The Atlanta Falcons have preached toughness this offseason, and now we will get our first glimpse at what a stronger, grittier Falcons team might look like.
The team takes on the Miami Dolphins tomorrow, pitting them against a team with a questionable offensive line, underrated defense and young quarterback. That said, the starters won't be in all that long, so we're going to focus on the matchups worth watching by unit and camp battle, not individual players.
Let's jump right in to Falcons versus Dolphins, one of nature's great battles.
Bill Lazor vs. Falcons pass defense
Once Ryan Tannehill leaves the game, the quality of play is going to drop off. That doesn't mean the Dolphins can't provide a fine test for what the Falcons hope is an improved pass defense.
Why? Mostly because of new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, a former Chip Kelly guy who has promised to get creative with a pretty moribund Dolphins offense. That should mean plenty of quick strikes, screens and creative lining up of personnel, especially early on when multi-pronged weapon Charles Clay is in the game. If the Falcons want to test out that pass rush and see how the secondary looks, the looks Lazor throws at them should be a nice early test, even if they'll necessarily be more vanilla than the Falcons would encounter in the regular season.
Julio Jones vs. Dolphins pass defense
Jones may only get a handful of snaps, but they'll be closely-watched snaps. We can tell you all day long that Jones has looked good at camp, making cuts and flying down the field, but until you see it with your own eyes against an opposing defense, it's easy to harbor a few doubts.
There's a small but non-zero chance that the Falcons hold Jones out entirely, though I haven't heard anything to that effect.
Julio said not sure if he's playing against Dolphins. My guess is no— vaughn mcclure (@vxmcclure23) August 6, 2014
Hopefully you can look for snaps in the first quarter and a chance to show how rejuvenated he is post-injury by blowing away a talented Dolphins secondary.
Falcons run defense vs. Dolphins backs
Not a truly great group of backs here, but that hardly matters. The Falcons need to show that the new acquisitions (Paul Soliai, Tyson Jackson) on the first team are going to make a difference, and that they have useful reserves (Prince Shembo? Malliciah Goodman?) who can step in and stonewall opposing ground games when called upon. After finishing as one of the worst run defenses in the NFL a year ago, immediate progress will be welcome.
Falcons second unit line vs. Dolphins defense
Forget about the first unit, which will have Sam Baker, Justin Blalock, Joe Hawley, Jon Asamoah and Jake Matthews and should be dramatically improved from a year ago. The important stuff is happening behind those guys, where Peter Konz, Harland Gunn, Gabe Carimi, Ryan Schraeder, Lamar Holmes and Mike Johnson are among those fighting for what figures to be four reserve spots along the line. It's critically important the Falcons find better depth than they had a year ago, where injuries and ineffectiveness took an already middling line and turned it into an overweight catastrophe.
The Dolphins defense is underrated from top-to-bottom, and they have some interesting young reserves. They should provide a nice test for these players, minus Carimi and his ankle injury.
Falcons special teams vs. Dolphins special teams
Again, this isn't noteworthy because the Dolphins have a truly great special teams unit, but because the Falcons have one big question here.
The team drafted guys like Marquis Spruill with special teams in mind, so I'm going to be closely watching those players to see how they fare. The team invested in Devin Hester to improve the return game and they have two of the better legs in the game in Matt Bosher and Matt Bryant, so the coverage and blocking on special teams is the outstanding issue. Let's hope they start off strong.
What matchups will you be watching?