FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- With veteran running back Steven Jackson out nursing a left hamstring injury, all three of the Atlanta Falcons running backs behind him on the depth chart had strong efforts in the exhibition opener.Follow @SlamSports
Jacquizz Rodgers, Antone Smith and Devonta Freeman all made dazzling plays in Friday night's 16-10 victory over the Miami Dolphins and showed signs that they could be a strong running back committee.
But were they strong enough to the Falcons to consider moving on from Jackson, a 31-year-old who has been injury plagued since coming to the Falcons from St. Louis in 2013?
Falcons coach Mike Smith said that Smith's role in the offense has to expand after caught a check-down pass and busted loose for 34 yards. Later, he ran for a 76-yard touchdown. Both explosive plays were nullified by penalty.
In spot duty last season, Smith averaged 29 yards per carry. He never did earn regular playing time even though the Falcons were sliding to a 4-12 finish.
On Smith's 34-yard catch-and-run in the first quarter, Falcons veteran wide receiver Harry Douglas was lined up illegally. A holding penalty on right tackle Jake Matthews canceled out Smith's 76-yard run in the second quarter
"I mean, it is frustrating, but we know it is the first preseason game for a lot of people out there, so a lot of stuff is changing, so we expect a lot of penalties," Antone Smith said.
But those plays still created a buzz.
"Both of those plays got called back but he showed the explosiveness that he has and the speed," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "He can change a game on any given play. That was fun to watch."
The Falcons signed Smith as a free agent in 2009 and he has found his niche as a special teams ace. Before last season Smith had just one carry in his previous three seasons with the Falcons.
"Antone had some very explosive plays," Mike Smith said. "Antone's a guy that can do some things when we get the ball in his hands. I would imagine we would want to make sure to help him get some touches, put him in an advantageous situation, but I was very impressed with him."
Rodgers, who started for Jackson, had a 2-yard touchdown run on the Falcons' first offensive possession, capping a 15-play, 77-yard drive.
Last season, the Falcons ranked tied for fifth with 38 first possession points and they have ranked in the top seven in terms of first possession scoring in each season since coach Mike Smith took over in 2008.
Freeman also got in on the act. He accounted for 107 total yards on 11 touches.
Freeman carried the ball 10 times for 50 yards, including a long gain of 14 yards while posting a game-high 5.0 yards per carry. He also added one reception for 57 yards.
"I was impressed with Devonta Freeman, in terms of how he ran the ball for the most part," Mike Smith said. "We did some positive things. They'll be some plays that we'll be talking about, but first and foremost it's really always about your first impression."
Freeman was pleased with his night.
"I felt like I did an OK job," Freeman said. "But I have a lot of work to do with everything and every phase, pass block and runs. Overall, I just have a lot of work to do."
--Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones did not play in the team's first exhibition game against Miami.
Jones ran a few routes early during the pregame warm-up session, likely to test out his cleats on the Georgia Dome's artificial turf, but retreated to the locker room soon after. He walked back out in his warm-up gear 45 minutes before kickoff.
Jones has been practicing one day on and one day off throughout Falcons' training camp after breaking a bone in his right foot and having surgery on it last season. Jones missed the last 11 games of 2013 after sustaining the injury against the Jets in Week 5.
Veteran receiver Devin Hester picked up Jones' snaps.
Hester fumbled away his first punt return for the Falcons.
Hester got a second shot and fielded the return at the 29-yard line and danced around Jonathan Freeny only to be tackled for a 2-yard loss.
However, Hester did take out his first kick return of the night for 21 yards during the first quarter.
The three-time Pro Bowl returner signed with Atlanta on March 20 after eight seasons with the Chicago Bears. Hester holds the NFL record for punt return touchdowns with 13 and the record for combined career return touchdowns with 19.
--The Falcons drafted Jake Matthews No. 6 overall with the expectation that he will be a cornerstone of their offensive line for years to come.
Matthews got off to a rough start in his Falcons debut on Friday in the exhibition opener at the Georgia Dome. He was called for two penalties in his 19 snaps against the Dolphins, including a holding penalty that negated Antone Smith's 76-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
On that play, Smith ran behind Matthews off right tackle. The penalty made it first-and-20 from the Falcons' 24-yard line and they ended up punting after three plays.
"I didn't realize (the penalty) was on me until later in the game," Matthews said. "I was pretty disappointed when I found out. I will have to watch the film and see what happened."
The penalties were demerits for Matthews but quarterback Matt Ryan noted that the Falcons gained yards running behind him.
"Both sides we ran effectively but particularly behind a rookie guy," Ryan said. "His first time out there, I thought Jake did a really nice job for us."
Matthews has been groomed to play in the NFL for much of his life. His father, Bruce, is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and his uncle and grandfather also played in the league for years. Matthews said none of his family members were at the game Friday.
Despite his background, Matthews said he was anxious about his debut.
"Definitely there was a little bit of nerves going in first time playing in the NFL," Matthews said. "I thought I settled down really quick and did some good things. At the same time there are plenty of things to get better at. I'm excited to watch the film."
The first penalty against Matthews, for illegal use of hands, was called on a third-and-3 at the Dolphins' 10-yard line. It didn't cost the Falcons because it was offset by a penalty against the Dolphins, and Rogers scored on a two-yard run one play after the Dolphins were called for roughing Ryan.
--Falcons backup quarterback T.J. Yates, a native of Marietta, had a fine debut with his hometown team.
The Falcons acquired the former Pope High standout in a trade with the Houston Texans on June 18 after their offseason training program was completed. The Falcons sent linebacker Akeem Dent to the Texans for Yates, and released last season's backup Dominique Davis.
Despite having just 12 practices with the Falcons, Yates replaced Ryan as the second-team quarterback against the Dolphins.
Yates played five possessions and led the offense to a field goal late in the second quarter.
"It felt pretty good," Yates said. "It was good to get out there and kind of get in a rhythm. In training camp it's hard to get in a rhythm in practice."
Overall, he completed 7 of 16 passes for 127 yards. He also had two rushes for 8 yards.
"It was good to get out there and get a couple drives and move up and down the field and get in the swing of things," Yates said. "It was good to get a feel for the offense in real game mode."
BATTLE OF THE WEEK
Free safety -- Dwight Lowery vs. the Field. With Lowery recovering from a concussion and third-round pick Dezmen Southward coming back from a knee injury, third-stringers Kemal Ishmael and Sean Baker received extensive action against the Dolphins.
The Falcons are trying to replace Thomas DeCoud, who was released this offseason, and the injuries to Lowery and Southward have muddled the competition.
Ishmael, a second-year player drafted in the seventh round in 2013 out of Central Florida, has shown flashes of spectacular play.
"Kemal has had a good camp," defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. "He is one of the guys who has been able to take advantage of the front line being stouter, just from the standpoint of coming up and closing the gap."
Baker has "stepped up his game," Nolan said.
--RB Steven Jackson (hamstring) is not expected to return until the season-opener.
--LB Pat Angerer (concussion) is close to being released from the concussion protocol program.
--OT Terren Jones (concussion) is closed to being released from the concussion protocol program.
--FS Dwight Lowery (concussion) is closed to being released from the concussion protocol.
--OT/OG Gabe Carimi (ankle) is expected to miss a few more days of practice.