Two teams making major changes hooked up last night on South Beach. The Falcons, sporting a re-designed and up-tempo offense, squared up with a Dolphins team firmly in rebuilding mode and now officially under the leadership of a rookie signal caller. Both offenses have fundamentally changed since last season and with two strong defensive units on the field there is little surprise that big plays for the offenses were few and far between.
The first team offenses combined for only one touchdown and that one touchdown drive for the Falcons’ starters is tempered by the fact that it came against the Dolphins’ second-string defense. If Week 3 of preseason is when teams truly show their spots then these two offenses have a busy fortnight ahead of them before the start of the regular season. For Atlanta, things didn’t quite click as they have in the opening weeks of preseason against a strong defensive front. While for Miami, they proved once again they are lacking in offensive firepower to support their new quarterback.
This is the most important week of preseason action, so here are some take-away points for the Dolphins and Falcons.
Atlanta Falcons – Three Things of Note
1) Solid from Baker
When Will Svitek went down last week we opined on twitter it would hurt the Falcons’ new found focus on the passing game if Baker couldn’t raise his output and shake off the injury bug. While this game against Miami was far from an outstanding performance he didn’t give a great deal away as a pass protector, though he did struggle as a run blocker at the point of attack on the rare occasions the Falcons ran behind him. There is still a sense that Baker is on a knife edge though, as there were more than a handful of blocks that were a case of ‘nearly’ pressure, where you felt that he was just clinging onto the block rather than really controlling the opposing pass rusher. In a regular season game you feel as though Baker would have been given a far more thorough and consistent examination from Cameron Wake, but he was spared in this game.
2) Ryan Shows Control
The explosion wasn’t necessarily there in the offense in this game, but there were still signs of it with a 49-yard gain to Julio Jones on an adjustment that saw him work back underneath two defenders on a vertical route. Matt Ryan looked controlled even when the pocket broke and, whether Michael Turner or Jacquizz Rodgers was in the backfield, he looked to make good use of his backs in the passing game. There were elements of concern as well. His pick-six to Vontae Davis was called back for an obvious pass interference penalty, but that pass was never on and placing your possession of the football in the hands of any officials (let alone replacement officials) is distinctly ill-advised. There were also throws where the location was off and limited his receivers from making yardage after the catch. All things considered though the Falcons tempo looked good and Ryan’s willingness to use pump fakes and shoulder fakes in the pocket shows a confidence in his offensive line that he can make more use of White and, in particular, Jones on vertical routes.
3) More Needed from Dent
Taking over from Curtis Lofton at middle linebacker Akeem Dent is settling into Lofton’s old two-down role. If you compare the two middle linebackers in this role then, on this performance at least, Dent looks some way short of Lofton’s level of play. While Lofton looked to attack blockers and be physically assertive, Dent looked unable to shed blocks in the running game and got lost in traffic as well. He went largely untested in the passing game, but his inability to be a factor in the ground game is a little concerning as the Dolphins’ offensive line is far from a dominant one. He made one solid play, finding Reggie Bush in traffic for a short stop early on, but outside of that Dent was a non-factor. The Falcons will hope to see more from him in the regular season to help them forget about Lofton.
Miami Dolphins – Three Things of Note
1) Starks Strong in the Middle
In our preview of the Dolphins’ season we mentioned that the presence of Starks and Paul Soliai was a crucial one this season, and so Starks proved in this game. He was active in run defense and, while he didn’t make a decisive impact as a pass rusher, he did make a nuisance of himself against Peter Konz at right guard on a couple of pressures, including affecting Matt Ryan’s decision-making on one of his sacks, and stopping him from stepping up through the pocket. The Dolphins are clearly looking to keep him fresh for the season as he rotated drive by drive with Kheeston Randall. While in the game he made solid contributions and his tackle working off of Justin Blalock is the sort of contribution Miami needs consistently from Starks this year to replicate his form of 2011.
2) Support Lacking for Tannehill
A second preseason start for Ryan Tannehill and once again the supposedly ‘raw’ rookie looked far from out of his depth. He showed an ability to hit receivers to the outside and over the middle, and displayed the rare ability for a young quarterback to know how and when to come back to the middle of the field on a second or third read. There will be growing pains ahead for Tannehill when the real games start and the problem for him, for the Dolphins, and for their fans is that the support around him looks almost completely non-existent. Tannehill hooked up well with Davone Bess, Miami’s only real weapon of any quality, but support from the rest of his receiving corps was lacking. There were drops, there was an inability to fight through coverage and there were occasions where the receiving corps just looked clueless. Unless you are of a truly rare talent as a rookie you need help when you first break into the league, and right now Tannehill has next to none. He made mistakes himself, his interception–while a little unlucky–was forced, and another throw to a hitch route was also extremely poor. But unless Miami find someone to emerge as an outside receiver to give Tannehill a go-to guy, he will be in for a long rookie season. The fans, coaching staff and playing staff will need to be patient with Tannehill and the offense this season, because right now the passing game simply isn’t set up to succeed.
3) Smith Seals the Boundary
It was noticeable that the Falcons offense was targeting the side of the field away from Sean Smith, who had a relatively quiet night at left corner. Smith was only targeted once the entire game, although one other target would have come but for a batted pass, and on that play he broke on a slant by Roddy White to break up the pass. After some mighty struggles in 2011 and with former No. 1 corner Vontae Davis in the doghouse, Smith needs to step up and on the evidence of this game, he has. Smith was also active as a support player on defense, both in run defense–registering a pair of tackles, highlighted by a tackle for loss on a fourth-down stop–and making tackles in coverage when receivers got away from primary coverage. At his size, and with his athleticism, Smith has the potential to be a crucial player for the Miami defense if he continues to show form like this. That said, it would be nice to see him tested a little more so that we could get a more informed read on just how well he is playing in coverage. If teams continue to target Richard Marshall’s side of the field, Smith could be in for a relatively quiet season.
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