After a solid all-around performance against the Redskins, the Falcons travel to Cleveland tonight. The starters will likely play into the second quarter in this one, which means this is always one of the more anticipated weeks for preseason, since the first team is trying to gel and certain players are trying to validate their spot in the starting lineup.
Given the roster turnover and rookies expected to contribute this season, there is plenty of intrigue surrounding Dan Quinn's team. The first team offense could play more than usual, considering their lackluster performance against Washington. Dwight Freeney and Keanu Neal will be making their Falcon debuts as well. Here are five things to watch for tonight.
First-team offense tries to find their groove
Matt Ryan received some criticism following last week's performance against Washington. It was a bit harsh, considering the circumstances of both drives. The first drive started at the one-yard line, while Redskins cornerback Quinton Dunbar should have been called for pass interference on Mohamed Sanu during the second drive. Two disappointing drives shouldn't cause outrage about an eight-year veteran quarterback. Ryan feels the pressure of needing to bounce back from the worst season of his career.
The starters should play into the second quarter, as I noted. How the Falcons integrate Tevin Coleman and Austin Hooper will be important as well. Despite not being listed as starters, they will need to be difference makers this season. Both guard positions appear to be open right now. Mike Person received first-team snaps at left guard last week. He did struggle heavily in pass protection. Chris Chester needs to prove that he recovered from shoulder surgery. The defense has received most of the attention over the past few training camps. After Ryan's disappointing 2015 season and a supporting cast filled with new (and young) players, the attention between both units is more balanced than ever.
Dwight Freeney's debut
According to Vaughn McClure of ESPN, Freeney is expected to play the equivalent of a quarter. The legendary pass rusher will be a valuable piece in Quinn's nickel package. There has been some discussion about moving Adrian Clayborn back inside to accommodate Freeney. That will help Derrick Shelby stay fresh and add more speed to the defensive line. Clayborn's first step gave opposing guards problems at times last season. He did struggle against the run, due to his lack of size on the interior. As he proved last season, nothing is certain with Quinn's unpredictable rotations.
It's surprising to see Freeney play in the preseason, given his experience and value to the defense. They need to manage his snaps effectively for him to have a lasting impact. The prospect of Freeney and Vic Beasley on the edge is very intriguing. Freeney's influence showed last week, as Beasley used a spin move on Morgan Moses and forced Colt McCoy into an incompletion on third down. His spin move looked much improved compared to last season, where Beasley was awkward, when trying to spin past offensive tackles. Besides playing a mentor role, Freeney will bring much-needed pressure, which starts against stellar left tackle Joe Thomas in a matchup of potential future Hall Of Famers.
Additional opportunities for the rookies on defense
For the second consecutive year, there seems to be increased optimism about the rookie class. During the Mike Smith era, fans didn't feel quite as eager to see the rookies excluding Ryan and Julio Jones. Underwhelming picks and Smith rarely starting rookies may have caused the lack of excitement. Quinn is the exact opposite, as four rookies are expected to be valuable contributors this season.
Keanu Neal will be making his debut tonight. For the first time since 2010, the Falcons are starting two young safeties. Ricardo Allen has made it a priority to take Neal under his wing. The chemistry between both safeties will be essential, as Quinn's scheme is very dependent on quality safety play. Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell are coming off productive performances against Washington. Quinn could look to play both players with the first-team defense. They were limited to playing with second-team defense, although it didn't prevent them from making open-field tackles and getting off blocks successfully.
Sean Weatherspoon's potential resurgence
Weatherspoon was easily one of the standout players from last Thursday. He actually lined up at middle linebacker, while Paul Worrilow moved to the weak side position. The position change brought the best out of Weatherspoon. He made two thunderous hits on Matt Jones, including one in the open field. To see the versatile linebacker playing as physical as ever was encouraging.
There will always be questions about his durability. The last three seasons have been disastrous for the once-budding star linebacker. His performance against Washington showed that he's still capable of playing at a high level under some capacity. At 28 years old, Weatherspoon is in his prime, and If he manages to stay healthy, the defense could possibly have a decent linebacker unit for the first time since 2012. Jones and Campbell deserve to be praised for their instant impact. Let's not forget about the returning fan favorite, who was viewed as one of Atlanta's most important pieces only 18 months ago by Thomas Dimitroff.
Cornerback battle continues
This will be a reoccurring section to every preseason preview column. According to Quinn, the defense will line up in their nickel package for at least 60 percent of snaps. That makes having three competent cornerbacks so valuable in today's game. With Jalen Collins' suspension, someone will need to emerge and play a significant role for four games.
Nobody made any strong impressions last week, although Washington's conservative game plan didn't offer many opportunities. Brian Poole lined up as the first-team nickel cornerback and looked comfortable. My colleague David Walker mentioned that Poole's physical style could make up for his lack of height at five-foot-ten. Akeem King is considered as the favorite, but nearly allowed a touchdown to Vernon Davis. C.J. Goodwin was also fortunate to not allow a 40-yard catch to Rashad Ross. Hopefully, Cleveland's offense provides an actual test for each cornerback rather than settling for check downs and screens like Washington.