The most pivotal pre-season game has arrived. Atlanta's first-string team should finally be tested on Saturday against the Miami Dolphins. From out-scoring the opposing first-team opponents by a combined score of 31-0, a challenge is on the horizon. Miami was one of the most aggressive teams in the off-season. They look primed to make the next step of becoming a playoff team. After playing against below-average offenses in Tennessee and the New York Jets, the restored Atlanta defense will be tested against rising star Ryan Tannehill and his array of options.
The entire offensive line will be put on notice
Instead of focusing primarily on the interior line, the play of both tackles should be watched closely as well. When it comes to fearsome defensive lines, Miami possesses one of the top units. Ndamukong Suh is going to be a nightmare for the likes of James Stone and Chris Chester. His presence will lead to Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon having plenty of one-on-one opportunities. It'll be vital for Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder to keep Matt Ryan inside the pocket as much as possible. Wake's power and long arms makes him one of the more versatile pass-rushers in the league.
After looking stable in pass protection against Tennessee and New York, the real challenge will present itself here. This should be a stern test in preparation for an underrated Eagles' pass rush. Stone and Chester were underwhelming as run blockers last week. Leonard Williams beat Chester on multiple occasions at the point of attack. As dependable as he is on the move, the former Redskin has a tendency of struggling against defensive tackles on one-on-one situations. Both players need a solid performance, as Jon Asamoah received first-team reps last week against the Jets. The training camp battle to secure both starting guard spots could be decided here.
Cornerback depth will be tested once again
Last week, the cornerback rotation faced two massive wide receivers in Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker. They weren't tested very often, due to Ryan Fitzpatrick being extremely conservative. Tannehill will prove to be a significant upgrade that will test Atlanta's secondary. Jarvis Landry, Rishard Matthews, Kenny Stills, and Greg Jennings pose a sturdy test for the young secondary. Landry's crafty route running as a slot receiver has given nickel cornerbacks fits on a weekly basis last season.
Whether Robert Alford or Philip Adams covers Landry, they will need to be technically sound. Marshall beat Adams on a few occasions last week to nobody's surprise. This could be a vital week for him in securing the nickel cornerback spot. With Jalen Collins suffering from growing pains, this could very well be Adams' job to lose. Let's not forget that Kevin White and Dezmen Southward will be competing for a roster spot as well. Southward looks stiff and hasn't been able to close down receivers in one-on-one situations. The former third-round pick's roster status looks to be in serious jeopardy.
Revamped defensive looking to impose their will
Atlanta's first-string defense has recorded consecutive shutouts in two pre-season games. The defensive line deserves major credit, especially without Desmond Trufant and William Moore in coverage last week. They've utilized stunts efficiently and haven't depended on blitzing to generate pressure. Vic Beasley, Adrian Clayborn, Jonathan Babineaux, and O'Brien Schofield have shown glimpses of causing havoc. Fitzpatrick was harassed excessively throughout the first half.
Besides maintaining consistency, the challenge is now set on the defensive alignment on first down. When Fitzpatrick was comfortable in the pocket, it was on first down and the defensive line was using Tyson Jackson or Grady Jarrett on the edge. The concept of playing a 290 to 300 pound lineman on the edge in a 4-3 defense always seems risky. They simply can't generate the same type of pass-rush as a natural edge player. This is vital in a pass-first league, where offenses utilize play-action frequently on first down. Could Adrian Clayborn or Kroy Biermann receive more opportunities on first down? Both edge rushers can play the run fairly well. If you can criticize anything about the first-string defense this pre-season, it has been the lack of pressure on first down.
Tight ends being more utilized within the offense
This subject may not be classified as highly important, but it's still imperative for the tight ends to become more involved. Jacob Tamme has been receiving rave reviews throughout training camp. Roddy White has even labeled him as "I Catch Everything" in reference of his ability. So far, the veteran tight end has only received one target through two games. It would be encouraging to see him catch a few passes, considering his reliability within making catches through traffic and being a prototypical tight end that can move the chains.
Tony Moeaki has been limited as well. A sense of optimism surrounded signing him through the free-agency period. While his health will always be questioned, Moeaki is very athletic and can help stretch the field. Both players will receive the majority of first-team snaps. Levine Toilolo could be employed as an extra tight end on goal-line situations. Dirk Koetter's failure of not getting the six-foot-eight tight end involved in the red zone proved to be detrimental at times last season. With Kyle Shanahan's reputation of producing solid production out of tight ends, Toilolo may play a bigger part than most fans would expect this season. All three players need to make their presence felt on Saturday.
"Hank Time" becomes full time in first-team offenses
It was reported that Roddy White has undergone minor elbow surgery this week. That will propel Leonard Hankerson into the starting lineup this week. The training camp standout has made a few crafty catches through two games. With the first-team offense likely playing the entire first half on Saturday, Hankerson will receive ample opportunities to continue proving his value. The former Redskin has showcased excellent route running through beating Antonio Cromartie on a slant last week. He also made a key third-down catch against Tennessee on the opening drive.
Besides Clayborn, there is growing optimism that Hankerson will prove to be the ultimate bargain deal of free agency. Matt Ryan already seems to be growing trust with him through consecutive games. Per Roddy White gradually aging, the talented receiving corps will receive more reps on Saturday. Justin Hardy has been slightly disappointing from dropping three passes in two games so far. Devin Hester will always be a threat, but isn't suitable for a full-time wide receiver role. Hankerson's size, speed, and route running should give Miami's underwhelming cornerbacks' fits (with the exception of Brent Grimes). We may witness a showcase game from him.