Five Things to Expect in Falcons vs. Dolphins

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Kemal Ishmael

Having done a smidgen of research by looking at last year’s trends in the Atlanta Falcons preseason opening loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, I have come up with five things that you can expect to see in this year’s opener against the Miami Dolphins.

1. Falcons Starters Will Not Play Much

Given the Falcons have only a handful of starting positions up for grabs, most of the team’s starters will be in limited action against the Dolphins. Last year, quarterback Matt Ryan and the starting offense played slightly more than a dozen snaps on the first three series. The defense was about the same.

Depending on how the Falcons perform on their first few series will likely determine if/when Mike Smith decides to pull the plug on them. If the offense marches down the field twice and scores touchdowns, then it’s likely Smith will be satisfied with that performance. But if they were to struggle on either drive, then expect Smith to give them a third to try and iron out the kinks. The same holds true for the defense.

While it’s possible that Smith could pull the starters after a single series, given the increased focus on “toughness” this summer, I suspect they’ll get at least two to try and show some.

It will be interesting to see which starters if any garner increased reps. Last year against the Cincinnati Bengals in the preseason opener, Lamar Holmes and Desmond Trufant were starters that earned extra reps with the second unit groups. If anybody likely gets similar treatment this year, it’s likely to be whoever lines up as the starting free safety, particularly if it’s an unproven player like Kemal Ishmael or Dezmen Southward.

2. Backup Linemen Will Show Growth

It’s very likely that the players that get the brunt of the work on offense will be the second-string offensive line and also likely to be the backup quarterback in T.J. Yates. With Ryan and the rest of the starters likely to give way at some point in the first quarter, expect the second-team to play through a good deal of the third quarter.

It will be a good opportunity to measure what, if any growth players like Lamar Holmes, Mike Johnson, Peter Konz, Harland Gunn and Ryan Schraeder have shown from last year. With Gabe Carimi nursing an ankle injury, it seems unlikely he’ll be pushed to play against Miami.

3. Rookies Will Make Plays on Defense

Expect a big part of this first preseason game to be evaluating the team’s defensive rookies. The team drafted seven players on that side of the ball, and if healthy they should see plenty of snaps. All except Marquis Spruill of course. Look in particular for linebacker Prince Shembo and defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman to get as much as they can handle. If healthy enough to play, Southward could also be added to that list.

Rookie linebackers like Shembo, as well as Tyler Starr, Jacques Smith and Yawin Smallwood should see a significant number of snaps, with the second half being their time to shine.

4. Freeman Will Carry the Load

Last year against the Bengals, the Falcons did a good job splitting up the reps and carries among six running backs including starter Steven Jackson. Jackson won’t play against Miami due to an injured hamstring. That leaves five runners to get the rest of the reps at running back.

It’s likely that rookie Devonta Freeman will see the majority of them. While Jacquizz Rodgers is likely to get the start ahead of him, it’s possible the team could limit Rodgers’ workload since he’s a relatively proven commodity. Plus, the team will want to give Freeman some reps with the first string offense if they can help it, likely causing Quizz to get an early hook.

5. Cornerbacks Will Play As Safeties

Right now the Falcons have only five fully healthy safeties on the roster. One of them is William Moore, who should see an early exit from the game with most of the defensive starters. But given the dearth of healthy alternatives, the Falcons coaching staff may be forced to play Moore an extra series of two with the reserves. Not an ideal situation for a player with Moore’s injury history.

One way the Falcons could mitigate that issue is to fully allow cornerbacks Robert McClain and Ricardo Allen to get in-game reps at safety. Ishmael and Sean Baker are strong bets to play the majority of snaps at safety on Friday night, but the Falcons need to be cautious about exposing anymore safeties to injury.

That gives them the incentive to try and mix in both McClain and Allen for a series or two to try to cut down on the workload on Ishmael, Baker, along with Kimario McFadden and newly signed Tyrell Johnson. It will also serve as a good evaluation tool for the coaching staff, with both corners getting a trial by fire with only a week’s work at the position.

Southward returned to practice this week, increasing the chances he plays. That will certainly help bolster the safety rotation if the team can count on him to play several series.

Later today, I’ll point out five players that you should specifically watch out for in tonight’s contest.

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