FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- If the Atlanta Falcons are going to rebound from a 4-12 2013 season, quarterback Matt Ryan must play a major part in the effort.
He showed in his prime regular-season tune-up game Saturday that he's ready for the opener against the New Orleans Saints on Sept. 7 at the Georgia Dome. Ryan likely will not play in the final exhibition game against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday.
Ryan came out smoking against the Tennessee Titans, before a meek defense and the reserves kicked away a lead as the Falcons went down 24-17.
Ryan finished the game with 224 passing yards on 18 of 23 completions (78.3 percent) with two touchdowns and a 136.2 passer rating. His 78.3 completion percentage was on pace with the top passing performances of his career.
"One of the things we talked about during the week is that we wanted to start fast," Ryan said. "I thought tonight we did a great job of that offensively."
The Falcons opened with a 31-yard touchdown pass to Devin Hester. Ryan came back on the third possession and tossed a 52-yard touchdown pass to Julio Jones and a nice short catch-and-run.
Ryan seems to know the offense must score at a highly efficient rate as the first-team defense is still under construction. The unit -- with starting cornerback Desmond Trufant blowing a coverage -- was burnt for a 63-yard Jake Locker to Nate Washington touchdown pass. The first-team defense also gave up long scoring drives against Miami and Houston.
"Second drive, I would have liked for us to have gotten some points out of that," Ryan said. "We are in a second-and-one situation and on the plus side of the 50. To walk away with nothing there was tough. Penalties kind of hurt us there. So that's one area we can clean some things up before we get to the regular season. All in all, I thought, a pretty good start for us."
The Falcons are counting on Hester to help the receiving corps make up for the retirement of future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez.
"He did an unbelievable job for us (Saturday)," Ryan said of Hester. "That's something we've seen during OTAs and during training camp. When you get him out onto the practice field, everyone has been very impressed. He showed what he is capable of doing, with the ball in his hands tonight."
The offensive line, with rookie Jake Matthews moving over to left tackle, even held up while the battle for the starting right tackle spot was waged.
"I felt very good," Ryan said. "We ran the ball effectively. Our pass protection of the ball was really good. ... All in all, across the board, it was a really good effort."
The Falcons must be ready at the start of the season. Over the first 11 days, they will play three games, with two of them coming against NFC South foes. After playing host to the Saints, they travel to Cincinnati for a game on Sept. 14 before playing host to Tampa Bay on a Thursday night game on Sept. 18.
So, we'll know rather quickly about the Falcons' rebound efforts in 2014. They could be off to a fast start or digging out of a massive hole right out of the gate.
"Heading into the regular season here in a week, I think, we are about where we need to be," Ryan said.
--FS Dezman Southward left Saturday's game with an apparent concussion. Southward went to the locker room in the third quarter. After the game Falcons coach Mike Smith confirmed that Southward suffered a head injury but said he had no update on his condition. Southward is a third-round draft pick out of Wisconsin. Southward and Kemal Ishmael have served as the primary backups to safeties William Moore and Dwight Lowery.
--OL Mike Johnson suffered a foot injury in the first quarter Saturday. Johnson was injured while blocking as the tight end in the "jumbo" short-yardage formation during the Falcons' opening possession of the game. Ryan Schraeder replaced Johnson in that role. Johnson is in competition with Lamar Holmes for the starting right tackle position. Rookie Jake Matthews, the No. 6 overall pick in the draft, opened training camp as the starting right tackle but shifted to the left side after Sam Baker suffered a season-ending knee injury last week.
--RB Jacquizz Rodgers continued to show his versatility, totaling 64 yards on 13 touches (4.9 yards per touch). He caught five passes for 31 yards while adding eight rushes for 33 yards.
--RB Devonta Freeman finished the game with 44 total yards on eight touches. In the exhibition season, he leads the team with 101 receiving yards and 92 rushing yards. The rookie from Florida State has compiled 193 yards on 26 touches and is averaging a healthy 7.4 yards per touch.
--LB Paul Worrilow led the first-team defense with six total tackles (three solo) in one half of work. Worrilow also added a seven-yard sack. The second-year man out of Delaware notched two sacks last season.
--LB Jacques Smith, a rookie who gained notice for his practice fights with offensive linemen featured on HBO's "Hard Knocks," was ejected from the exhibition game against Tennessee. Smith was penalized in the aftermath of Tennessee's successful two-point conversion run in the fourth quarter. Smith appeared to tangle with Titans defenders after making the tackle.