The Atlanta Falcons play host to the Baltimore Ravens Thursday at 7:30 p.m. ET at the Georgia Dome. It’s the first preseason game for both teams and the first opportunity to see players run and hit at full speed against each other.
The main goal is to get through this game as healthy as possible. After that, the Falcons will be looking at four other aspects of the game very closely:
1. The offensive line
After practice on Tuesday, head coach Mike Smith said with certainty that he’d be focused the most on Atlanta’s offensive line.
“We want to be able to protect the quarterback,” said Smith. “That’s going to be the first thing when we throw the football, and controlling the line of scrimmage.”
Atlanta used its first two draft picks on offensive lineman to bolster an area that needs improvement from last year. Neither of those two rookies have broken onto the first team, but they’ll get playing time as Smith has opened competition for every position on the line.
Just because the coaching staff claims every position is open, there’s just two that truly are: left tackle and right guard. Sam Baker and Garrett Reynolds, respectively, hold the starting jobs at those positions right now, but watch Will Svitek and Peter Konz closely on Thursday.
2. The battle for the fifth wide receiver spot
Atlanta is set with Roddy White, Julio Jones and Harry Douglas as the team’s first three receivers. It’s also pretty obvious that Kerry Meier is safe at the fourth spot on the depth chart.
Last season the Falcons carried just five wideouts on the active roster, which means anyone else competing at wide receiver is going to have to step up because there is just one open spot left.
Second-year players Kevin Cone and Drew Davis have showed the most in camp up to this point and are front-runners for the final roster spot.
3. The push from the front four
Getting after the quarterback was a sore subject last season for the Falcons. Sure, John Abraham pulled his weight, but after him the Falcons had trouble dragging opposing quarterbacks to the ground.
Ray Edwards was signed as a free agent last year, but played most of the season either recovering from an injury or lagging behind because of the difficulty of picking up a new scheme.
Edwards said he’s fully healthy now, and with a year under his belt in Atlanta and an offseason of workouts with new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, there shouldn’t be any learning curve issues.
Nolan also said he may show some 3-4 hybrid looks to the Falcons’ 4-3 base package. Watch to see if this happens early on in preseason work and also keep an eye on Kroy Biermann if this happens. As much as anyone on the roster, Biermann can really flourish if used in this hybrid package.
How good can the Falcons pass defense become in 2012?
4. Keep an eye on the new secondary
With the addition of Asante Samuel, the Falcons now have two former Pro Bowl cornerbacks in the secondary. Samuel and Brent Grimes will play on the outside while Dunta Robinson will play in his natural slot position at nickelback.
The Falcons' secondary should move from a middle-of-the-pack unit to a top 10, maybe even better. It’s going to be very interesting to see how these three play together.
Also watch safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore. Nolan’s new system has them setting the defense earlier than usual and scanning for situations to wreak havoc.
Look for DeCoud and Moore to move around quite a bit, possibly even switch sides and maybe even get after the quarterback. They’ll be making decisions based on confusing the offense, and expect them to be incredibly active in doing so.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.