Atlanta Falcons defensive linemen Corey Peters and Osi Umenyiora talk on the sideline during the second half of their NFL preseason football game against the Baltimore Ravens in Baltimore, on Aug. 15. (Reuters)
FLOWERY BRANCH — The third preseason game is usually a dry run for the regular season, at least it has been since Mike Smith took the job as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons in 2008.
Unlike other preseason games, the coaching staff put together a game plan for Atlanta’s trip to Nashville to play the Tennessee Titans today. The Falcons will also keep their first team on the field the entire first half, come into the locker room to make adjustments and then send the starters back out onto the field.
“Our starters will play significantly more time in this ball game,” said Smith. “I plan on taking them through the half and getting them some good work. [They’ll be] coming out after halftime and we’ll let some of the younger guys finish the game.”
Today’s game at LP Field is an important test for not only the players, but the coaches as well. This will be the first time the team has pared down its playbook and chosen plays that attack the Titans’ weaknesses. Up until this point, Atlanta has only been working on adjusting its own schemes.
That’s why you’ve seen running back Steven Jackson repeatedly run toward the right side where second-year tackle Lamar Holmes is starting for the first time. The coaching staff needed to see how Holmes would handle the assignment and how successful Jackson could be moving behind Holmes.
While the development of Holmes and the rest of the roster is still important in game action, it now becomes vital for Atlanta to gauge how well its game plan fares against an opponent. The coaching staff will use these two and a half, possible three quarters of play that the starters get to fine tune its future strategy sessions.
But don’t expect the Falcons to completely open the playbook. This is still the preseason and wins and losses don’t count for another two weeks. There’s no need for Atlanta to put every play in its repertoire on film for other coaches to dissect.
“There’s certain things we’re not going to show, simply because it is the preseason,” said Smith. “We would like to see how the guys handle specific situations that we have game planned for in our weekly preparations. But we’re not going to show, just like Tennessee’s not going to show, the things that we’ve really worked on that we’re holding back for the regular season.”
Another portion of the starting lineup that the Falcons won’t show includes two starters. Wide receiver Roddy White (ankle) and linebacker Stephen Nicholas (quad) will not play against the Titans.
Five Things To Watch
1. Tony Gonzalez is making his preseason debut against the Titans after missing all but three training camp sessions to spend time with his family in California. He admitted to being a little rusty this week in practice, so watch how he handles his time on the field. This game may be the final time he steps on the field until the regular season as Atlanta typically holds its stars out of preseason Week 4 action.
2. The position battle at right tackle seems all but over as Holmes has emerged as the front-runner to undrafted rookie Ryan Schraeder. But Schraeder offers cross-training opportunities as he can play both sides of the line, so watch how he handles his time once the starters exit. “Lamar is going to take the majority of the snaps with the first group,” said Smith. “But we’ve got to be able to have guys that can play both on the right and left side. The way that the rotation is going to go, there’s a chance that you’ll see Schraeder in there at right tackle.”
3. When you see Joplo Bartu working in with the starters today, don’t be alarmed. Bartu has had an incredibly successful training camp and has even worked his way from undrafted rookie to taking reps with the first team. Bartu thrives in coverage, which was a weakness for this linebacker corps last season.
4. Since the starters will be playing an extended amount of time today, reserves that are pushing to make the final roster must make the most of their limited time. Undrafted rookie linebacker Paul Worrilow leads the Falcons with 19 tackles through two preseason games and ranks third on the team in time on the field with 76 snaps played. He won’t play as much against the Titans as he has in the first two games and needs to make his presence known quickly.
5. Only three teams last season gave up more yards per rushing attempt than Atlanta when it allowed running backs 4.8 yards per carry. The defense faces a speedy Chris Johnson today and he’ll test the front seven’s ability to make tackles on first contact. Keep an eye on how much yardage the Falcons first-team defense allows.