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What to know about Falcons vs. Bengals in preseason Week 2

Atlanta gets another preseason test, this time at home.

Atlanta Falcons v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Atlanta took care of business in its first preseason game, coming up with a double digit win driven heavily by an admirably aggressive group of reserves on defense. This week, the Bengals are coming to town, bringing with them a roster that has gone to back-to-back AFC Championship Games.

Given that the Falcons and Cincinnati are both likely to bring their starters out briefly for this one, there’s an added dimension to this game that wasn’t present against Miami. For the most part, though, we’re looking

Here’s what you ought to know about the game ahead.

What are the stakes?

The same as a week ago, with an enhancement.

The starters being on the field for Atlanta will mean that we’re closely scrutinizing how they fare. Defensively they’ll have the luxury of not facing Joe Burrow, which will make it difficult to get a read on how the starters fare, but the challenge of handling Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd is still a stiff one. On offense, against a good-but-not-world-beating defense, we’re certainly going to look for at least a baseline level of competence and some positive plays before they exit, or the ol’ anxiety is going to kick up a notch. The stakes are just this: Look good and we’ll feel good heading into the season, look shaky and many Falcons fans will worry, making these stakes pretty fan-centric.

For the reserves we received a strong reminder of the stakes this week. Mykal Walker was shaky in preseason action and got cut, while Frank Darby got injured and found himself waived with an injury designation. Staying healthy and playing well is absolutely critical for roster hopefuls, particularly those like Xavier Malone, DeMarcco Hellams, and Breon Borders who are coming off terrific weeks and have a strengthened case for a spot. Every one of these games matters a great deal to players trying to make it, and for new additions like Frank Ginda, these next two games are all they get.

Finally, the stakes are meaningful for Ryan Nielsen and the defensive coaching staff, who are trying to preview a season of Atlanta bullying offenses effectively. I said last week that it would be a point of pride for Nielsen to put the brakes on the Dolphins early when the starters/high-level reserves were in, but he and his players got the job done all game long. If that continues against another very capable offense, the hype will continue to ramp up.

How the Bengals have changed

Not a lot, really.

The only changes to the starting lineup on offense for Cincinnati come at left tackle (which, to be fair, is vital) with the addition of Orlando Brown Jr. and tight end with the signing of Irv Smith Jr. Brown has been consistently a quality player, allowing 3-4 sacks per year and grading out very well in pass protection per Pro Football Focus, and the Bengals are hoping having him at left tackle and shifting Jonah Williams to right tackle will pay dividends for the line. Smith, meanwhile, is still a young and intriguing player at 25 who has yet to unlock his full potential despite tantalizing glimpses in Minnesota.

Defensively it’s a similar story, with only former Rams safety Nick Scott figuring to crack the starting lineup out of new additions in the draft and free agency. Scott is a reliable veteran who should be stone solid as a starter, but given that he’s replacing Jessie Bates, the defense is certainly downgraded a bit on the back end.

Finally, special teams features a new punter and potentially new returner. Brad Robbins was an effective option for Michigan in college, showing a knack for achieving considerable hangtime with his punts, and the Bengals scooped him up in the sixth round hoping he can do that in the pros. Rookie receiver Charlies Jones is currently considered the favorite to command kick and punt return duties in 2023.

The other big story line, naturally, is Joe Burrow’s status. We won’t see him this week as he recovers from an injury, but the Bengals are hoping he’ll be available for Week 1 of the season.

Overall, though, this team is quite similar to the one the Falcons saw last year. They will get a good luck at some of the team’s rookies owing to this being a preseason game, including the very intriguing athletic freak Andrei Iosivas at receiver.

What to expect

A challenge, first of all. The Bengals may not have Burrow, but their starting lineups on both sides of the ball are capable ones, and they’ll be a nice tune-up for the starters. Depth-wise we can debate whether they’re as talented as Miami’s reserves—I tend to think it’s close—but again, they shouldn’t be a pushover for these very game Atlanta backups.

I’d also look for:

  • A focus on getting receivers work. Logan Woodside is going to play the entire second half, at minimum, and I’d expect him to have a mandate to sling it. Right now the Falcons don’t seem to have a ton of separation for who gets a possible fifth and/or sixth receiver role, and with Frank Darby exiting owing to injury the picture is further muddled. I’d expect Atlanta to be aggressive about not only finding playing time for all their options, but also getting them the ball. This is a prime opportunity for Xavier Malone to build on his strong work in Week 1 of preseason and grab a spot.
  • Defensive ruggedness, again. It may not happen with the starters in the game, but one the Bengals and Falcons turn to their reserves, I’m expecting to see a tight game from the group that was so effective a week ago. I don’t expect Cincy to be as effective running the ball as Miami was a week ago, and I think it’s likely unfair to expect five sacks and three turnovers, but we should still a balanced, solid effort that makes this game watchable and helps make the case for roster hopefuls like Hellams, Borders, Timothy Horne, Albert Huggins, and others.
  • Bijan Robinson touchdown run. Let’s kick this thing off right, eh?