ATLANTA – The Falcons and Steelers did not play Thursday's preseason finale the same. Pittsburgh rolled out its starters on both sides of the ball. The Falcons left theirs (and some important backups) on the sideline and out of uniform.
You can guess what happened next. The Steelers dominated second- and sometimes third-teamers. No shocker there.
That led to a predictably lopsided score. Not that it matters much. Neither do the stats.
Don't bother looking them up. They won't tell you much.
Preserving health was prioritized, as it should have been. Seeing those battling for final roster spots play a little more didn't hurt.
The goal of these games that don't count is to prepare for those that do. Simple as that. Reps or rest both help achieve that goal.
It's a slow build from late July to early September, and the Falcons have been deliberate with how they've navigated that amount of time. Head coach Arthur Smith conducted a tough, physical, competitive camp. He left two preseason games to the reserves and gave major players a drive against Cincinnati to get their sea legs.
"If you use the preseason right, that's what it's for, to ramp up," Smith said last week, after playing the Bengals. "And everybody needs it."
Now we've reached the end of the preseason slate, with but a few practices remaining before we get to a game week. They'll pare the roster down to 53 men, create a practice squad and then turn intense eyes toward the Carolina Panthers.
The goal is to have the team at full strength, in terms of both health and execution, when they play Carolina here at Mercedes-Benz stadium in roughly two weeks.
"We'll be smart with it," Smith said. "With the exception of one or two, on that Monday heading into Week 1 against Carolina, we'll be ready to roll. There will be some guys we're cautious with. We've had a really physical camp.
"… We may be a little risk averse, but we need to be smart here. That went into a lot of the decisions tonight about who played and who didn't. But, going into that Carolina week, we'll be as close as we can to fully healthy."
That's the ultimate goal for this team as currently constructed. You want star players and major contributors available to you when it counts. You want the offense and defense on track, with live reps under belts coming out of the summer.
Smith played No. 1s a bit more in 2022, but didn't need to do that here. They got solid work in during camp, during joint practices with Miami and in a cameo vs. Cincinnati that they came of without a major injury. For the likes of Calais Campbell and Kyle Pitts and Jessie Bates and Drake London and guys of similar stature, getting to Week 1 ready to go is the only goal. And there are a lot more folks in that category than in years past
The players feel good about how the preseason was run. It gave guys a chance to compete, without overly taxing them.
Jonnu Smith, for one, feels ready to roll thanks to Arthur Smith's summer structure.
"That's the whole foundation of the NFL; you take this time to get ready for the season," he said. "You use the preseason, training camp and all these practices to get you ready. That's all that you've got. We try to take advantage of it the best way we can. Everybody's got the same amount of days, the same time frame to get better. Come Sept. 10 when we kick off, we just have to let loose and let all the hard work we've put in pay off."
Those on the roster bubble put plenty on tape, and there will be more than a few worthy of a roster spot who don't get one. Cuts must come by Tuesday, with major transactions further shaping the 2023 Falcons as they head into an important campaign where expectations have ramped up.
Arthur Smith and GM Terry Fontenot have some good problems before them as they look back on a preseason's body of work and decide which players to move forward with.
"There are a lot of things to consider over the next couple days," Arthur Smith said. "We have a lot of tough decisions ahead of us."
Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the Pittsburgh Steelers during Preseason Week 3.