The Atlanta Falcons host the Cincinnati Bengals Thursday night in preseason Game 2 for both teams. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m. ET at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
The Bengals enter the game after beating the New York Jets last week, 17-6. The Falcons lost to the Baltimore Ravens, 31-17. More important than wins and losses for both teams is further installation of the game plan in live situations, and further evaluation of player personnel as the teams ponder cutting from 90 down to 53 soon.
While you’re watching the game, here are four things about the Falcons to watch:
1. Atlanta’s Continued Success on Offense
The scoreboard might not show it, but Atlanta’s first-team offense destroyed the Ravens' defense last week. Matt Ryan threw for 155 yards and a touchdown, Julio Jones caught six passes for 109 yards and the Falcons moved the chains nine times in the first quarter.
Atlanta needs to show that performance wasn’t a fluke. If they can come out against Cincinnati and move the ball in the same manner, it will go a long way toward establishing new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter as the right choice of hire. It will also give the Falcons a head of steam to continue building on for the regular season.
Which OL position is most likely to change hands before the regular season?
2. The Offensive Line
In his postgame press conference, quarterback Matt Ryan raved about his offensive line. Ryan said he was never touched in his time on the field—a huge upgrade to the way the line played last year.
Heading into the 2012 preseason, the biggest question mark on this team was offensive line play. There are two major position battles on the offensive line and possibly a third up in the air. The Falcons even used their first two picks in the draft on offensive linemen.
Watch these battles up front and look for the protectors of Ryan to have another good game. They really need to be able to string back-to-back solid performances together.
3. The Battle for WR5
Kevin Cone and Drew Davis continue to be entrenched in the battle for the fifth receiver spot on the Falcons' roster.
For the past few seasons, the Falcons have only carried five receivers on the 53-man roster. So this battle seems—the Falcons' staff has not officially said they will only carry five receivers—to be one for the final spot.
After Roddy White, Julio Jones, Harry Douglas and Kerry Meier, the Falcons just may pick between Cone and Davis. And head coach Mike Smith said this week that the decision may come down to special teams play, not receiver play.
“That position, when we start talking about the fifth wide receiver, special teams is going to carry more weight than receiving skills, because that fifth receiver is going to end up playing more snaps on special teams than he is on offense,” said Smith after practice Sunday.
“Both of those guys know it, and they know that they’ve got to make sure when they get an opportunity to show what they can do on special teams that they go out there and perform.”
4. Depth at Middle Linebacker
When Curtis Lofton bolted for the New Orleans Saints, the Falcons were forced to open up that position to second-year linebacker Akeem Dent and newly signed veteran Lofa Tatupu.
Tatupu has since been lost for the season with a pectoral injury, giving Dent the job. But in last week’s game, Dent suffered a concussion.
Dent will miss Thursday’s game against Cincinnati and veteran Mike Peterson will start at middle linebacker. Undrafted rookies Pat Schiller and Max Gruder will get significant playing time Thursday as well.
When the first-string defense left last week’s game, the second and third teams didn’t look nearly as sharp. The Falcons need for the backup units to step up their play, and no position on defense is more in need of quality depth than middle linebacker.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.