As football fans know, game three of the preseason is commonly referred to as the final dress rehearsal for the regular season.
This is to say that of all four preseason games, game three provides the closest replication to what fans can expect to see in Week 1 and beyond.
Tonight’s third preseason game indeed provided both Falcons and Dolphins fans plenty of insight as to what the 2012 version of their respective squads might look like.
There were no real surprises regarding how both teams played in relation to their overall expectations for the upcoming season.
WHAT WE LEARNED
NOTABLE: One hallmark of the Falcons in recent seasons is their propensity to look like the next coming of the 1999 Greatest Show on Turf St Louis Rams at home, and then revert to the polar opposite on the road. There is no question that game plans must be adjusted based on various playing conditions.
But the major point of concern for those that follow Atlanta is that, while they have lightning-fast scoring ability in the friendly confines of the Georgia Dome, this simply does not translate once outdoors on the road in a hostile visiting environment. Tonight’s game at Miami would provide a legitimate litmus test to the latter, and for the most part, the Falcons overachieved in this regard.
Atlanta moved the football fairly easily most of the night, although continued to be dogged by the inability to put the ball across the goal line following a sustained drive. The running game was sluggish at best, but they continued the current trend of screen passing to set up mid to long range passes.
Quarterback Matt Ryan was efficient at certain times, flustered other times, and occasionally spectacular. His final stat line of 18/26 for 220 yards was fairly typical of what you would expect from Ryan. He still looks slightly robotic for the most part, and seems locked into a given receiver once the ball is snapped.
He did make two outstanding throws to his very talented tandem of wideouts. Towards the end of the first half, Atlanta found themselves starting from their own 11 yard line. Ryan played a little backyard ball, throwing one deep across the middle, seeming to grossly under-throw a double-covered Julio Jones.
Jones quickly broke away, drifted back under it, and hauled it in for a gain of 46 yards. This was very encouraging play to see for Falcons fans, who have been dwelling on the 2-point egg laid in MetLife Stadium when their season was ended by the New York Giants in last season’s playoffs.
The second throw of note was a well-positioned strike to Roddy White in the right corner of the end zone that White was able to snag for a score. While Ryan looked unsure and pedestrian at times, throws like this remind everyone that he has plenty of skills and vision, and only needs to get more consistent.
Regarding other areas that looked promising, it was the continued aggressive nature of the new-look Falcons’ defense. They hassled rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill all night long, and continued to show improved awareness to the football and were again hitting hard. Both of these traits are signature characteristics of new coordinator Mike Nolan.
Specifically, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon looks to benefit the most. His tracking of Tannehill in one first half play directly resulted in a tipped pass that ended up falling in to the hands of safety Thomas DeCoud for an interception.
Weatherspoon looks free to move at his discretion and will prove to be a force in both pass and run defense. Cornerback Asante Samuel may have been knocked out of the starting lineup, however he made several key hits and tackles tonight, and will be an important component regardless of whether or not he starts.
Once again, quarterback Dominique Davis impressed, throwing a very nicely lofted pass to rookie Tim Toone down the left sideline for a touchdown. Davis is making a major case for second-string as Chris Redman once again failed to excite.
NOTE OF CONCERN: The Falcons still only put 9 points on the board in the first half against what most consider one of the least talented teams in football. They drove the ball well, however were unable to make key plays on 3rd downs and consistently settled for field goals for 40 yards or more.
Fortunately, kicker Matt Bryant was perfect on all three field goals. While the Dolphins have a new identity and renewed hope for the future, the Falcons are expected to challenge for the NFC South title and beyond, and will need to convert more drives into touchdowns on the road before anyone will take them seriously as a Super Bowl contender.
NOTABLE: This past week, rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill accomplished something no other Dolphin QB ever had before. Tannehill was announced as the opening day starter as a rookie, something the likes of Bob Griese and Dan Marino cannot claim. Of course, many things have changed in the NFL since those guys played, most of all the heightened pressure to win as soon as possible.
Therefore, it is not unusual in today’s NFL for a highly-drafted QB to get the nod to start as a rookie. Tannehill actually played adequately tonight, and gave the fans of Miami plenty of hope for what the future holds.
He finished 11/27 for 112 yards, but for the most part looked poised. He also found several opportunities to use his mobility to shift around the pocket successfully and also broke off a few quality scrambles up the middle for first downs.
The running game looks to be in good form, both with Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas. Wide receiver Davone Bess could be a fantasy sleeper, hauling in four catches for 59 yards in one half of action. Newly signed defensive standout Cameron Wake looked to be in midseason form, registering 1.5 sacks in the first half.
NOTE OF CONCERN: The Dolphins are just a young football team with a young quarterback, and it is most clear during pressure plays requiring yardage gains needed to move the yardsticks. The offensive line was worn down by the middle of the third quarter, and the Falcons' experience on the defensive side continued to put pressure on and causing enough confusion to allow key plays to breakdown.
Tight end Anthony Fasono had a very rough night, dropping several key passes, including one at the goal line. Tannehill will need better performances from his veteran tight end if the Dolphins are going to have any shot at moving the football against talented defenses.
Finals score: Falcons 26, Dolphins 6
FINAL ANALYSIS: Atlanta was playing an inferior team tonight, and should have led more than 9-3 in the first half. The running game did not have the punch needed for a team that will look to grind things out on the road when the situation calls for it.
Julio Jones continues to look like one of the NFL’s most improved players, and he will clearly open up opportunities for Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez.
The Dolphins, while young, look re-energized and will likely play hard for new coach Joe Philbin all year. The timetable of the maturation of Tannehill will tell the story of quickly this team improves throughout the year.
INJURY ROUNDUP: No major injuries of concern tonight.