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Falcons vs. Jaguars: Biggest headlines for the all-important third week of preseason

Another stern test against a playoff team from the AFC should give the Falcons a fine tune up before the showdown in Philadelphia.

Kansas City Chiefs v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

It’s the week that everyone looks forward to in August. As the third preseason game approaches, the Atlanta Falcons are set for another compelling matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Dan Quinn should be excited to see how they fare on both sides of the ball in the trenches. There aren’t many teams better equipped to dominate up front than the Jaguars. With both lines still needing to answer some questions, this is a great opportunity for every player to either get ready for the regular season or prove their worth as a capable option on the roster.

The coaching staff has decided to keep Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman sidelined, as well as several other starters and contributors. That creates more opportunities for players trying to find their niche within the offense. While it’s disappointing not to see Jones square up against Jalen Ramsey, there is more than enough talent on the field to generate interest. Matt Ryan is coming off a strong performance against Kansas City. How he builds off it behind what appears to be a solidified offensive line is noteworthy against one of the few dominant defenses in the league. The rematch against Philadelphia is only 13 days away. It’s time for the first team to get their last game action, along with finalizing the remaining training camp battles.

Calvin Ridley show continues

The rookie wide receiver came as advertised last week. After only playing one drive against the Jets, Ridley made his presence felt against Kansas City. The front office drafted him to add another vertical dimension to the offense. That was evident on the second drive, as Ryan connected with Ridley for a 36-yard completion. David Amerson couldn’t stay in front of the shifty first round pick. He showed great footwork in setting up Amerson on the outside to beat him on the inside.

Intelligently using him on a shallow cross produced a first down. That led to Matt Schaub finding him for a touchdown on a well-designed rub route concept. Ridley calmly ran behind Eric Saubert and snuck into the end zone off a quick hitch. To see Steve Sarkisian utilize Ridley effectively in three different ways must be encouraging for Quinn. Sarkisian’s history with him at Alabama should benefit the embattled offensive coordinator in designing plays to get him involved. How they decide to use him against Jacksonville’s vaunted secondary will be fascinating.

As good as Ridley is, it would be audacious to believe he can get the better of Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye on a consistent basis.

A new starting right guard

At this time last week, the battle to start at right guard was extremely tight. Wes Schweitzer had come off a strong off-season. That elevated him into the conversation of starting again. Despite Brandon Fusco being signed to a fairly sizable contract, they refused to name him as the definitive starter. Fusco’s experience in the zone-blocking scheme was intended to fit nicely between Alex Mack and Ryan Schraeder. Those tactical viewpoints were on full display against the Chiefs.

It only took 14 snaps for Fusco to shine. Two of Tevin Coleman’s biggest runs came from running behind the veteran guard, which includes one tremendous pancake. It has put him on track as the clear favorite to start on opening night. Fusco’s athleticism and intelligence makes him an ideal fit in this system. How he fares against penetrative interior rushers is the biggest question about his game. Blocking Jacksonville’s array of nasty pass rushers will be a great test for him. Calais Campbell and Malik Jackson are capable of bullying guards, while rookie Taven Bryan’s blistering first step could present problems as well. The entire offensive line faces a daunting challenge against one of the deepest defensive lines in the league. Based on the circumstances, Fusco looks like a genuine solution for the Falcons’ prolonged issue at right guard.

Defensive line transition

If you had to pinpoint a potential issue that could hinder the Falcons’ defense progress, it must be about the major personnel changes up front. Dontari Poe and Adrian Clayborn are notable losses. Their departures could easily translate into devastating losses, if the promising young talent and new additions fail to elevate their game. Grady Jarrett was the only defensive lineman to play more snaps than Poe and Clayborn last season. Replacing two reliable players who played at a high level could make the difference in becoming a top five-caliber defense or regressing back to an average unit.

Quinn will be looking to use both rotations as much as possible in the first half. Although pass-rushing opportunities will be lessened against Jacksonville’s ultra-conservative offense, the front four must cope with their smash mouth attack. Signing Andrew Norwell shows the Jaguars’ intentions in building a powerhouse offensive line. Pairing an elite guard with promising second-year mammoth Cam Robinson has generated major excitement.

How the front four holds up should provide some evidence in how they’ll match up against Philadelphia’s outstanding offensive line. Expect to see Deadrin Senat play for an extended period of time, as the third-round pick continues to make a strong case for playing alongside Grady Jarrett in the base defense.

Observing the returner field

Despite trying out various players in two games, there isn’t much clarity on who will be the starting returner. Quinn hasn’t ruled out using a different player for kickoffs and punts. He has normally used one specific player to return kicks and punts alike, after all.

This is a different situation based on not having a true specialist in the return game. No player on the roster has the experience of Devin Hester, Eric Weems, or Andre Roberts. That creates several possibilities about their outlook.

Marvin Hall is the only player to return kickoffs and punts. Although he hasn’t generated any big plays, Hall showed promise with his blistering speed. Ridley raised some eyebrows with his impressive return on the opening kickoff against Kansas City. Expect him to receive more opportunities, as Keith Armstrong recently praised him for his natural returner ability. Ito Smith, Justin Hardy, and Isaiah Oliver are the other players in the conversation. Based on their credentials, Smith is the most intriguing option. The rookie running back’s shiftiness and lower body strength could give opposing teams’ problems.

Hall and Ridley remain as the favorites, but things can instantly change at such a volatile position with one big return, especially with Hall set to miss this upcoming game.