The Atlanta Falcons continued to build momentum toward the start of the regular season and saw the debut of talented rookie pass rusher Takkarist McKinley during Sunday's 17-13 exhibition loss against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
McKinley, who underwent surgery on his right shoulder in March, entered the game in the second quarter and immediately made an impact, showing his quick speed off the right edge. On a third-down play, McKinley darted right by Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and put a hit on quarterback Joshua Dobbs as Dobbs released the ball.
McKinley showed a quick burst on a couple rushes, and also showed relentless pursuit on a play where he ran a stunt with Courtney Upshaw and forced a rushed Dobbs throw that was dropped by running back James Conner.
The Falcons expect McKinley to be a terror rushing off the opposite edge of reigning NFL sack champion Vic Beasley Jr. For McKinley, Sunday's short stint was a positive sign toward things to come.
"For him, we think he's really improved from a pass-rush standpoint in training camp," said Falcons coach Dan Quinn. "He's got his legs back under him; just getting a feel for a game he hasn't played since all the way back in November. So for him, it was a long time to get back on the field. We're encouraged by his first time back out here with the guys."
QB depth chart: It was business as usual for reigning MVP Matt Ryan, who played one series and engineered a 91-yard touchdown drive. Ryan and the Falcons also scored on the opening drive against Miami. "I think we were more detailed than we were in Week 1," Ryan said. Veteran backup Matt Schaub played four plays as the Falcons wisely limited his reps, knowing he's more important for the regular season. Matt Simms, who has no practice-squad eligibility left, got the bulk of the work after entering with 3 minutes, 55 seconds remaining in the first quarter. Undrafted rookie Alek Torgersen took over midway through the fourth and threw an interception.
When it was starters vs. starters, the Falcons looked : Sharp, on both sides of the ball. Ryan guided a 10-play, 91-yard drive that ended with a 5-yard touchdown run by Terron Ward, who moved into the No. 2 backup role behind Tevin Coleman with Devonta Freeman (concussion protocol) out. Ryan completed 4-of-6 passes for 57 yards. And key to the drives was pass protection from backs Coleman and Ward. Defensively, the Falcons forced two three-and-outs to start the game. Nose tackle Grady Jarrett showed his relentless pressure, while rookie linebacker Duke Riley had a pair of strong tackles working with the starters. Also, De'Vondre Campbell forced a fumble.
One reason to be concerned: There were some noticeable special-teams blunders, including missed tackles and bad angles that led to surrendering a 64-yard punt return touchdown in the third quarter, and poor punt protection that almost led to Matt Bosher getting injured on a blocked punt. Even Pro Bowl cornerback Desmond Trufant picked up a holding penalty on the game's first punt, which led to the offense being pinned at their own 9 to start the game. Some of the special-teams mistakes were made by guys down the roster, but coordinator Keith Armstrong doesn't tolerate mistakes from anyone.
That guy could start: This goes back to McKinley, who really impressed in his first game action since November of last year. His starting status for the season likely will depend on whether or not the Falcons begin the game in the nickel defense, where he'll be a rusher. But even in the base defense, coach Dan Quinn spoke highly of what McKinley has shown in practice against the run, so maybe he'll be on the field in much more than just obvious pass-rushing situations.
Rookie watch: Rookie defensive back Damontae Kazee had to exit the game with a right ankle injury he appeared to suffer when Bosher got the punt blocked. Kazee walked off the field under his own power. Kazee said shortly after exiting that he expected to be back next week. During training camp, Kazee tweaked his left ankle during one practice but simply got it taped and played through it. Undrafted rookies Reggie Davis and Quincy Mauger, both from the University of Georgia, each made big plays. Davis, a speedy receiver, had a 44-yard receptions on the way to three catches for 74 yards. Mauger, a safety, had an interception.
On guard: Wes Schweitzer started the game at right guard after Ben Garland started the first exhibition at Miami. Quinn said not to read too much into the decision as Schweitzer and Garland continue to battle for the starting spot. Schweitzer helped create a massive hole that led to Ward's touchdown run. Who starts Saturday's third exhibition against the Arizona Cardinals -- considered the dress rehearsal for the starters -- could reveal which guy the coaches are leaning toward as the starter.
Winning the line: Quinn always talks about winning the line of scrimmage. Well, the Falcons might have won their battles early against the Steelers, but they struggled throughout the duration of the game. From an offensive perspective, the Falcons have to develop more depth along the offensive line, which is why veteran tackle Austin Pasztor was signed, though Pasztor didn't dress Sunday. Defensively, the primary group of linemen should be just fine, but the Falcons, as a whole, didn't create enough pressure for the second consecutive week.