The Atlanta Falcons wrapped up the preseason with a forgettable 24-0 shutout loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Thursday night, but there remain several valuable lessons to learn for Falcons coach Arthur Smith and staff.
Even with the Steelers playing their starters while the Falcons opted to roll out their second- and third-team units, the 60 minutes of evaluation gained was just about the final step towards trimming the roster from 90 players down to 53, which will take place around the league on Tuesday at 4 p.m. EST.
After the game, Smith “a lot of questions” about the final roster spots were determined with the performances he saw but noted there were a few guys who didn’t play that aren’t locks to make the team.
The list has to start with seventh-round rookie safety DeMarcco Hellams, who had five tackles by the end of the first quarter alone. He finished the preseason as Atlanta’s leading tackler with 18 and made interceptions in the first two games.
Hellams entered training camp working with the third team defense and was seemingly behind Micah Abernathy for the No. 4 safety spot – but after putting together one of the most impressive three-game stretches of any Falcon this preseason, the former Alabama standout certainly appears to be in good shape entering decision day.
Another rookie defensive back who’s had a good camp and preseason is Natrone Brooks, who signed with the Falcons after going undrafted out of Southern Mississippi.
Against Pittsburgh, Brooks made five tackles and deflected a pass, though he was on the receiving end of what Smith dubbed “an NFL play” by receiver George Pickens down the sideline. But regardless, it was a positive night for Brooks, who drew considerable praise from Smith postgame.
“He’s one of the more competitive players I’ve coached,” Smith said. “He’s got an instinct for the football. A guy like him, you want to see what it looks like against three guys of their starting receivers. You want to see him compete. Competitive, a lot of instinct.”
Wrapping up strong secondary showings is Breon Borders, who Smith saw firsthand with the Tennessee Titans in 2020 and has watched ascend throughout this fall, making 11 tackles while defending four passes.
Borders was suspended by the NFL for the first two games of the season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, which makes his roster situation unique, but he’s been a consistently impressive force throughout the past three games.
The middle of Atlanta’s defense features an intriguing battle to be the No. 5 linebacker between Andre Smith Jr. and Mike Jones Jr., as the top four of Kaden Elliss, Troy Andersen, Nate Landman and Tae Davis feels set.
Against Pittsburgh, both Smith Jr. and Jones Jr. made several plays, the former tying for the team lead in tackles with eight and chipping in a tackle for loss while the latter collected four tackles, one sack and a tackle for loss.
As things stand, Smith Jr. appears to be the favorite, bringing a proven NFL special teams background that Jones Jr. doesn’t … but it’s entirely possible the undrafted rookie out of LSU hangs around Atlanta in some capacity, with the practice squad being the most likely option.
Up front, Demone Harris was a wrecking ball for Atlanta’s defensive line, logging four tackles, two tackles for loss, four sacks and a quarterback hit. Harris was just signed by the Falcons less than 10 days ago but has certainly made a positive early impression.
Released by the Houston Texans in early August, the 27-year-old Harris brings five years of professional experience, having suited up in 14 games for the Texans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs … and with his showing against Pittsburgh, may have ensured he’ll receive a lengthy look in Atlanta at some point this season.
A few other names worth mentioning up front include Joe Gaziano and LaCale London, each of whom had three tackles and a tackle for loss. Gaziano has been a steady under the radar contributor this fall while London, a former XFL standout, is tied for the team lead with two tackles for loss this preseason.
Offensively, the star of the game was undrafted rookie receiver Keilahn Harris, who caught six passes for 71 yards, marking his first breakout showing of the preseason. Harris entered the game with just one catch for five yards, and while he’s likely not going to make the roster, he certainly helped his odds of being on Atlanta’s practice squad.
It’s a similar story for Mathew Sexton, a fourth-year pro who’s yet to make his regular season professional debut but has five receptions for 60 yards in his two games since signing with the Falcons and received the nod as starting kick returner against the Steelers, which only enhances his practice squad potential.
On the offensive line, center Ryan Neuzil and guard Kyle Hinton were pulled before the rest of the second team, which is an indication those two are in good shape heading into next week.
Similarly, Hinton has received a lot of praise from Smith, particularly of late, and with Hennessy out of the mix, appears to be the favorite to backup rookie left guard Matthew Bergeron.
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