You could say that Preseason Week Three is the most enjoyable week of preseason games, as teams normally run their first-teamers the most in these contests.
But at this point, my attitude toward exhibition football has soured. Saying that this is the "best week of the preseason" is like determining which bowl of unsweetened, store-brand rice puffs cereal is best: The competition is pretty lackluster, you tire of the action about partway through, and it just leaves you wanting the real thing all the more.
Geez, and all this is coming from the kid who was bouncing of the walls as the Falcons got set to take on the Lions in Preseason Week One. It's just that this substitute leaves me wanting regular season ball, the stuff with importance, all the more.
That being said, I'm going to be watching intently, as you might expect, as my Dirty Birds take on the San Diego Chargers tonight. It's the first showdown in the Dome in '09, the Bolts are easily the best team we've seen thus far, and there are still questions to be answered and performances to be analyzed.
Though it is tough, I will soldier on through this serving of wannabe balanced breakfast; it's hard work sitting on the couch watching pigskin, but somebody's gotta do it.
San Diego Rush Offense v. Atlanta Rush Defense
There's going to be very little Darren Sproles tonight, and even less LaDainian Tomlinson (like, none). So it's good news for people like me, who are so proud of their Falcons that they want them to go undefeated in the preseason, but it's bad news for people like me, who want to see teams playing at their true capacity.
Not to say San Diego's ground attack is toothless without the two. Both Michael Bennet and Gartrell Johnson have already been carrying a lot so far, and while neither has electrified, they've done fine for third-stringers.
More importantly, though, two solid fullbacks, Jacob Hester, and Mike Tolbert, are still going at it to determine who's the best of a corps that deserves more attention. Brandon Manumaleuna has been doing a terrific job blocking, as well, making this battle all the more interesting.
The San Diego line has been pretty nondescript so far, getting their runners just 55 and then 125 yards on the ground in the two previous games (against Seattle and Arizona, respectively), but the well-publicized right guard battle (that'd be former Falcon Kynan Forney v. rookie Louis Vasquez) makes it worth your while to keep an eye on the unit, as do last week's great performances from Falcons D-linemen Kroy Biermann and Trey Lewis. The latter especially will be key against runs up the middle.
All us ATLiens would of course like to see more out of Peria Jerry, but I've said that so many times that you've probably quit reading this sentence by now. Curtis Lofton's presence will be necessary for a large part of the game, and I expect he'll answer, as will rook Lawrence Sidbury, who's outperforming Peria to this point.
Atlanta Rush Offense v. San Diego Rush Defense
Michael Turner going up against his old teammates isn't much of a story for a couple reasons: We already beat 'em last year, and the Burner runs like a man on a mission against everybody, not just the squad that let him go.
Then again (not again! Yes, this is the third consecutive section I've introduced with a wishy-washy contradiction), the Chargers' D is going to be without Jacques Cesaire but will have Larry English, so we'll get to see some new looks. Heck, the whole thing is a new look for the '09 Birds, if you think about it; this is our first matchup with a 3-4!
I'm sure you don't need to be told that this Bolts linebacking corps sends a shiver up the spine. There's English, Shawne Merriman, Shaun Phillips, Jyles Tucker, and preseason darling Kevin Burnett all thirsting for blood, so let's just say it's going to be important for not only the O-line but also TEs Tony Gonzalez and Justin Peelle to man-up on their assignments.
San Diego may not have produced a lot on the ground yet, but their opponents have been even worse off: Seattle got just 92 rushing yards, and Arizona managed a paltry 64. The line is solid, but thin; yeah, it's been those 'backers and some step-up from safeties Eric Weddle and Paul Oliver and CB Brandon Hughes that have truly made this defense lock down.
Here's a crossing of the fingers (OK, more like a desperate plea) for Jerious Norwood to attack a bit more, rather than running basically straight to the sideline every time he gets the handoff. Yes, Turner has very much looked like he could do it all for 16 games, but I'm not feeling terrific about our insurance policy.
San Diego Pass Offense v. Atlanta Pass Defense
Biological knees and textbook throwing mechanics for quarterbacks are clearly overrated. Just look at Philip Rivers. His comeback last season has me thinking, even without him having to do anything significant yet this preseason, that he's among the top five (OK, maybe six) quarterbacks in the league.
And tonight, he gets to throw to his regulars Vincent Jackson and Chris Chambers more, which always helps. It's not that rotation guys Gary Banks, Malcolm Floyd, and Legedu Naanee have looked half bad themselves, but Rivers built lots of chemistry with his top two pass-catchers last season as the offense featured him more than ever.
Word is that Antonio Gates is actually less than his "probable" (it's preseason, folks), but you won't see me crying. We'd have a helluva time matching up with a guy like that, just like other teams have a helluva time matching up with our Gonzo.
Here's hoping our scatterbrained secondary shows a bit more cohesion here. CBs Chris Owens and Brent Grimes, after both looking so good in the game in Detroit, struggled against the Rams. Yeah, they looked like they were making the effort, but that was only after they had blown the play with poor positioning.
But on a more positive note, tonight marks the hopefully dashing debut of rookie safety William Moore. Everybody's all like "Oh, it's too late for him to win a starting job now," but I bet he comes with fire, gets some consideration, and gives me some fodder for a column tomorrow morning.
Atlanta Pass Offense v. San Diego Pass Defense
Judging by the performance of the safeties in the preseason and just the names of the corners, it's hard to believe the Chargers' secondary finished second-to-last in the league in 2008. At this point, it's probably safe to say that's not going to happen again.
The aforementioned Weddle and Oliver (word to my Dawg) plus wild card Clinton Hart and rookie Kevin Ellison mean a seemingly open deep receiver might not be so "wide" after all. The depth doesn't stop there; let me name-drop C.J. Spillman before I lose your attention. But moving on...
There's no way Antonio Cromartie doesn't bounce back a bit from last season. I bet he finds a nice middle ground between his '07 and '08 performances in '09. I see him playing more and at a higher level tonight, inspired by the task of taking on Roddy White and Michael Jenkins.
And if he doesn't, Quentin Jammer or Antoine Cason will; just can't see the top three corners continuing to be shown up by rookie Hughes.
It's looking like Matt Ryan might have some time in the pocket, as the Bolts have registered just one sack in the preseason so far. But, oh yeah, that's right, there are probably going to be several downs of simultaneous Phillips-Merriman-English pressure in this contest. They may not have done it a lot so far, but if history is any indicator, S.D. likes to bring the blitz with their 'backers, be it their big-name guys or Tucker, Brandon Siler, and Tim Dobbins.
Good thing we've still got Tony G on our side. He's always a matchup problem, but for an aggressive, bring-the-heat D like this, just about the only measure against a huge yet athletic target like him is Cromartie's long arms. And they're going to be flailing around Roddy's general area, with any luck.
Prediction: Chargers 21, Falcons 20
No, I didn't call it that close just because they're MY Dirty Birds. I really do think we are on a comparable level with the Chargers, who might just deliver on their promise this year.
We're going to surrender some big passes and pass TDs, no doubt, but the Burner is going to allow us to go into halftime down by no more than one score. Our air game is going to struggle against first-string CBs and any of those safeties, but we've got enough weapons to wear 'em down at some point in the second half.
It's largely going to be a question of who plays their starters longer; if it's an even split (say, all the first-stringers come out at halftime, as predicted), I'm going to have to call San Diego.
But by just one.