Sunday's doubleheader was a day for rookie running backs. Pittsburgh Steelers' James Conner helped the home team drive back for a 17-13 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. Later New Orleans tailback Alvin Kamara burst out for a 50-yard touchdown to propel the Saints to a 13-7 win over the Los Angeles Chargers. Here is what we learned from the games:
- Replacing Kyle Shanahan with Steve Sarkisian appeared to be the biggest question mark for the Falcons offense entering 2017. Through two preseason games, Sarkisian is soaring. Sunday, Matt Ryan marched the first-team offense down the field for a 10-play, 91-yard touchdown drive. Sark continued the play-action heavy-pass offense that diced up the Steelers secondary. Ryan, Matt Schaub, and Matt Simms combined to go 16-of-26 passing for 211 yards in the first half.
Without Julio Jones, the Falcons spread the ball around with 10 players catching at least one pass in the half. Atlanta converted five of its first six third downs and earned 16 first downs in the first two quarters. The first three drives went 10 plays, 14 plays and 13 plays, all producing points. While the Steelers defense was missing a few starters, it's a positive sign that Atlanta's high-flying offense doesn't appear to have had its wings clipped by the coordinator change.
- The Steelers welcomed back Martavis Bryant to the football field for the first time in 19 months. The rust needed to be knocked off. The Steelers made an effort to get Bryant the ball. Playing without Ben Roethlisberger, Josh Dobbs hit Bryant on the first play from scrimmage on a wide receiver screen. He lost three yards. Two drives later Pittsburgh called an end around for the wideout, which he fumbled out of bounds for a one-yard loss. It was a 24-yard snatch a few plays later that displayed the type of difference-maker Bryant can be when he's on the field. The Steelers missed his field-stretching presence last season.
- Steelers rookie running back James Conner played for the first time this season. Conner owns the power and athleticism to become the full-time backup to Le'Veon Bell this season. The rookie displayed good cutting ability and burst. He did have a propensity early to bounce the ball to the outside instead of sticking his head into the line of scrimmage. Conner also dropped a would-be first down pass. The drop was a concentration issue, not an indication of his skills in the pass game. It was a good first step for the rookie to show he can be a reliable insurance for Bell this season. Conner flashed in the second half, busting out some big runs, including dashes of 17 and 19 yards. He finished with 98 yards on 20 carries.
- Falcons first-round pick Takk McKinley also made his preseason debut. The rookie pass rusher saw limited snaps in the first half. McKinley's speed off the edge was evident from his first snap, when he just got pushed by the QB. Later he similarly darted off the edge for a QB hit. McKinley clearly owns the speed to beat offensive tackles. The question will now be whether he can build up the rest of his repertoire to be a difference-maker this season.
- T.J. Watt found out what it's like going up against a legit left tackle. After his big outing last week, Watt was stonewalled early by Jake Matthews. Watt struggled to get by Matthews or put pressure on the quarterback, but the rookie remains relentless in pursuit of the ball. Watt compiled four tackles, including one for loss in limited snaps.
- While Watt came back to earth a little bit this week, third-year linebacker Anthony Chickillo was all over the field. Chickillo compiled two sacks and five tackles Sunday. The 24-year-old Steeler could push for playing time in the rotation as a pass-rushing outside linebacker.
- Alvin Kamara makes big plays. The rookie running back exploded on the Saints' first play from scrimmage for a 50-yard touchdown run. He added a 20-yard reception later. In less than one quarter of work, Kamara compiled 81 scrimmage yards on six touches. In a backfield with Adrian Peterson and Mark Ingram (neither of whom played Sunday), Kamara is the home-run hitter. Sunday, he showed the speed, shiftiness, and balance when getting hit to be that lightning strike weapon for Drew Brees.
- Saints rookie left tackle Ryan Ramczyk had an up-and-down day. He threw a good block on Kamara's TD. He also got clowned by ChargersMelvin Ingram on a spin move later, in which the tackle had to hold to avoid giving up a sack. Like most rookies going up against a player of Ingram's caliber, Ramczyk struggled at times, but he should be better for the experience. It wasn't the stonewalling performance Sean Payton likely wanted to see from his potential starting left tackle, but it wasn't a complete disaster either. The backups behind Ramczyk were exceptionally worse.
- The Chargers' offensive line, meanwhile, was a catastrophe. The injuries continue. With starting offensive tackles Russell Okung and Joe Barksdale sitting out to nurse injuries, L.A. saw backup tackle Tyreek Burwell break his hand, NFL Network's Alex Flanagan reported. The players on the field weren't good. Running back Melvin Gordon was hit in the backfield on the first play from scrimmage. He lost nine yards. It didn't get much better from there. The Chargers first and second groups averaged a measly 2.2 yards per carry in the first half -- quarterback Kellen Clemens led the way with 26 yards on three scrambles. The Chargers have the weapons on offense, but the offensive line looks like it could cripple the operation. The Los Angeles offensive line played so poorly Sunday it made a limp Saints pass rush (sans its best pass rusher) look lively.
- The Saints linebackers are clearly upgraded from last season. You didn't wake up Sunday thinking it was a Manti Te'o REVENGE GAME, but that's what you received. The ex-Chargers linebacker compiled a sack, eight tackles, three for loss, in the first half; he added a fumble recovery in the third quarter. Te'o filled gaps well against the run and pressed the line of scrimmage. Fellow free-agent addition A.J. Klein was all over the field early (six tackles, 0.5 sacks). Third-round rookie Alex Anzalone displayed good read-and-reaction skills with three tackles and a sack in limited time. The trio doesn't have tremendous athletic upside, but there is no question it's an exotically better group than last year.
- The attitude the Saints played with on defense was evident all night. Dennis Allen's group was aggressive from the get go, especially attacking the quarterback. We can't take too much from one preseason game, but if the group can keep that swagger when the real games begin, perhaps the Saints won't have the worst defense in the NFL for the 35th straight season.
- Chargers rookie defensive back Desmond King jumps off the screen. The fifth-round pick displayed great instincts and a nose for the ball. The versatile DB earned a sack, a pass break up, and two tackles -- one for loss -- Sunday night. Keep an eye on him moving forward in what should be a lockdown Chargers defense.
- Cardale Jones remains an enticing enigma. The big-armed quarterback owns more physical tools than Kellen Clemens in the battle to be Philip Rivers' backup. Yet Jones struggles to read defenses at times and his footwork is wonky for stretches. An ideal world for coach Anthony Lynn would be Jones swiping the backup job from Clemens. While Clemens didn't move the offense Sunday (10-of-17 for 99 yards; 5.8 yards per attempt, 0 points), Jones couldn't do anything either (7-of-15 for 61 yards 4.1 YPA, 0 points). The second-year pro moved the ball against a group of Saints starters to open the third quarter. He also should have thrown a pick-six to start the 4th quarter and ended the game with this sequence: sack, sack, Hail Mary interception. This is a battle that will go down to final cuts when the team must decide whether to keep three QBs. With Jones not looking like he can win the backup gig, it's likely Lynn will need to keep three quarterbacks to keep him on the roster.