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Preseason Week 1 Preview: Atlanta vs Miami

With Atlanta’s first preseason game only a day away its time to focus on what we’ve learnt from the first few days of camp and what to look out for against Miami. I think we can all agree preseason games are never the most aesthetically pleasing events to watch, but if you can get past the incomplete passes and vanilla defenses there are often some clues that give us a useful insight to the season ahead.

The first thing that I will be focusing on during tomorrow’s game is the offensive play calling by Dirk Koetter. Last season the Falcons ran the ball only 33% of the time due to the fact they were behind so often in games and the inability to run the ball effectively (yes I know that’s putting it lightly). With a revamped offensive line and hopefully a revamped mentality personally I’m hoping to see the Falcons get much closer to 50/50 split between run and pass plays.

Matt Ryan will more than likely play his usual series or two before giving way to TJ Yates. With Yates being a new signing I expect the Falcons to give him an extended look on Friday to try and get him integrated into the offense as well as to try and get him some chemistry with his receivers. Yates will give way to second year QB Sean Renfree.

Renfree though the Falcons won’t admit it is in a battle with UDFA Jeff Matthews for the QB NO3 spot that will most likely be a spot on the Falcons practice squad for the upcoming season. Renfree was injured in the final game of last preseason and as such he was ‘redshirted’ for his rookie year. Having had a year to sit and learn the Falcons playbook Renfree should be a step ahead of rookie Jeff Matthews. The biggest thing for Renfree is going to be to stay healthy. Throughout college Renfree struggled with injuries and his first year with the Falcons did nothing to dispel the myth of him as an injury prone QB.

Jeff Matthews out of Conrell may not even see the field Friday but I hope he does. Playing at Cornell Matthews clearly didn’t play against much NFL level talent. However, Matthews still put together an impressive campaign while at college, mastering Cornell’s intricate pass heavy offense.  If Matthews does see the field Friday you will instantly notice how strong his arm is, Matthews easily has the strongest arm on the Falcons roster, in fact in OTA’s the coaches were trying to get him to tone down his arm at times and use more touch on his passes so that could be something to focus on if Matthews sees any game time. Another area to potentially focus on with Matthews is his footwork under pressure. A lot of his college tape showed a breakdown in mechanics and footwork when pressured so Fridays game could give us an opportunity to see if he has fixed this.

With Steven Jackson injured Quizz will start game for the Falcons. It will be interesting to see if Freeman gets any reps with the starters or if he comes in when the starters are taken out. No matter when Freeman does play I expect to see him play a lot. Freeman has been impressing both coaches and fans alike in camp and so he should hopefully put on a good showing Friday. Antone Smith has been promised a larger role on offense this year, whether this manifests itself into snaps on Friday is questionable however as the Falcons may look to get the rookie running backs some more snaps. Josh Vaughn isn’t a player I’m a huge fan of but it sounds like he’s been impressing at camp and could well sneak his way onto the roster again as the 5th RB. Vaughn played well last season albeit against other 3rd and 4th stringers so if he wants to make the 53 he will have to play well again this preseason. Jerome Smith out of Syracuse is an UDFA who I hope sticks around on the Falcons PS this year. Smith is that prototypical ‘pounder’ who can pick up those tough yards late in games if need be. Hopefully Smith sees some snaps Friday night and gets a chance to show his physical running style.

The TE position is probably the weakest position on the Falcons roster. Toilolo will be the starter and it will be interesting how the Falcons utilize him on Friday. The Falcons have promised to use the TE’s this year as more in line blocking types in contrast to the Tony Gonzalez slot, pass catching type which the Falcons relied on so heavily in the past.

Toilolo and Pascoe are the top 2 TE’s on the roster and barring injury that’s not going to change. The third TE spot however looks completely up in the air. Mickey Shuler is listed as the third TE on the depth chart as it stands and so he will probably see significant snaps Friday. Shuler’s nearest competitor for the final TE spot is probably/hopefully going to be UDFA Jacob Pedersen out of Wisconsin. Pedersen is a jack of all trades player, he could be a H back type player if the Falcons wanted him to be as well as a pass catcher from the slot and/or a blocker as an extra lineman. I like Pedersen and I hope he makes the 53 as I think he brings something to the TE position that the Falcons otherwise don’t have. If Pedersen sees the field Friday keep an eye on him as I could see him having a big game if given the chance.

The battles along the offensive line were always going to be close during camp but unfortunately a couple of camp injuries have meant a few of those battles may have to put on temporary hold. Once the starting 5 leave the game Friday I would expect the Falcons second string line to be; Holmes, Johnson, Konz, Gunn, Schraeder. If Carimi hadn’t got injured he would most likely have been the RT. With the 5 starters set in stone the rest of the lineman are battling it out for 4 roster spots. Personally I see Holmes, Carimi, Gunn and Schraeder being those 4 but this preseason will go a long way to deciding these camp battles. The two players I am going to especially focus on with regard to the o-line will be Gunn and Konz. As we saw in the first episode of Hard Knocks Peter Konz has spent the offseason getting beefed up, unfortunately all the reports from camp seem to suggest he still sucks. If Konz continues to struggle I think the Falcons will be forced to cut ties with the former second round pick in favor of Harland Gunn who is being cross trained at C and G. Keep an eye on tackle Ryan Schraeder as well who I know I’m not alone in liking his potential.

