Football will finally be played in the Mercedes Benz Stadium. With the regular season approaching, the starters are expected to play for an entire half. It will be the final preparation for both units to gel under new coordinators.
Matt Ryan may have two of his top weapons back, as Julio Jones and Taylor Gabriel could make their return. The defense can finally face a starting quarterback after being matched up against Matt Moore and Josh Dobbs.
Despite the roster being mostly stabilized, the third preseason game usually produces some notable moments. How the offensive line fares against an excellent Arizona front seven will be something to monitor in the first half. They are known for running exotic blitzes and various twisting designs. After being mostly conservative in two appearances, Ryan could look to be more aggressive against a shaky Cardinals’ secondary. There is always plenty of intrigue about the defense. Here are the biggest storylines headed into Saturday.
Right guard takes full flight
After two preseason games, the Falcons are still deciding on their fifth starter on the offensive line. There hasn’t been any conclusive evidence to suggest Ben Garland or Wes Schweitzer have already won the starting job. Schweitzer continues to gain buzz following his clash with rising star Stephon Tuitt. It’s an encouraging sign that he has been on the field during their most successful drives. Dan Quinn openly praised him as one of the standout players against Pittsburgh.
Garland hasn’t received as much attention, but that shouldn’t be detrimental to his chances. The versatile lineman didn’t make any significant mistakes in either game. It will be fascinating to see how he matches up against Arizona’s bigger linemen. Corey Peters and Rodney Gunter should prove to be a strong challenge for him. As previously mentioned, the third preseason game usually determines major personnel decisions. Who can forget James Stone losing his spot as the starting left guard after his abysmal performance against Miami two years ago? This game will decide who is going to line up between Alex Mack and Ryan Schraeder to start the season, which seems like a pretty good gig.
More work for McKinley
McKinley only played ten snaps against Pittsburgh. The already popular pass rusher made the most of his limited opportunities. According to Pro Football Focus, he produced one hit and two hurries on eight pass rushes. His impressive production came against starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who recently received a well-deserved contract extension. It left fans glowing about his burst and bend off the edge.
While the coaching staff slowly moves him along, McKinley should get a more extensive look on Saturday. It was interesting to see him play in the nickel package. Some expected him to get inserted into the base package. Quinn is known for being unpredictable with his rotations. It’s important for McKinley to get acclimated to the NFL, before figuring out his exact role. There is genuine excitement about what he offers as a pass rusher. For all their improvement last season, the defensive line desperately needs another legitimate edge rusher. McKinley’s speed, relentless effort, and active hands could prove to be a nightmare for opposing left tackles.
De’Vondre Campbell’s expanding role
The second-year linebacker is going to be used as a strongside linebacker this season. That won’t prevent him from lining up alongside Deion Jones in the nickel package. While Duke Riley will receive a fair amount of snaps, Campbell is still an integral piece in Quinn’s rapidly improving defense. He is expected to continue his growth as a capable three-down linebacker. His long arms and range can give tight end fits in man coverage. A lack of awareness did cause him to blow several coverage assignments during an inconsistent rookie season. With more experience and tutelage, Campbell should grow into a more dependable linebacker.
What makes his development even more fascinating is an uptick in pass rushing opportunities. He has worked with Chuck Smith over the last two off-seasons. To learn from a pass rushing guru like Smith shows Campbell’s commitment towards becoming a multi-dimensional player. With Quinn looking to utilize him off the edge, another young talent could be emerging as a difference maker within an emerging defense. Bleacher Report’s Tyler Dunne wrote an excellent feature on Campbell’s story and desire to become great. It shows why Quinn took a chance on him in the fourth round.
Terron Ward attempts to cement his place
After being somewhat written off in recent years, Ward is having a stellar preseason. From his improved vision to handling pass blocking assignments, the resilient running back continues to look like the best option for the third running back spot. The coaching staff appears to trust him. Receiving 20 carries in two preseason games shows how much they value him. Quinn commended his toughness, along with his ability to play on special teams.
With Brian Hill failing to make any sort of impact, Ward is on the verge of maintaining his place on the roster. He looks far more comfortable within the zone blocking scheme. That isn’t shocking, given his experience backing up Devonta Freeman on several occasions over the past two seasons. Hill’s inability to adapt has caught some off guard. For a physical back, we haven’t seen enough of him breaking tackles or effectively finishing runs. The fifth-round back could use more playing time, as it’s far too early to write him off. With Freeman not playing for the rest of the preseason, Hill should receive more opportunities against Arizona and Jacksonville.
Cornerbacks attempt to stake their claim
There haven’t been any potential roster-changing performances yet. With Jalen Collins on the backburner, the coaching staff is focused on finding a suitable replacement. It was surprising to see Akeem King (along with Janor Jones) receive the most snaps out of all the corners against Pittsburgh. He was considered as an afterthought going into training camp. The former seventh round pick did struggle in man coverage last preseason. Although his interception came off a tipped pass, there were noticeable signs of him looking more comfortable.
The cornerback group simply needs to step up. C.J. Goodwin hasn’t built off his impressive training camp. After allowing a touchdown against Miami, he was repeatedly targeted last Sunday. Deji Olatoye was penalized on multiple plays. Blidi Wreh-Wilson had some positive moments, but will be sidelined for this game. The cornerback group will receive two golden opportunities within the next six days. Bruce Arians is always looking to create big plays, while Jacksonville is trying to figure out who is going to be their starting quarterback and save whatever is left of Blake Bortles. Each cornerback should be tested against two in flux offenses. Arians voiced his displeasure over the wide receiving corps. Expect to see a pass-oriented attack, especially with David Johnson likely being held out.