FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – One of the Falcons' primary position battles of this preseason may be nearing its conclusion.
Due to his performance the team's first two exhibition games, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said after Sunday's practice that Brandon Fusco has earned the right to start in the third preseason game, which is considered by teams around the league to be a dress-rehearsal of sorts for the regular season.
"I certainly think that he played well in two performances, so far," Quinn said. "[It's been] limited snaps, so to speak, but he's answered certainly a number of the questions that we wanted to see. By no stretch am I saying Wes [Schweitzer] hasn't, but Brandon has certainly earned the right to do that again so that's what we'll do."
Schweitzer was the Falcons' starting right guard in 2017 after beating out Ben Garland for the job last preseason. He has been the primary competition for Fusco this summer for that job, and Schweitzer started against the Jets in the Falcons' first preseason game.
Fusco was named the starter at right guard in the second preseason game against the Chiefs, and there was a noticeable uptick in run game production. After gaining just eight rushing yards in the first half against the Jets, the Falcons had 32 yards on their first drive against the Chiefs.
A free-agent signee this offseason, Fusco has started 80 games over the course of his seven-year career in the NFL. After spending the first six seasons of his career with the Minnesota Vikings, Fusco played the 2017 season in San Francisco in Kyle Shanahan's outside-zone run scheme.
Since his time in Atlanta, Fusco said there has been great importance placed on running the ball well to set up the Falcons' play-action passing game.
"Ever since I've been here the big emphasis is running the ball, wearing opponents out, and setting up for the big plays, play-action, that's what they're all about," Fusco said after the team's preseason loss to the Chiefs. "It's really important for us to get that run game going, open those holes, and then set everything else up. That's how this offense works."
Although he praised Fusco's performance thus far in the preseason, Quinn stopped short of naming a starter for the 2018 season. But that decision may not be too far away.
"I'll be ready to next week," Quinn said. "But he's certainly earned the right to take more of the first-team reps for sure, Brandon has. We've asked him to really compete and go for it, and to Wes' credit, he hasn't let up a bit. Wes has certainly improved as a player from last year, and not just by a little bit. He went for it in a way that he was going to keep clawing and scratching to go but as we're going through it Brandon will take the majority of the first reps this week."
Ridley still being considered at starting kick returner
The Falcons are still considering rookie receiver Calvin Ridley as their staring kickoff returner, Quinn said Sunday. Although he is expected to be a significant part of the team's offense, Quinn explained that part of Ridley's role with this team is to make explosive plays happen and that he can accomplish that as a kick returner as well.
To read more on what Quinn had to say about evaluating Ridley for the kick return job, click here.
Ortiz separating himself at fullback through first two games
Outside of right guard, the battle at fullback is one of the most notable on offense. Free agent signee Ricky Ortiz appears to have separated himself a bit from rookie Luke McNitt through the first two games of the preseason.
"I would say right now through the first two games he has [separated himself]," Quinn said of Ortiz. "He's improving kind of as we're going. I knew there was going to be some on-the-job training at that position. Let's face it, like playing fullback and offensive line and defensive line you need to be in the trenches… I've been very encouraged by Rick not only in the run game but in pass protection as well."
The 'good' unintended consequence of Deion Jones missing time
There's never a good time to have a player of Deion Jones' caliber miss action, but the preseason definitely comes closest. With the Falcons' Pro Bowl linebacker out against the Chiefs, Quinn said there were some "good unintended consequences." One of those good consequences was the added time that Duke Riley got in the middle of the defense.
"Deion very rarely will come out," Quinn said. "So, what a great moment for Duke to show his versatility. He was the one that moved over to play what we call the MIKE position, and we put Foye [Oluokun] at the WILL [linebacker position]. I was glad to see the progress made by Duke from Game 1 to Game 2. I thought from a tackling standpoint he was really rock solid, and that's part of what we're looking for from him."
McClain and Senat playing 'really neck-and-neck' at defensive tackle
Atlanta will have to find a way to replace the production that Dontari Poe – who is now in Carolina – had at the defensive tackle position opposite of Grady Jarrett last season. Two newcomers who will be tasked with helping achieve that production are Terrell McClain and rookie Deadrin Senat. Midway through the preseason, Quinn said the two have some good similarities to each other.
"I think right now they're playing really neck-and-neck close," Quinn said. "Both guys are playing really square. We're trying to feature them both at the defensive tackle spot. Both of them look really comfortable in our base package.
"Both of them have a real similar skill set: Quickness, quick feet, really square. So that part, in the run game, I feel good."