The Atlanta Falcons will square off against the Miami Dolphins in their third preseason game, which functions as the “dress rehearsal” game among the exhibition contests. This one will feature the team’s starters playing longer than in any other game and for several players looking to carve out roles on the first team, their last real chance to stake their claim.
But it also marks one of the last opportunities for several players to extend their dreams of playing in the NFL since the first round of cuts will come this Tuesday as teams are forced to pare down their rosters from 90 to 75 players.
That puts several Falcons in a position where they need to have big nights in Orlando tonight, whether it’s to keep their NFL dreams alive or to make their final push for a starting spot.
TE Levine Toilolo
As noted in my breakdown earlier, Toilolo’s blocking was less than acceptable against the Cleveland Browns last week in his first action of the preseason. That has made it so that D.J. Tialavea has created a significant amount of separation between the two in terms of which player is likely to land the coveted blocking tight end role that Toilolo filled a year ago. Perhaps Toilolo’s poor blocking can be attributed to his hand injury not being 100 percent recovered, but regardless he needs to close the gap between himself and Tialavea in regards to his blocking. Otherwise he might find his career with the Falcons coming to a close.
OG Wes Schweitzer
Schweitzer seemingly will get another opportunity to work with the first-team offense at right guard, where he has alternated series with veteran Chris Chester in each of the first two preseason games. It creates uncertainty if this is a legitimate battle, especially since Chester has played very well and Schweitzer has been erratic, as one expects from a rookie, particularly a late-round pick that is playing a new position.
However if Schweitzer does continue to get work with the starters, that likely means he’ll come face-to-face with one of the more fearsome interior defensive tackles in the league in the form of Ndamukong Suh. Schweitzer had a few too many lapses in pass protection last week against the Browns and has also struggled at times creating push in the run game. Those are two areas of weakness that Suh has made a career out of exploiting.
However if the battle for right guard is legit, then Schweitzer’s ability to hold his own against Suh will be a very strong signal that he could wind up stealing the job out from under Chester.
DE Derrick Shelby
Given that wide receiver Aldrick Robinson carved up his former team in the Washington Redskins and center Alex Mack played very well against his former team in the Cleveland Browns, it appears the trend could continue if Shelby can shine against his former team in the Dolphins.
Shelby certainly needs it after a lackluster start in the first two preseason games against the Redskins and Browns. It’s raised doubts over whether Shelby will add his name to the pantheon of free-agent flops along the defensive line that the Falcons have had in recent years that includes Ray Edwards and Osi Umenyiora.
Taking advantage of his former teammates would be a good way for Shelby to inspire at least a little more confidence that he won’t be just another “also ran” in Atlanta.
LB Deion Jones
While the smart money already says that Jones will open the regular season as the Falcons’ starting middle linebacker, a good performance tonight against the Dolphins will only cement that possibility as a certainty. Jones had a bad missed tackle on the opening play against the Browns last week, not fully quieting doubts over whether that area of his game has improved. Unsure tackling was the biggest area of weakness that he showed during his final season at LSU.
Sure tackling and heady defensive play are the two areas where Jones can solidify the coaches’ confidence tonight as the team looks to get more athletic in the middle of their defense. Jones has the skills the team desires and it’s almost a guarantee that he’ll be starting at some point in 2016, but a strong performance tonight will make it a lock for Week One.
CB Brian Poole
Besides Schweitzer working against Suh, Poole may face one of the biggest tests of the night when he goes up against Dolphins No. 1 receiver Jarvis Landry. Landry works exclusively out of the slot and Miami has designed their passing game around featuring him. Poole hasn’t been targeted at all through two preseason games but that is likely to change tonight as he’ll be primarily responsible for covering Miami’s top offensive weapon.
If Poole handles himself, he’ll solidify his status as the team’s opening-day nickel cornerback. If not, then the Falcons may be compelled to add a veteran off the waiver wire and move starter Robert Alford into the slot as they did often in 2015.
A poor performance from Poole shouldn’t kill his chances of making the roster however as his value on special teams and as a reserve safety should keep him relatively safe. But tonight’s game could determine whether Poole is a de facto starter that will play over 60 percent of the team’s snaps at the outset of the year versus a player that might have to spend the first month of the season on the inactive list as the fifth cornerback. It will be a huge litmus test for him and could go either way.
SS Keanu Neal
After a less than spectacular debut against the Browns, tonight’s Dolphins game offers redemption for the Falcons top 2016 draft selection. Neal gave up a touchdown last week and also was caught out of position on a handful of run plays. He needs to rebound this week, particularly in run support, where he made his name at the University of Florida.
Known for his fierce hitting, Neal should get opportunities to line up a bevy of Dolphins running backs in Arian Foster, Isaiah Pead and/or Jay Ajayi to deliver his trademark big hits.
While Neal doesn’t have to play at a high level to maintain his grip on the starting strong safety position, a good performance will instill a lot more optimism over how much he can positively impact the Falcons defense this year.