At the time of writing this the Falcons haven’t announced whether Julio Jones will play Friday or not but I would be amazed if 11 lines up vs Miami. There is literally nothing to gain and everything to lose by letting Julio play. Even though Jones won’t see the field Friday I’m looking forward to hopefully seeing the Falcons starters use more 4&5 WR sets. In terms of WR personnel I’m hoping White, Douglas and Hester play the customary series before stepping aside. The Falcons have a really intriguing battle for the final (2) WR spots on the roster. As it stands I see Courtney Roby and Bernard Reedy being the two who grab those final spots. Roby has never been much of a WR and the Falcons wont expect him to be, they will see Roby as the replacement for Drew Davis who made his living on ST’s. Bernard Reedy unlike Roby will make the team because of his WR skills. Reedy an UDFA out of Toledo has been impressing fans and coaches alike with his long speed and deep threat abilities. The Falcons have been crying out for a deep threat to accompany Julio Jones and if Reedy plays well this offseason I expect him to cement his spot on the 53 man roster. Another WR who I’m really excited to see in a game situation is the 6’3 220lb Geraldo Boldewijn out of Boise State who is that bigger bodied WR that the Falcons could badly use. Boldewijn is raw but if he’s willing to learn I think he could be a PS candidate who a couple of years down the line could develop into a useful target for Matt Ryan.

On the defensive side of the ball the first thing to focus on will be the number of plays in the 34, 43 and sub packages. The preseason games often dissolve into defenses playing extremely soft zones which isn’t great for the viewers as it doesn’t really give us a good indication of what players can do. However, once the second and third strangers come in it will be interesting to see how much cross training the Falcons have done in camp and if they do use some different formations.

Along the defensive line (34 d-line) I expect Goodman, Robertson and Hageman to see a lot of reps. Hageman may well be on a snap count with his hand probably still not 100% but I still expect him to play. Goodman is a player who is really exciting entering his second year, Goodman added some extra weight this off-season and according to Mike Nolan he is now around 290lbs. With his length and size Goodman can now play all across the line in all packages and he could well end up taking starting snaps away from veteran Jonathan Babineaux during the season. Travian Robertson has always excelled in the weight room but it sounds like this year he is finally putting it together on the field. Robertson looks to have a good shot at making the roster as the backup NT and he could cement a spot with a strong showing with a good preseason. Rashede Hageman will hopefully see a lot of snaps Friday as he needs as much playing time as possible. Shede will be a Jekyll and Hyde type player early on in his career but hopefully he flashes the type of dominance he showed in college. In particular look at Shede on passing downs and his ability to rush the passer as the coaching staff will most likely use him as a third down pass rusher this year.

The Outside Linebacker groups are going to be under a lot of scrutiny this year. Osi, Massaquoi and Biermann are untouchable at the top of the depth chart (OSI as a DPR). However after those 3 the position looks pretty open. Stansly Maponga, Jacques Smith and Tyler Starr look to be the strongest challengers for a roster spot. Maponga being a draft pick will probably make the roster and it sounds like he has been having a strong camp. Jacques Smith is an UDFA out of Tennessee and is a player I’ve always quite liked. As we have all seen Smith isn’t afraid to mix it up with the veterans and his in your face manner has led to him being involved in several skirmishes during camp. If he wants to make the roster Smith is going to have to do more than fight and so look for #45 Friday night. Tyler Starr was always going to be a fan favorite. Starr has an intriguing skillset and despite being extremely raw has seemingly already made a good impression in camp. While he isn’t yet a refined pass rusher Starr is a hard working blue collar guy who would be happy to sit and play ST’s for a couple of years before seeing the field on defense.

News broke today that rookie ILB Marquis Spruill has torn his ACL and will subsequently miss the season. Spruill was a player I thought the Falcons massively over drafted but it’s horrible to see any player go down during camp especially a rookie, I wish Spruill a quick and speedy recovery. With Spruill’s injury the door seems wide open for Tim Dobbins to make the roster. Dobbins like Spruill is that ST stud who is only ever going to be a backup in the league. Being a veteran I doubt the Falcons play Dobbins a ton of snaps Friday as I would imagine they would look to get some of the rookie linebackers some significant snaps. Two of those linebackers are Prince Shembo and Yawin Smallwood. Shembo has been impressing coaches since the first day of OTA’s and it sounds as if the coaches are extremely high on his development. Shembo will see a ton of snaps Friday and if he impresses don’t be shocked to see him start to get some snaps with the first team alongside Paul Worrilow. Yawin Smallwood is a player who I haven’t heard much of so far. The good news for Smallwood fans is I think he will see a lot of snaps Friday and I think he has the potential to put on a really good performance. Smallwood is a player who I’ve always thought will put his best foot forward in a game situation and I really hope he shows up and puts his name on the map.

Trufant and Alford won’t see a lot of snaps Friday if any and I’m not sure how much the Falcons will play veterans Wilson and McClain. The players who I think will play a lot at corner are Ricardo Allen and Javier Arenas. Arenas is in a battle for the starting slot corner and if he wants to have any chance of taking that position he will have to ball out this preseason. Ricardo Allen will be interesting to watch Friday, in particular how he is utilized. In college Allen was at his happiest playing in a zone defense, put him in man to man and he really struggled (watch the Notre Dame game as an example).

If Im the Falcons these no way I’m risking the injury prone William Moore Friday. Moore who loves a big hit is far too valuable a player to be lost at this stage of the season. With Dwight Lowery indefinitely sidelined the main focus of Friday’s game at the very least will be the FS position. Kemal Ishmael will be the starter at the FS position and he will probably play the majority of his snaps alongside Sean Baker. Both Baker and Ishmael are battling for the backup SS roster spot with Ishmael looking the favorite to win the job at present due to his ability to backup both safety positions. In particular focus on what Ishmael looks like in coverage as this is the area of weakness in his game. The Falcons mentioned this week that they were cross training Allen and McClain at FS and they could look to get both players some looks there tomorrow.

I’ve already gone on far too long so I won’t bore you with a look at the specialists although I would say keep an eye on backup K Sergio Castillo who could well be a PS stash for next year when Matt Bryant could well not be around.

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