The Long Night is over.
On Thursday night, the NFL finally made its return with a real football game -- a preseason game, but still, we'll take what we can get -- with the 2019 Hall of Fame game between the Broncos and Falcons. In a defensive struggle, the Broncos clipped the Falcons with a 14-10 win.
It might be the preseason, but the game didn't lack end-of-game drama. The Broncos scored the game-winning touchdown with just under 90 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, with Brett Rypien's pass somehow landing in Juwann Winfree's arms after the ball.
Welcome back, football:
That's one way to start the preseason. What a grab!pic.twitter.com/PYmi1FLWhP— SNF on NBC (@SNFonNBC) August 2, 2019
Juwann Winfree with the toe drag swag for the incredible TD catch 😤😤😤 pic.twitter.com/mDveV9knyR— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) August 2, 2019
But as is the case with every preseason game -- remember, the 2017 Browns went 4-0 in the preseason before going 0-16 in the regular season -- the final result matters far less than the individual performances throughout the affair.
It was a game that featured the debut of notable rookies like Broncos quarterback Drew Lock, Broncos tight end Noah Fant, Broncos guard Dalton Risner, and Falcons guard Chris Lindstrom. It was not a game that featured starters like Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Joe Flacco, Phillip Lindsay, Royce Freeman, and so on. Matt Schaub -- yes, he's still around -- got the start at quarterback for the Falcons before Kurt Benkert replaced and outshined him, while Kevin Hogan got things going for the Broncos before it was Lock's turn under center. The first touchdown of the 2019 preseason belonged to Cal product and backup Broncos running back Khalfani Muhammad (as a Cal grad, I'm required to mention that).
With all that in mind, let's take a look at the players who made impressions during the first preseason game of the year, which also happens to mark the beginning of the final phase of the offseason. As a general disclaimer that is relevant for not only this game, but for the entire preseason, it's best not to overreact to anything that happens in the preseason -- whether it pertains to the players or the officials. The preseason can be an important tool for player evaluation, but it's not the only tool that matters.
We begin with the most notable rookie out of the bunch.
Lock unimpressive in debut
Lock, the second-round pick out of Missouri and the fourth quarterback selected in the draft, is battling for the backup job behind Flacco. He entered the game behind Hogan on the depth chart. As a result, he didn't take the field until 13:01 remained in the second quarter.
On his second snap, he overthrew Fant downfield. On the next play -- third down -- he was nearly picked on the sideline with an errant pass that was thrown well behind his intended target. On his second series, he overshot Muhammad down the right sideline. He rebounded with a nice throw on the run to Nick Williams for 12 yards, but he was sacked twice in a row to end the series.
It was that kind of outing for Lock -- mostly bad, which is what we should expect of a rookie who is likely going to spend a significant portion of the upcoming season, if not all of it, on the bench behind a veteran.
In the first half, Lock went 2 of 5 for 18 yards and a 50.4 passer rating. He didn't fare much better in the second half -- he did have a nice pass on an early third down that would've resulted in first down if it wasn't dropped -- until he got yanked with just under 12 minutes to go in the fourth quarter. He finished 7 of 11 for 34 yards (3.1 yards per attempt) and a 68.0 passer rating.
Fangio on Lock: “I was hoping for more but not surprised.”— Nicki Jhabvala (@NickiJhabvala) August 2, 2019
There's no need to overreact to a poor outing in his preseason debut, of course. And with Flacco firmly entrenched as the starter, Lock will be given time to settle in and develop.
"He's not a QB yet," Fangio said, via 9news.com. "He's a hard-throwing pitcher who doesn't know how to pitch yet."
Give it time.
Hogan doesn't lose backup job
Hogan got the first chance to make an impression. The 2016 fifth-round pick of the Chiefs, who joined the Broncos last year but didn't make his debut until Thursday night, experienced a mostly uneventful outing. He was given three series. The Broncos scored a touchdown on their second drive, but went three-and-out on their other two drives.
On that second series, Hogan got into a bit of a rhythm, converting a third down to Fant, connecting with Fred Brown for 15 yards, and squeezing an eight-yard completion to Brendan Langley into tight coverage before Muhammad breached the end zone from in close.
Hogan finished 5 of 8 for 37 yards (4.6 YPA), no touchdowns, no interceptions, and a 73.4 passer rating. Two of his passes, both of which were catchable, were dropped.
It was the kind of performance that won't win or lose him the backup job, but at this point, the backup competition is more about Lock than Hogan. If Lock performs well, the job will be his regardless of what Hogan does -- assuming Hogan doesn't suddenly morph into Tom Brady.
Benkert could steal Schaub's spot
Schaub started the game and is favored to retain his position backing up Ryan, but he was quickly replaced in the game by Benkert, who looks like he has a legitimate shot at replacing Schaub on the depth chart.
After spending the 2018 season on the Falcons' practice squad, Benkert came out firing. Late in the second quarter, he led an impressive two-minute drill that culminated with a tying touchdown pass to Brian Hill near the goal line.
On that series -- an eight-play, 61-yard drive -- Benkert made a few particularly impressive throws that showed off his arm talent.
