Two teams taking differing approaches to making the next step of getting much deeper into the playoffs than they did last year faced-off here; Atlanta, with changes at both offensive and defensive coordinator, hoping to feature a much more attacking and diverse offense under Dirk Koetter and a likely move to a hybrid defense with Mike Nolan.
Cincinnati, fresh from 2011’s unexpected resurgence led by then rookie signal caller Andy Dalton, are expecting to mature more naturally, by dint of further experience and a full training camp, to a more satisfying conclusion than last year’s Wild Card exit at the hands of the Texans.
As is our norm I watched until the starters were withdrawn which in this case meant about half way through the second quarter.
Atlanta Falcons – Three Things of Note
1) Attack, Attack
There’s little doubt, from what’s been unveiled in both preseason games to date, the Falcons intend to discard their “conservative” tag with utmost haste. It was never actually said on the day I was in camp, but it felt as if they were almost embarrassed by the conservative offense installed by Mike Mularkey (the run, run, pass and repeat game plans, the lack of deep attempts and paucity of screens) and hankered for the much more aggressive philosophy employed by division rivals, the Saints.
On their first four drives the Falcons ran only four times while passing 21 and consistently looked to stretch the defense down the field. Initially, substandard execution and some clever blitzes held them in check but on the last drive they were equally as potent as they showed early versus the Ravens last week.
On that possession a wide receiver screen to Roddy White got them moving, highlighted by a superb downfield block by Tyson Clabo on Terrence Newman. A crossing route from Michael Palmer for 20 yards followed, with a Ryan fake to the left leaving both linebackers (Thomas Howard and Vontaze Burfict) miles out of position. After slot corner Jeromy Miles diagnosed a quick pass to Harry Douglas well, making a tackle for a loss it was time once more to get Julio Jones in the game. Firstly a slant featuring two missed tackles (Nate Clements and Reggie Nelson) and then a 30 yard go, dropping tantalizingly just out of reach.
Three completions finished things off; 16 to White with Newman looking lost, 23 to Jones on a post despite decent coverage from Clements and a short lob to a falling Lousaka Polite.
Through it all Ryan looked calm, in complete control and most of all very accurate in his execution. This could indeed be the year he moves his play to the next level.
2) A Hybrid Affair
Atlanta began in a traditional 3-4 defense, played the very next play with the same personnel but lined up in a 4-3 and rotated between the two thereafter.
In the 3-4, Peria Jerry played the nose with Ray Edwards and Jonathan Babineaux flanking him. Stephen Nicholas joined John Abraham standing up at the line with Sean Weatherspoon and Mike Peterson filling the inside linebacker roles.
In 4-3, both tackles played over the guards and Abraham put his hand in the ground; Peterson played the Mike (a role likely to be filled by Akeem Dent when he returns from injury).
Jerry generally made life difficult for Kyle Cook picking up a hurry and, towards the end of the first quarter, getting outside his block to tackle Brian Leonard for no gain.
Another player showing his skills was Abraham. Going against a fine tackle in Andrew Whitworth he blew past him to pressure Dalton after three plays earlier getting inside him to stop Cedric Peerman for no gain.
While it’s probable these two players will flourish (and there was also a few flashes from Edwards too) the linebackers may well take longer to acclimatize. Donald Lee left Nicholas for dead on a seam route and both he and Peterson looked slow to fill in the running game.
3) Three into Two
The only thing about the corners that’s currently easy to define is what happens in nickel; here Dunta Robinson plays the slot, Brent Grimes plays RCB and Asante Samuel plays LCB. In base it’s in the air with all three players taking turns at the two roles. I’m not sure if this is just an open competition or the way that the Falcons intend to play once the real action starts.
The good news is, barring Samuel getting beaten badly by A.J. Green on the deep go route; all three played well, particularly Robinson. We’ve been notably harsh on Robinson over the last few years but this new role (and a little competition) may bring out the best in him. He was very aggressive closing down Andrew Hawkins and also defended a pass to Armon Binns with ease. Grimes was feisty as ever and until the Green debacle Samuel had been fine too, although one dubious tackle on Donald Lee showed certain things never change.
Cincinnati Bengals – Three Things of Note
1) The New Guard (s)
With Nate Livings and Bobbie Williams now in Dallas and Baltimore respectively it was all change at Guard for Cincy in 2012. Travelle Wharton seemed a sensible acquisition to fill in at left guard but an unfortunate injury last week sees him now out for the entire year.
Khaled gave his view of RG, Kevin Zeitler here after his game against the Jets and while I wasn’t left thinking my colleague had been harsh (sometimes you have to remind yourself players have good and bad days) I was more impressed. He spent the majority of his time in pass protection and didn’t give up anything major and got some movement in the running game on the few occasions he had an opportunity. He got good position and (wonder of wonders) a little vertical displacement on Jerry on one play and on another got quickly to the second level, locked on and pushed back Nicholas beyond the first down marker.
On the other side Clint Boling wasn’t as solid. Babineaux got outside him for late pressure and I saw nothing of note as a run blocker. That’s not to say he was dreadful by any means and this sort of performance is unlikely to lose many games
2) Beyond A.J. Green
There’s no question who Dalton’s main target will be this year and by season’s end A.J. Green will have been thrown a ton of balls particularly when he plays like he did today. Against a good, aggressive secondary he was targeted five times and only brought in two but one of those was for a 50 yard TD where he seemed to find an extra gear to blow past Samuel.
If for some reason he isn’t there, it appears that Jermaine Gresham may be ready to take the next step. I’ve always thought his talent, particularly as a blocker, was obvious but his consistency much less so. He was just starting to get things going as both a receiver and blocker when injury struck and he appeared to hyperextend his knee.
This left me looking for the next guy up and wondering just how bad things could get without Green. Armon Binns, a street free agent from last year started with waiver wire pick-ups Andrew Hawkins (from the Rams) and Brandon Tate (From New England) also seeing significant early reps. All this amounted to was a single six yard catch (for Tate) on three targets.
Dalton looks a mature and well rounded player, but he will need options beyond Green to stop the whole offense becoming totally predictable. Someone needs to step up but I saw nothing to suggest that player is currently on their roster.
3) Safety Last
Another area of weakness for Cincinnati could well be at safety. Reggie Nelson played pretty well last year and more of the same would be welcome. It looks likely that Taylor Mays will be his partner, but that he looks like the only legitimate option should be a cause for concern in itself.
As if to validate this rush to judgment both players flashed ability early but also gave warning of potential issues. Nelson closed quickly on Tony Gonzalez to help stop him short of a first down but was also in primary coverage on two first down throws as well as missing a tackle on Jones. Mays attacked fullback Mike Cox with such venom on the second offensive play he disrupted the whole run, knocking Cox to ground in the process but also had issues in coverage.
In general it always seemed like there was too big a gap behind the linebackers on passing plays and while this is probably a result of inexperience at MLB it also looked like the safeties had some measure of responsibility too. Quick pressure will help and that’s something the Bengals should be able to generate but I can see this being a cause for concern throughout the year.