The Atlanta Falcons face the Tennessee Titans in the third preseason of the 2014 summer later tonight. Tge third preseason is often termed the “dress rehearsal” for the regular season because teams typically play their starters for the majority of the game.
The Falcons are likely to be no different with their starters playing the entire first half and at least one series of the third quarter. That puts a lot of focus on said starters as they should have plenty of opportunities to showcase their skills.
The Falcons have a few question marks among their starting group, and hopefully they’ll get the answers they seek tonight against the Titans. Thusly, there’s more Falcon players to keep your eyes on tonight as opposed to past preseason games, as this may be the last opportunity you get to watch many of them.
The Falcons top pick in 2014 will be making his professional debut at left tackle. He’ll be tasked with blocking the likes of Kamerion Wimbley, Jurrell Casey and Akeem Ayers on the right side of the Titans defense, all three being capable and established players. Matthews has had more ups than downs thus far this preseason. Despite a penalty-laden debut against the Dolphins, Matthews held his own against one of the league’s premier pass-rushers in Cameron Wake in that game. Last week, Matthews had no major issue dealing with the Texans pass-rushers. But it also probably helped that he didn’t have to face JaDeveon Clowney, as Sam Baker had.
This week will be a big test for Matthews, to see how quickly he can transition to playing the more difficult spot on the left side. If he fares well against the capable pass-rushers the Titans feature on his side of the line, things will be looking very promising heading into the regular season. If Matthews struggles, then it may signal another year or inconsistent offensive line play for the Falcons.
It’s not an exaggeration that Matthews’ performance this year will be a huge factor in whether the team will be back in the playoff hunt once again.
On the opposite side of the line, the Falcons have even a bigger question mark in Holmes. Even in Matthews manages to struggle this year, the expectations will remain that he’ll eventually be a good player. The same can’t be said for Holmes. While Holmes has shown improvement from a year ago, it remains to be seen if he’s improved to a level where he won’t be considered a liability up front. Holmes will be squaring off against a familiar opponent in Derrick Morgan, who along with other Titans defenders readily abused him last summer via stunts. Holmes looked lost being plugged into the lineup to replace Mike Johnson last year. This year’s re-match against the Titans will test whether Holmes is any better prepared for another trial-by-fire year.
Renfree has taken the lead in the race for the backup quarterback position, however that may have more to do with T.J. Yates’ abysmal performance against his former team in the Texans than anything Renfree did. This week, Renfree has the opportunity to really put a stamp on the competition with a strong performance rather than simply be the de facto winner because he’s not as bad as Yates.
The Falcons have pushed Hageman hard this summer, with him playing the second-most snaps (55) of any defender on the team thus far in the preseason according to premium website Pro Football Focus. Hageman has struggled with conditioning and consistency this summer, flashing the sort of power and strength that can make a force along the line of scrimmage, but then the very next play getting pushed around by an undersized guard. Once he figures out how to play his best brand of football every snap, he could be special. So expect the Falcons to continue to rotate Hageman heavily in the lineup, including a few reps working with the first-team units.
With fellow competitor Mickey Shuler recovering from a concussion, Pascoe has an opportunity to solidify his spot. He was signed to be the backup to Levine Toilolo and act as an extra blocker, but thus far has been underwhelming in that capacity. While making plays as a receiver won’t really affect Pascoe’s chances, he does need to step up his production in the run game. Otherwise the Falcons may feel compelled to scour the waiver wire for someone else that can perform Pascoe’s duties more ably.
Reports surfaced earlier this week that the Falcons were prepping Arenas to get a shot with the starters at the nickel cornerback position. Josh Wilson has earned the majority of those snaps through the first two preseason games. Robert McClain, Arenas’ other competition for the gig, is also a known commodity that should have no problem making the roster if only for his special teams coverage ability. That means Arenas is potentially on the bubble. Arenas made a couple of good plays against the Dolphins, but didn’t follow up that up particularly well against the Texans. If he can make some plays against the Titans, especially when facing their top slot receiver: Kendall Wright, Arenas could solidify a roster spot.
Like Hageman, Shembo has played a lot this summer and all signs are pointing to him starting sooner rather than later. Starter Joplo Bartu has been underwhelming this summer, particularly against the run. That is an area where Shembo has the size and toughness to be an upgrade. And Shembo has shown a lot more comfort playing in coverage than a converted pass-rusher probably should. He’s been seeing increased reps with the starters in practice and thus could see first-half work tonight against the Titans, and if he looks good while doing it, it might be the final thing that pushes him into a starting gig.