The preseason continues on Sunday, as the Falcons travel to Pittsburgh for what should a nice tune-up before the key third preseason game. Dan Quinn will look to use his starters for at least an entire quarter. Although several players aren’t expected to play, there are still more than enough prominent names in a matchup between two Super Bowl contenders.
Steve Sarkisian may open up the playbook a bit more. It was evident that his game plan was ultra conservative against Miami. With big shoes to fill, there will be plenty of attention on the new offensive coordinator. The second preseason game usually gives us a better look at positional battles and defensive alignment. Here are the biggest storylines headed into this game.
Expecting more from the defensive line
There has been plenty of buzz about the Falcons’ defense. High expectations are being placed on a promising unit following their impressive performances against Green Bay and Seattle in the playoffs. For them to develop into an above average defense, it starts with the defensive line being more productive. They were far too reliant on Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, Adrian Clayborn, and Brooks Reed last season. With new signings, players returning from serious injury, and drafting Takkarist McKinley, the defensive line should be more consistent.
Pittsburgh’s offensive line should provide a sturdy test. They are one of the top groups in the league, despite not having many big names. Quinn was vocal about expecting more out of the pass rush following last week’s game against Miami. While McKinley is currently questionable, other notable players should expect to see more playing time. How Clayborn and Derrick Shelby fare on Sunday is worth monitoring, considering both players are coming off season-ending injuries. Jack Crawford is expected to make his debut as well. Quinn wanted to assemble a large group of versatile players on the defensive line. It’s time for the talent on paper to start causing havoc on the field.
Right guard battle continues
It was surprising to see Wes Schweitzer play far more than Ben Garland last week. Garland could use more reps to acclimate himself at a different position during game action. He didn’t fare well against Ndamukong Suh, which was to be expected. Garland isn’t the most powerful blocker. Many consider him to be a nimble, crafty guard that can excel using his athleticism. He should receive a sizable increase in snaps against a talented front seven.
The hefty workload should continue for Schweitzer. After holding his own against Suh on a few plays, he put himself in a good place. Schweitzer’s pass protection proved to be a major issue last preseason. He struggled against power rushers and looked overwhelmed at times. Staying composed against an All-Pro defensive tackle (albeit in preseason) is an encouraging sign about his progression. This battle should start to pick up now. It’s difficult to predict a winner, but there is no denying Schweitzer has earned more praise over the past few weeks.
Spotlighting the other running backs
With Devonta Freeman suffering a concussion, there will be more carries to go around in a crowded backfield. The Falcons have been working out and signing running backs over the last two weeks. It still seems highly unlikely that any of them will seriously challenge Terron Ward or Brian Hill for the third running back spot. Both players received the bulk of the workload against Miami. The coaching staff likely prefers a more power-based back, considering what they have in Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
Ward made several standout plays last week. His vision continues to look better, along with showing more burst. Many fans view Ward as an uninspiring option, considering his lack of flashiness. That is unfortunate because the former undrafted free agent has genuinely improved. He also impressed in pass protection by flipping over a free blitzer on the left side. Hill is considered as the more powerful, exciting option. He will need to show better vision as a ball carrier. A lack of effort on special teams didn’t help his case either. Kelvin Taylor and Jhurell Pressley are the other running backs that could receive some work as well.
Jalen Collins saga
The former second round pick needs to recover quickly after enduring the worst week of his NFL career. Receiving a ten-game suspension and getting repeatedly beaten by Damore’ea Stringfellow was completely unexpected. You don’t want to make assumptions about a player’s mindset, because nobody knows what Collins is feeling right now. The pressure is only going to intensify following what transpired last week. Quinn isn’t the type of coach that will allow liabilities to linger on his roster. Although Collins shouldn’t be considered as one, the enigmatic corner may not receive the same amount of chances as another inconsistent player like Ra’Shede Hageman did.
For someone that can’t play a meaningful game until November, it may seem strange that Collins is on the list. The coaching staff may decide not to play him at all. C.J. Goodwin, Deji Olatoye, and Blidi Wreh-Wilson need reps to validate themselves as players that should be on the active roster. We may not see Collins until the fourth quarter. Regardless of how much he plays, a positive impression is imperative. That will come from playing more physical and locating deep balls better. Those were Collins’ biggest flaws last season, besides his knack for playing stiff and struggling to change direction. Pittsburgh’s deep wide receiving corps should provide an excellent challenge for him.
Assessing the backup offensive tackles
The Falcons look set to rely on youth rather than experience behind Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder. Although it’s not a particularly exciting battle, one of them could be called into action at any point. Tom Compton had to fill in during critical moments last season. He struggled in both losses to Kansas City and New England. The crowded battle between Daniel Brunskill, D.J. Tialavea, Andreas Knappe, and Kevin Graf is slowly starting to garner some attention.
All four players are relatively unknown. Tialavea’s conversion from tight end to tackle came rather unexpected. It does make sense, given that the tight end position is very crowded and he doesn’t offer much from a pass-catching aspect. Knappe’s inspiring story makes him someone that fans can get behind. Brunskill played the most out of everyone, yet struggled heavily in pass protection. Facing a first round pick in Charles Harris didn’t do him any favors. Graf didn’t play last week, which puts him at a disadvantage. Expect all four players to get countless opportunities to earn a place on the roster. Tialavea shined as a run blocker last week and appears to be making a smoother transition than most initially expected.