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Who stood out in Falcons final preseason game vs. Pittsburgh Steelers 

The Steelers held on to an early lead to defeat the Falcons at home, 24-0. 

ATLANTA -- The first half of Thursday night's final preseason game for the Falcons felt pretty lopsided at first. With the Steelers playing their starters for two series, the Falcons' second- and third-team mix was outmatched early, which ultimately led to the 24-0 final score.

This was to be expected, though, as it was confirmed well before kickoff that Falcons head coach Arthur Smith was not planning on playing any starters, while Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin wanted to give his at least a couple series.

Regardless, there was still much to learn and take away from the matchup, despite the lopsidedness. With initial 53-man roster cuts looming on Tuesday, the Falcons have decisions to make, and a lot of players on the bubble were fighting for a chance to make that decision difficult on Thursday.


Rotation in the secondary

This section is less about one person standing out and more about what we were able to glean from the rotation in the secondary throughout Thursday's game. It was interesting because the group that started the game was not the group I had pegged to start.

If the Falcons were going to follow their most recent pattern of the second-team secondary, it would have been Jaylinn Hawkins and Micah Abernathy at safety, Darren Hall and Breon Borders at cornerback and Clark Phillips III at nickel (when applicable). While Hawkins, Borders and Phillips were all present in the starting lineup, their pairings were mixed. DeMarcco Hellams got the start at safety alongside Hawkins, who played in the first quarter. Micah Abernathy rotated in for Hawkins to start the second quarter and remained there for the rest of the game. Meanwhile, Hellams was rotated out in the fourth quarter for Lukas Denis.

This is important as the Falcons work to figure out if carrying a fifth safety (i.e. potentially Hellams) would be beneficial for them. Hellams has had a standout preseason, but the safety position is a near-complete one with Jessie Bates III, Richie Grant, Hawkins and (hypothetically) Abernathy likely to make the initial 53-man roster. A note on Abernathy, though, is maybe he's not a lock as originally expected. He did play quite a bit against the Steelers, so perhaps the Falcons coaching staff is going back and forth a little bit on that fourth safety spot. For the third time in the preseason, Hellams was one of the top tacklers for the Falcons.

If the Falcons think Hellams has had too solid of a preseason performance to clear waivers and return to the practice squad, perhaps there has to be a fifth spot in the room for him (and that's if he's not No. 4 already). We'll know more Tuesday when official cuts happen.

As for the cornerback position, Tre Flowers did not dress Thursday alongside A.J. Terrell. That would indicate -- barring any crazy changes -- he's likely starting opposite Terrell come Week 1 with Jeff Okudah still rehabbing his ankle. On Thursday, Borders got the start with rookie Natrone Brooks playing opposite him. Brooks got a healthy dose of a welcome-to-the-NFL moment when George Pickens went up over him to get the Steelers just outside the end zone on their first drive. That one play wasn't quite indicative of his entire evening, though, as he fights for a roster spot with a couple PBUs.

However, it was interesting seeing so much of Brooks and Borders while not seeing Hall until the second half. Is this indicative of Hall's spot on the active 53-man roster being up for grabs?

As for Phillips, he had some good moments and some yep-he's-still-a-rookie moments. He finished the night with only three tackles but did seem to hold his own at slot corner when called upon. The expectation is Dee Alford will be the Falcons' starting nickel, but Phillips could be considered the second option with Mike Hughes working through a soft-tissue injury, which will be reevaluated before Week 1.

It should be noted, though, that when it came to actual production in the pass game, the Steelers were on their Ps and Qs. In the first half alone, Steelers quarterbacks completed 11 of their 13 passes for 125 yards with an average 8.3 yards per attempt.

Atlanta Falcons defensive back Natrone Brooks #35 lines up during the first quarter of the Preseason Game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia on Thursday, August 24, 2023. (Photo by Matthew Grimes/Atlanta Falcons)

DE Joe Gaziano

Gaziano has been in the league since 2020, but he was working as hard as any rookie Thursday to earn a spot on this Falcons team in 2023. Despite the Steelers' overall success as an offense in the first half, Gaziano's individual performance was noteworthy. He had some moments of flash. He created a few dirty pockets, even against the Steelers' starting tackles. He had three important tackles, all for minimal gain for the Steelers, and he had a tackle for a loss, too.

On Mike Jones Jr.'s sack in the final minutes of the second quarter, it was actually Gaziano who got the initial push and got the tackle to switch off of Jones to take him head-on. This opened a lane for Jones, who earned the sack.

When it comes to the construction of the Falcons defensive line (particularly the edge rushers), finding a spot will be difficult. One would assume Calais Campbell, Lorenzo Carter, Bud Dupree, Arnold Ebiketie and Zach Harrison are your locks at defensive end (or outside linebacker, whatever you want to call them). Then, you have the interior, which should include Grady Jarrett, David Onyemata and any combination of Ta'Quon Graham, Timmy Horne and Albert Huggins, who have all been steady second-teamers throughout the preseason. Is there room to carry one more edge rusher? And should that spot be held by Gaziano? And what of DeAngelo Malone? He's technically listed as an outside linebacker, but the way he has been used in the preseason has been drastically different from what he was last year for the Falcons, which was in the more traditional usage of an edge rusher. How the Falcons choose to proceed when it comes to their defensive line decisions will be quite interesting to see unfold.

Atlanta Falcons defensive lineman Joe Gaziano #99 lines up during the second quarter of the Preseason Game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia on Thursday, August 24, 2023. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Atlanta Falcons)

DL Demone Harris

There's a chance you haven't heard much of Harris this preseason, but he did some good things Thursday for the Falcons when he got the chance. Like Gaziano, Harris made the most of his opportunities early, and he made a couple key tackles late, too. One could argue he was equally as disruptive against the Steelers as Gaziano, though Harris did have more opportunities. Harris was consistently in the backfield Thursday, finishing the night with four tackles, a sack and two tackles for a loss.

Harris isn't someone who has significant odds of making the team come Tuesday cuts, but perhaps he showed enough value to stick around Atlanta on the practice squad. Or maybe he even caught the eye of another team in the league that's hungry for depth along the defensive line. Either way, he was a standout, even in a defensive performance that featured the Steelers' starters going up against the Falcons' second and third team in the first half.

OL Jalen Mayfield

The addition of this name is less about Mayfield standing out and more about the implication of him not doing so. As noted in our Tuesday practice report, it seems as though the Falcons' former third-round pick had slid down the depth chart. He began training camp as one of the second-team tackles. However, after the Falcons' tie with the Bengals in the second preseason game last week, he was working with the third team in the lead up to the Falcons' final preseason game.

That rotation continued to hold through said game with Tyler Vrabel and Josh Miles taking all of the second-team tackle reps in the first half. Mayfield finally saw the field in the second half with the third-team offensive line. This does not bode well for Mayfield's odds of making the team come Tuesday.

Mayfield was drafted by the Falcons in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft. He was the starting left guard that year, as injuries had the Falcons accelerating his development from a tackle at Michigan to a league guard. He struggled to find consistency at the position, and a back injury at the end of the year lingered into 2022. Mayfield spent the majority of last season on injured reserve.

Coming into the 2023 season, the Falcons moved Mayfield back to his college position of tackle, where he remained throughout all of the preseason. What the Falcons ultimately decide to do with Mayfield on Tuesday will be news either way. Are we looking at two 2021 Falcons draft picks getting cut (Mayfield and Hall)? That's a glaring question coming out of Thursday's game.

Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the Pittsburgh Steelers during Preseason Week 3.

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