Last week, we took a look at the Falcons - Lions matchup the day before and wound up touching on several story lines that emerged during the first preseason game. Desmond Ridder did indeed show us flashes of his real potential, Matt Hennessy did indeed run with the starters and look just fine doing so, both lines had their moments good and bad, and the rookies largely did well in their opportunities.
This week, we’ll look ahead to Falcons - Jets and look for similar threads worth pulling on in a late night preseason game where the starters will likely receive just a quarter of playing time, if that. Here are a few things to look for (in addition to your own personal list) on Monday night.
How Falcons quarterbacks fare under pressure
Ridder was very good with a clean pocket against the Lions, and was not as sharp when he didn’t have that. Both he and Mariota showed themselves to be very effective runners—something that is extremely welcome—but we haven’t seen either quarterback operating extensively under pressure just yet.
That’s likely to change against a quality Jets front that got after both quarterbacks in this weekend’s joint practices, and that will be a welcome test. While Kaleb McGary’s quality summer is a cause for optimism, Atlanta’s line doesn’t figure to be good enough this season to give either quarterback leisure time in the pocket. We’ll want to see Ridder growing more comfortable as he gains more experience, and we’ll want to see how Mariota responds when under duress, particularly as a passer. We know he’s looked pretty good all summer and we know he can punish teams with his legs, but Football Outsiders had Mariota as one of the worst quarterbacks in the league under pressure back in his last full season as a starter in 2018.
If he’s made strides in that regard, it’ll help him hold on to the starting job longer and pilot this offense to greater success, and the Jets will at least provide a quick test of just that.
Resolution for the wide receiver battles
I wrote about this earlier in the week, but the Falcons essentially have eight players competing for one or two roster spots and some practice squad slots. With Drake London not playing and roster lock receivers like Bryan Edwards, Olamide Zaccheaus, and potentially KhaDarel Hodge not playing much, the remaining guys should get extensive run.
This should help us figure out who has a leg up on a roster spot, and it will help the Falcons determine who should stay and who should go ahead of the roster cut deadline this week. It’s unlikely the team will keep 12 receivers all the way up until the cutdown deadline for a 53 man roster
The rise of Dee Alford
At this point, Alford seems like a fairly strong bet to make the roster. After getting extensive playing time against the Lions and playing well, notching Atlanta’s lone interception, Alford has continued to draw praise from the coaching staff and got some run as the first-team nickel in practice.
Dee Alford getting some first team reps at nickel in that last 11-on-11 period. Really interesting to watch this almost meteoric rise of Alford up the 53-man.— Tori McElhaney (@tori_mcelhaney) August 19, 2022
The question will be whether the team seriously considers him as a contender to start at the nickel early on if Isaiah Oliver needs a little more time to get ready for the season, and if not, whether he’ll be the first man up. Another impressive effort against the Jets on Monday night should help him leapfrog Mike Ford for consideration here, and it may well cement a roster spot for the promising CFL import. Either way, it’ll be worth watching to see if he continues to separate himself from the pack, or if one of the other contenders like Lafayette Pitts or Teez Tabor can make a big push.
A better defensive effort
Atlanta’s defense struggled mightily at times against Detroit, which set off all the familiar hand-wringing for fans far too used to watching that side of the ball fall flat. Dean Pees is pledging a culture and mindset change and a great Falcons defense, and while that’s not an overnight job, strides in that direction would be a cause for at least minor celebration.
We’ll be looking for that against the Jets, particularly after Joe Flacco reportedly crisped the defense at times during joint practices on Friday. Will Ta’Quon Graham continue to impress up front alongside Grady Jarrett and Anthony Rush? Will the outside linebacker group deliver some pressure again, as Arnold Ebiketie and company did at times against Detroit? Will the secondary hold up better against some promising young receivers? These are all questions I’m eager (if apprehensive) to have answered after kickoff tomorrow.
What else will you have your eye on Monday night?