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Falcons Matt Ryan, Julio Jones Look To Be In Regular-Season Form

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Vaughn McClure, ESPN Staff Writer

ATLANTA -- Matt Ryan and Julio Jones haven't missed a beat despite working in a new offense.

The Atlanta Falcons' quarterback-receiver combination worked to perfection during Friday night's 31-24 exhibition win over the Tennessee Titans. Ryan completed all four of his passes to Jones, including a 13-yard touchdown connection, as he completed 6-of-6 passes for 86 yards in one series of work. Jones had 61 receiving yards, including a 26-yard pickup.

"He's a beast and I'm lucky to call him a teammate," Ryan said of Jones. "Obviously he's one of the best players in the league, and he showed that again tonight."

One play in particular illustrated how Ryan and Jones might elevate their games to another level in coordinator Kyle Shanahan's offense. Ryan made a hard, play-action fake to running back Antone Smith then fired a pass over the middle to Jones on first-and-10 from the Titans' 30. The 16-yard play put the Falcons in the red zone and set up Ryan's touchdown toss to Jones.

Ryan to Jones for a touchdown should be a common theme throughout the season if teams neglect to give Jones added attention.

QB Depth Chart: Holding Steady? We already talked about Ryan, and he's going nowhere as the unquestioned starter. Behind him, T.J. Yates had his ups and downs in the first half and absorbed a sack. Yates' lone interception, however, appeared to be a result of miscommunication by rookie receiver Justin Hardy, who got an earful from receivers coach Terry Robiskie on the sideline. There were some bad snap exchanges between Yates and the centers, but Mike Person and Peter Konz were to blame. Sean Renfree spelled Yates and immediately guided the Falcons on a 16-play, 86-yard touchdown drive. He showed great poise in the pocket. Maybe Renfree will put a little heat on Yates as the preseason progresses.

Maybe That Dude Could Start: Not to go overboard here, but wide receiver Nick Williams did some good things with the second unit. He ran some nice routes and made solid adjustments on low throws. He caught three passes for 36 yards in the first half. One aspect that helps Williams' cause is his familiarity with the offense. He played in Washington when Shanahan was the Redskins' offensive coordinator. Williams did make one costly mistake, however, with an offensive pass interference penalty that essentially forced the Falcons to settle for a field goal.

Who Got Hurt? The last thing the Falcons needed was to see another running back go down. That's exactly what happened at the end of the first half when a hamstring injury knocked Antone Smith from the game. Smith suffered the injury after sprinting out wide right to score on a 1-yard touchdown run. The Falcons already are without their top two running backs -- Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman -- as a result of hamstring strains. Such injuries typically take two weeks to recover from, so it will be interesting to watch the Falcons' running back situation for next week's game against the New York Jets.

A Nobody Who Looks Amazing: The word "amazing" is a little strong, but give second-year outside linebacker Tyler Starr credit for showing up in a big way with the second-team defense. Starr had two tackles for losses and his technique was solid on both plays. He entered training camp as one of the guys on the roster bubble, so every rep counts for him. The coaches had to notice his effort Friday.

Rookie Watch: First-round draft pick Vic Beasley looked fast and physical in 10 defensive snaps. He started the game and rushed from both sides of the line, battling Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan one-on-one at times and taking on double teams too. Beasley put pressure on Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota that helped cause an interception. Second-round pick Jalen Collins, the cornerback from LSU, continued to struggle and gave up a 30-yard touchdown to Rico Richardson. Collins did, however, have a pass breakup that led to an interception by teammate Robenson Therezie. And fourth-round pick Justin Hardy, the receiver out of East Carolina, showed flashes of his great hands. But Hardy had the mistake on the Yates interception and also picked up a holding penalty on a run play.

When It Was Starters v. Starters, the Falcons Looked …: Both the first-unit offense and defense looked pretty strong, to be honest. As mentioned, Ryan and Jones were on point and the line held up OK with Jake Matthews, James Stone, Joe Hawley, Chris Chester and Ryan Schraeder making up the starting group. There were some missed blocks in the run game but there obviously are a few kinks to iron out in the outside zone blocking scheme. Defensively, turnovers on consecutive possessions with Justin Durant's interception and Paul Worrilow's 14-yard fumble return for a touchdown were exactly the results the revamped defense needed. Coach Dan Quinn has preached fast and physical from the start, so his players obviously are listening.

One Reason To Freak Out: Not to dwell too much on this, but Antone Smith's hamstring injury just emphasized how important it is for the Falcons to preserve their top running backs for the regular season. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Freeman, Coleman and Antone Smith rest the next few weeks as Terron Ward, Jerome Smith and Michael Ford get the work in the backfield. ... The injuries that kept top cornerback Desmond Trufant and dynamic return man Devin Hester from playing Friday will be worth monitoring. Trufant suffered a shoulder strain in practice this week, while Hester has been nagged by an ankle/toe injury. Both Trufant and Hester are key figures for the Falcons this season as they look to make significant turnarounds.

What's The Rush? Before the game, Titans outside linebacker Derrick Morgan told ESPN.com he really liked his free agent visit to Atlanta and strongly considered the Falcons. In the end, Morgan viewed returning to Tennessee as his best option after the Falcons offered a five-year contract. Morgan said the Falcons offered him the least amount of money of the teams pursuing him. He also visited Tampa Bay. Although the Falcons probably would have liked Morgan, they're thrilled to have Beasley as the go-to pass-rusher.

Digging Deep: A few bottom-of-the-roster guys who deserve mention for their play include running back Michael Ford, who had a touchdown run; receiver Marquez Clark, who had a couple of nice catches, and linebacker Derek Akunne, who just seemed to be around the ball.


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