While the ending to their seasons were the same, the feeling heading into the offseason was starkly different. The Falcons exited the playoffs without a win for the third year in a row, and the collateral damage resulted in the dismissal of both offensive and defensive coordinators.
Dirk Koetter, formerly of Jacksonville, was brought in to overhaul the offense, while the much traveled and respected Mike Nolan was installed to revamp the defense. The foray into 2012 brings increased expectations and the overall feeling the team must finally surpass the first round of the playoffs.
For the Bengals, last year’s playoff run capped the most surprising season of any 2011 NFL team. Led by the rookie tandem of quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver AJ Green, the Bengals overachieved throughout the season, and the ensuing playoff appearance left the entire organization nothing less then euphoric about the future ahead.
Subplots included the matchup of two former outstanding Southeastern Conference wide receivers. Green, formerly of Georgia, looked to out-duel former Alabama standout Julio Jones. Green had the more productive rookie season; however, Jones’ potential is what has Falcons’ fans so excited in 2012.
WHAT WE LEARNED
NOTABLE: Former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey took a fair amount of criticism towards the end of his run for his offensive attack lacking spice and creativity.
Koetter was tasked to get the most out of quarterback Matt Ryan and super-talented wide receiver Jones. So far, mission accomplished. Ryan was sharp, to say the least, beginning the game a perfect 11 for 11.
Falcons' fans were delighted to see the Falcons finally utilize the screen pass, a play basically absent from Mularkey’s playbook. Ryan utilized the screen to draw the defense forward, which opened up several mid-range slants to Jones and Roddy White, as well as tight end Tony Gonzalez.
Ryan employed the dump off pass to perfection when he lobbed one to recently signed fullback Lusaka Polite at the goal line. Polite’s ensuing lunge was called a touchdown, although replay showed he may not have made it across. The play stood, however.
Both running backs, Michael Turner and Jaquizz Rodgers, caught screens, which allowed the highly athletic wide receivers to find space down field.
Ryan finished with a stat line that would make fantasy football owners drool: 18/21 for 174 yards, 1 TD and no interceptions.
Both White and Jones went for over 40 yards in under one half of action. While it is just the preseason, the Falcons new offense appears to be clicking on every cylinder and primed for a high yardage output this season.
BACKUPS ALERT: At QB, 2nd stringer Chris Redman may be set in the role, but former East Carolina stand out Dominique Davis looked solid. Davis did all he could do in the waning minutes of action, going 11/18 for 121 yards and a TD, looking fairly poised in the process.
NOTE OF CONCERN: One big free agent acquisition had a moment to forget. Cornerback Asante Samuels, brought in from Philadelphia to help shore up the defensive backfield, was rudely beaten by A.J. Green on a stop and go pattern down the right side line. Samuels appeared ready to jump a hook pattern, and Green flew by quickly, catching a well-positioned Dalton pass for a 50-yard TD. However, overall the Falcons defense was aggressive and swarming all night long, with the Green pass the only big play surrendered.
NOTABLE: Andy Dalton looks nothing like a 2nd year quarterback. At 6-2 and 220 lbs, Dalton has the size needed, but the most impressive part of his game lies on the mental side.
Dalton continuously made smart, quick decisions both with his arm and legs, and the long pass to Green showcased increased arm strength.
Dalton finished 8-14 for 125 yards, with 1 TD and no picks.
BACKUPS ALERT: Journeyman QB Bruce Gradkowski looked a lot like Bruce Gradkowski, not flashy, but mostly steady, and looks capable of holding the fort down should anything happen to Dalton.
NOTE OF CONCERN: The Bengals brought in CB Terrance Newman from Dallas to help in the secondary. Newman was fairly unproductive on the night, looking a step slow and committing a few untimely penalties in the process. Ryan essentially had his way in the passing game, and if the Bengals plan on making any noise in the highly competitive AFC North, the pass defense will need to look much more stout than it did tonight.
The Bengals were without the services of free agent signee RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, aptly nicknamed ‘The Law Firm’ . Green-Ellis, while a solid interior power runner, is also known for the unique fact that he has not fumbled in four seasons. With second stringer Bernard Scott also out, the Bengals used both Brian Leonard and Cedric Peerman. Both Leonard and Peerman coughed up the football, with Leonard’s drop erasing a drive-extending personal foul by Peria Jerry of Atlanta.
Finals score: Bengals 24, Falcons 19
INJURY ROUNDUP: Bengals' starting tight end Jermaine Gresham tweaked his knee lunging for extra yards in the 1st quarter. Gresham did not return, however was seen walking around the sidelines during the remainder of the action.
FINAL ANALYSIS: Both teams have plenty of potential offensively and will likely put up their share of yards and points.
Each team worked on plays they plan to use throughout the season to put points on the board.
Atlanta looks to make wide use of the screen, both via slip screen to the backs and the slot screen to the wideouts. With these new options in place, Atlanta will be able to showcase even more the wealth of offensive skill talent they possess.
The Bengals clearly want to use the run to set up a long range connection between Dalton and Green. Any defense they face with a weakness in the safety position will be highly vulnerable to this attack.
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