Preseason is a bit of an interesting time for football fans. On one hand, it means that football is back in our lives (hooray!); on the other hand, games don’t matter and the starters aren’t in for long.
For casual fans, it’s an opportunity to tune in for an hour or so and get a brief dose of football before seeking something a little more entertaining, like a pitcher’s duel or anything starring Nicholas Cage. Preseason games are meant for the football junkies who follow the storylines surrounding a team’s backup guard competition or third-string quarterback race.
Believe it or not, though, these contests can be interesting in their entirety as long as you know what to look for. As each quarter passes, new scenarios unfold that are worth following.
Here are five reasons to watch all of Thursday’s Falcons-Browns game:
Keanu Neal’s performance
This one is a no-brainer, but should be something new for fans who watched the start of last week’s victory over the Redskins. Safety Keanu Neal, the team’s first-round pick in this year’s draft, missed last week with a “trunk” injury but will be back in action against Cleveland.
The hard-hitting rookie out of Florida has impressed thus far in camp and will certainly be looking to make an impact in his first game action. Dan Quinn says he wants to strike a balance between getting Neal comfortable out there and staying healthy, so it’s unclear how long he will be on the field.
Regardless, he is expected to start immediately and should be an integral part of the team’s defensive plans for the foreseeable future. There’s no Atlanta traffic to deal with this week, but make sure you’re in your seat early or he may already be cooling down on the sideline.
Offense’s production from the starters
Possibly Definitely the most disappointing part of last week’s game was the production from the starting offensive unit. Although things did not go as planned – starting from the 1-yard line, and all – the performance was not one that inspired hope.
Expect Matt Ryan and Co. to be under the microscope in the team’s second preseason outing. The starting offense hasn’t been lights-out in training camp, and Ryan’s 0-4 outing looked even worse than it sounds last Thursday night.
Yes, it’s still way too early to start hitting the panic button, but after going through an entire offseason of questions about the offense, the starters need to do something to build momentum heading into the season.
Linebacker rotation throughout the game
The aforementioned reasons can be glimpsed early on in Thursday’s game, but this is something fans can monitor throughout.
One of this team’s more intriguing storylines this season will be the linebacker rotation. Rookies Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell have been very pleasant surprises thus far and should continue to be a source of optimism. Veteran Sean Weatherspoon looks rejuvenated in his return to the Falcons, and Paul Worrilow and Philip Wheeler are fighting to lock down starting roles.
The offseason competition seems to be working well for the unit. Players have stepped up when the spotlight is on, and the linebackers played well in space against Washington – something that couldn’t be said last year.
With a nice amount of depth, there should be familiar faces at the linebacker position deep into Thursday’s game, making it one of the positions worth watching all throughout.
Offensive role players late in the game
If the starting offense was the biggest disappointment last week, then the performance of the second- and third-string players was the most entertaining.
Backup quarterback Matt Schaub looked to be in mid-season form – No, I’m not on the #StartMattSchaub bandwagon – but we already know what he can do. It was the efforts of players like Austin Hooper, Aldrick Robinson and Nick Williams that were worth noticing.
Outside of the known offensive commodities, the team needs a player to step up. Many hope Hooper can become a threat inside the red zone, but he also demonstrated the ability to get separation as he was wide open on a long crossing route, but the ball sailed just out of reach.
Aldrick Robinson was the star of last week’s game, with a nod of respect to J.D. McKissic, with the veteran receiver catching three passes for 118 yards. His shot at making this team as the fourth receiver depends on his ability to become a legitimate downfield threat. Mission accomplished against the Redskins, but can he follow that up on Thursday?
Competing with Robinson for that fourth receiver spot is Nick Williams. The two players have different styles, though, and Robinson’s splashy homerun-type plays may give him the leg up. Williams is more comfortable working the intermediary zones and could turn in the type of 4-reception, 42-yard performance that doesn’t turn heads, but has a positive effect on the outcome.
Who steps up to provide secondary depth
This is a critical factor for the Falcons entering the season. While the starting secondary could be considered a strength, it’s extremely thin. With Jalen Collins suspended for the first four games, the team needs someone to step up and become a legitimate third option.
Against the Redskins, that didn’t happen. Atlanta’s reserve corners weren’t tested much, but there were a few moments of concern. C.J. Goodwin failed to close in on his man quickly enough to prevent a first-down conversion on third-and-long, and he was also fortunate that receiver Rashad Ross dropped a pass for what would have been a significant gain.
Akeem King, the team’s other primary contender for the spot in Collins’ absence, was also the beneficiary of a drop. Vernon Davis dropped what should have been a touchdown in the corner of the end zone but had a step on King, who was late reacting to the ball.
It's likely that Quinn and the coaching staff will want to figure out who can assert themselves into this role in an effort to get them some work next week in nickel packages, as the starters should go much further in the game. That means fans should be able to see Goodwin, King and Brian Poole well into this matchup with the Browns.