The Falcons will be on national television tonight against Miami. When it comes to preseason games, there aren't many memories more painful than Miami's defensive line bullying Atlanta's offensive line on every snap last year. Earl Mitchell sent James Stone to the bench. Derrick Shelby made some extra money from walloping Ryan Schraeder. Unsurprisingly, Ndamukong Suh manhandled Chris Chester as well. It was one of the most one-sided trench battles in recent memory.
With Andy Levitre and Alex Mack added to the starting lineup, the offensive line should be well prepared. This is the most important game of preseason with the starters playing for an entire half. Following last year's massacre, this matchup is slightly more interesting than an average preseason game. How both lines play will be crucial, and there are position battles to account for. Here are five things to watch for tonight.
First look at the new pass rush
Vic Beasley is expected to play tonight. This will allow the coaching staff to use Beasley and Dwight Freeney on the edge. The Falcons haven't had a pass-rushing duo of this caliber since Patrick Kerney and John Abraham. Neither Beasley nor Freeney is on the duo's level at this stage of their respective careers. Hopefully, they play more than two games together, as Abraham and Kerney suffered from injury-plagued seasons in 2006. They will face a sturdy duo, as Branden Albert and Ja'Wuan James are one of the better offensive tackle duos in the league.
It will also be interesting to see who lines up on the interior. Jonathan Babineaux will retain his spot from last year. The other player should be Adrian Clayborn, but Dan Quinn is intrigued by Shelby's versatility. That could change following Shelby's horrific performance against Cleveland. The front office made it a priority to re-sign Clayborn. They need to utilize him under some capacity. Freeney won't play every snap in their nickel package, so Clayborn could move to the edge on some occasions. How Quinn uses Freeney, Clayborn, and Shelby will be fascinating.
Offensive line faces stern test
The 2013 Falcons offensive line played like the most hopeless unit ever assembled in franchise history. Lamar Holmes, Peter Konz, Garrett Reynolds, and Jeremy Trueblood weren't capable of preventing any defensive lineman from generating pressure or stopping the run. Somehow, the offensive line against Miami last year managed to surpass them in a single game performance. Although Miami's defensive line was heavily touted, it was still unacceptable for them to get completely abused.
The starting offensive line may avoid Cameron Wake, who is currently a game-time decision. Mario Williams is a downgrade from Olivier Vernon. They still possess an above-average defensive line, however, led by Suh. After dominating a porous Browns front seven, this should be a more significant challenge from a talent perspective. Atlanta's offensive line is expected to be one of the top units in the league. A strong performance will boost morale and the belief that they could reach those lofty expectations.
Linebackers' last showcase
Ryan Tannehill will likely throw short to intermediate passes under Adam Gase's offense. That will force the linebackers to be more active in coverage. All four starting candidates could be forced into one-on-one matchups or responsible for covering acres of space. Deion Jones and DeVondre Campbell started last game, but failed to stand out. Campbell's lack of instincts and Jones' poor tackling habits were evident.
Each linebacker will likely contribute to start the season. Sean Weatherspoon is having a strong preseason. Paul Worrilow remains as a favorite amongst the coaching staff. Weatherspoon and Worrilow may line up together in the base defense, while Campbell and Jones play in the nickel defense. The coaching staff seems to be pleased with every linebacker so far, judging by their comments. This is an unpredictable battle, where someone will need to truly stand out if they want to claim a three-down linebacker role.
Matt Ryan receives a favorable matchup
The biggest Achilles heel in Miami's defense has to be their secondary. They've failed to sign any true number one cornerback or draft any promising prospects. Byron Maxwell is listed as their number one cornerback, as he is still recovering from Julio Jones torching him last season. Other below average cornerbacks such as Brice McClain and Tony Lippett are expected to play in their first team defense.
This is an excellent opportunity for Matt Ryan to gain some momentum going into the regular season. It's been an unspectacular preseason so far. Kyle Shanahan is calling mostly short passes and play-action rollouts. Ryan looks more comfortable rolling out to his right side. That has become one of Shanahan's most common play calls. The relationship between Ryan and Shanahan appears to be improving. With the franchise quarterback adapting to a new offense, the coaching staff should allow him to utilize his strongest asset more often, which is running the no-huddle offense. Ryan should look to target Miami's below average linebackers and cornerbacks, while continuing to gel with new additions such as Mohamed Sanu.
Open cornerback battle continues
Similar to Washington, Cleveland didn't test any of the cornerbacks. Akeem King, Brian Poole, and DeMarcus Van Dyke weren't targeted. C.J Goodwin should return from a knee injury. Defensive backs coach Marquand Manuel endorsed Goodwin as the most athletic ballhawk in the secondary. If he can improve on his footwork and hip movement, the converted wide receiver could make the team.
Miami's wide receivers should heavily test them. Leonte Carroo and Jakeem Grant are two explosive rookies. They could be targeted during the second half, as both second teams will be matched against each other. It won't only be the second team that should gain much-needed competition. Quinn has used Poole as a nickel corner within the first team defense. A potential matchup against Jarvis Landry would be an excellent learning experience. If he can defy the odds and not be overwhelmed, Poole could have the inside track to earn the third cornerback spot for four games.