain, and a sack was credited to Jerry.)
The Falcons also missed tackles. They were gashed for a running play by Cedric Peerman (who might’ve gone to the end zone if safety William Moore hadn’t punched out the ball for a fumble). But the biggest issue was the secondary.
Green is great. We know that. We watched him at Georgia and again last season, when he was the first rookie to earn a Pro Bowl trip since 2003. But he made the Falcons’ secondary look silly a few times. He got behind everybody late in the first quarter from the 36, but Dalton threw long and Green made the catch out of the end zone. In the second quarter, on third-and-15 from the 50, Green ran down the right side, made a slight move for an out pattern that Samuel didn’t bite on, but then just blew past the Falcons’ cornerback and cradled a rocket from Dalton for a touchdown.
There was a third play in which Green beat Samuel down the sideline, but Dalton’s pass was underthrown and Samuel was able to close and get a hand in for the breakup.
Samuel is known as a gambling cornerback, and sometimes that costs him. But Green’s touchdown wasn’t the result of gambling — it was merely getting scorched. It wasn’t great foreshadowing for the season considering he was easily the team’s biggest transaction this offseason.
In a few weeks, maybe this won’t matter. Maybe defensive coordinator Mike Nolan can tweak some things. Maybe Samuel gets better. Maybe Edwards gets better. Certainly, everybody will care more. But in Week 2 of the preseason, there was reason for concern.
By Jeff Schultz