At halftime, Benkert was 11 of 17 for 154 yards (6.6 YPA), one touchdown, no picks, and a 113.4 passer rating. As for Schaub?
Two former #UVa quarterbacks are battling to be the primary backup for the Atlanta Falcons behind Matt Ryan. Matt Schaub is 38 years old and entering his 16th season in the NFL. Kurt Benkert is 24 and was on Atlanta's practice squad last season. Benkert has a TD pass tonight. pic.twitter.com/l3t4q3Z90D— Marty Hudtloff (@martyhudtloff) August 2, 2019
Matt Schaub looks like Stannis Baratheon realizing the battle is over— Mina Kimes (@minakimes) August 2, 2019
Benkert finished 19 of 34 for 185 yards (5.4 YPA), one touchdown, no picks, and an 81.1 passer rating before exiting early in the fourth quarter with a toe injury. Schaub, on the other hand, went 3 of 7 for negative-two yards before re-entering the game with 11 minutes to go. He padded his stats enough to finish 4 of 14 for 10 yards (0.7 YPA), no touchdowns, one interception, and a 9.8 passer rating.
Assuming Benkert's injury isn't serious, the Falcons might need to have a legitimate conversation about replacing Schaub with Benkert. He was the best quarterback on the field -- not saying much, but still. And he's cheaper than Schaub, who carries a cap hit of $1.4 million in 2019. That might not seem like much, but consider how much Benkert will earn in 2019: $495,000. Meanwhile, Benkert, at 24 years old, at least has the chance to develop into something whereas Schaub, 38, doesn't.
At the very least, if the Falcons don't feel comfortable proceeding with Benkert as their backup, they might have to consider keeping three quarterbacks if Benkert continues to play this well the rest of the preseason, which is obviously a big if.
Fant's forgettable debut
After dropping a very catchable pass on the Broncos' second series, Fant made up for it with a reception on third down to extend the Broncos' second series, which eventually resulted in a touchdown.
But at the end of the second quarter, he was called for an obvious holding penalty, which negated a 23-yard run for Muhammad.
Like Lock, it was an uneventful outing for Fant, which is to be expected of a rookie. Nobody should make much of it. Since he's a first-round pick, a lot will be expected of him immediately, but nobody should rush to judgement after his first preseason game.
Lindstrom immediately impresses
This is why the Falcons took Lindstrom in the first round:
On Wednesday, the Falcons got bad news when fellow first-round, which could sideline him for 6-8 weeks. The good news is that their other first-round pick is already dominating.
Fourth-round rookie stands out
Falcons fourth-round pick John Cominsky, a defensive end out of Charleston, made an early impression with a fumble recovery and a sack of Lock.
Cominsky will be fighting for snaps behind the likes of Vic Beasley, Takkarist McKinley, Allen Bailey, and Adrian Clayborn on a deep defensive front, but he flashed potential on Thursday night. Before the draft, our Chris Trapasso highlighted him as a small-school prospect who could make a big impact at the next level,
Keep an eye on him during the remainder of the preseason as he looks to carve out a bigger role ahead of the regular season. Regardless of where he fits on the depth chart, he looks like he could be an important depth piece for the Falcons, who are eyeing a defensive resurgence after they ranked 31st in DVOA a year ago.
Our first look at pass interference challenges
Earlier this offseason, in response tothe NFL shook up the instant replay system in a major way by . On Thursday night, Fangio had the honor of becoming the first coach to challenge pass interference.
Near the end of the second quarter, a 43-yard penalty was called on Broncos cornerback Linden Stephens, who was defending Falcons receiver Russell Gage down the left sideline. Fangio threw his challenge flag. The contact appeared to be minimal, but without clear and irrefutable evidence to overturn the play, the ruling on the field stood as called.
While some might have gripes that the officials didn't overturn the play -- it didn't really look like pass interference -- what's notable is how quick the review was. That's good news for those concerned about another reviewable play ruining the flow of the game.
As for the ruling itself, it made sense.
That DPI was one where if you challenge it stands and if you challenge a no-call on the same exact play it also stands— Kevin Cole (@KevinColePFF) August 2, 2019
As is the case for all reviews, the officials are supposed to see something clear and obvious to overturn the call on the field. It appears to work the same with pass interference -- as it should.
Fangio makes head coaching debut despite hospital trip
Thursday night wasn't just the debut for the rookies. It was also Fangio's debut as an NFL head coach after spending more than three decades as an NFL assistant.
The day did not start as planned for Fangio, whoStill, Fangio was able to take his place on the sideline even though, as NBC's Michele Tafoya noted on the broadcast moments before the game, the stone had not yet passed.
Fangio survived his debut, spending all four quarters on the sideline.
Muhammad makes roster push
The Broncos' depth chart at running back is stacked with Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman locked in as the team's primary backs and Devontae Booker as an experienced backup, but Muhammad was arguably the most impressive Broncos offensive player on the field.
He finished with a team-high 50 rushing yards and a score on seven carries, and a team-high 24 receiving yards. His ability to return kickoffs could benefit him when final roster cuts arrive.