It’s nearly time. The Falcons finish off preseason against the Steelers tonight, and then the milestones are familiar and will arrive swiftly: Roster cuts, practice squad assembly, and then Week 1 of the NFL season.
Given that several roster spots seem to still be undetermined and the team could always use a little more live game action before kicking off the most hotly-anticipated season since 2017, even a typically boring preseason finale will have a little spice to it. Let’s talk about what to anticipate tonight.
What are the stakes?
There are three stakes to drive into the ground here, so to speak, and those stakes have stakes.
The first is health. The Falcons have seen injuries pile up in recent weeks, with Matt Hennessy lost to injured reserve, Mike Hughes and Cordarrelle Patterson possibly missing the early part of the season, and Jeff Okudah working his way back. Coming out of this Thursday night game as healthy as possible, especially for the starters, is of paramount importance. It will be on the team’s mind, and obviously any significant ailments will cause problems for this team ahead of Week 1.
The second is preparation. For young starters who do play and key reserves and special teamers who will be out there in Week 1, it’s more playing time and an opportunity to prove they’re ready for whatever role they may be sliding into. If you’re making this roster, being ready to contribute at a high level is still critically important, even if you’re not worrying about your spot. This raises the question of whether all the starters should play given how sloppy the penalties were last Friday night; that’s a debate I won’t attempt to solve here. Being ready to hit the ground running in Week 1 is a priority, and regardless of how much the starters play, they have to be ready after the Falcons have started 0-2 each of the past two seasons.
The third is making the roster. For anywhere from 10-15 players, this last preseason game might help determine whether they actually stick on the 53 man roster, and thus strong performances are crucial. It doesn’t matter if the Steelers play their starters (though they likely will) or whether they roll out exclusively third-stringers; players who don’t have a spot sewn up have to show up or risk being cut in a few days.
How the Steelers have changed
You will not be surprised to learn that a franchise known for stability is relatively unchanged. Mike Tomlin has been coaching this squad since 2007 and has never seen a losing season, so there’s only so much shaking up that’s going to happen.
On offense, the two expected changes to the starting lineup are Allen Robinson at receiver and Isaac Seumalo at left guard. Seumalo is likely a small but real upgrade over Kevin Dotson, who is now his direct backup. Robinson just doesn’t move the needle the way he used to, but if healthy he’ll be a useful option for a team that finished the year with Steven Sims as their slot receiver.
Defensively, the changes are a bit more significant. The Steelers are expected to have new starters at every level, with rookie Keeanu Benton sliding in at nose tackle, Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts sliding in at inside linebacker, and Patrick Peterson and Chandon Sullivan starting at cornerback. Old friend Damontae Kazee is penciled in as a starting safety, as well.
The upshot here is that the Steelers are trying to make strides forward after two straight nine win seasons with a team that looks pretty similar, counting on defensive upgrades, progress from Kenny Pickett and George Pickens, and their typically solid coaching to carry them to greater heights.
What to expect
A brief glimpse at some of the starters, if we even see most of them, and a long night of competition for reserves. The final preseason game tends to bog down a bit, but the Falcons have done a nice job of putting a more interesting and competitive product on the field than in previous preseasons. We’ll stick around for what entertainment we get and the all-important implications of roster battles.
I’d also look for:
- A long look at the team’s roster hopefuls along the offensive line. Jalen Mayfield, Josh Miles, Kyle Hinton, and perhaps Jonotthan Harrison are in the mix for spots right now, and giving them a chance to prove they not only belong on the roster but should stay there when the Falcons start poring through other teams’ cuts is a vital piece of the puzzle for a team with questionable line depth.
- The pecking order. Guys coming out in the second half of the game are, I’d wager, not particularly likely to make the roster. They can, however, still make a push for a practice squad spot. Those players coming out directly behind the starters, on the other hand, should be considered to be those still vying for jobs. If Cornell Armstrong returns and plays ahead of Darren Hall, for a pure hypothetical, that would seem to speak volumes.
- A focus on discipline. The Falcons were penalized an absurd number of times against the Bengals, especially when the starters were on the field, and getting that cleaned up across the board is a point of emphasis as a result. Look for fewer calls and a tighter game.
- Godwin Igwebuike ripping off a huge run or two. It’s tradition, at this point.