FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- One preseason competition that Falcons fans should keep an eye on is at the running back position.
No, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman aren't in any danger of losing their spots atop the depth chart, but there are a couple of players battling to become the third back on the roster. It remains to be seen how newly signed running backs Kelvin Taylor and Jhurell Pressley will factor into the mix, but Terron Ward and rookie Brian Hill appear to be the top contenders.
Ward led all Atlanta players with 48 yards in the team's first preseason game against the Dolphins, and he also scored the only rushing touchdown. Hill, meanwhile, gained 10 yards in his first live NFL game.
As the Falcons prepare for their second exhibition game Sunday against the Steelers, coach Dan Quinn explained what he wants to see from Hill moving forward.
"For us, when we play running back here, we have a real style with how we do what we call 'on our track,'" Quinn said during a press conference on Wednesday. "So, we're a one-cut and vertical (style). When we stutter on those or don't aggressively hit it (that goes against our style). So that's a real emphasis for Brian this week to make sure our tracks are correct."
Hill did seem to stutter and hesitate at times near the line of scrimmage in the first preseason game, but neither he nor Ward found much running room against the Dolphins' defensive line. Quinn emphasizes continual progression from his players, and he asks each member of his team to focus on getting 1 percent better every day.
Throughout training camp, Quinn has noticed a few improvements in Hill's game.
"In training camp, here's the improvement I saw from him," Quinn said. "One, from a ball security (perspective), I saw him better as a pass-catcher and in blitz protection, he's been on-point. So that part is the improvement I like to see."
He isn't the only person who's seen growth from the first-year running back. Matt Ryan has been able to watch Hill in practice, and he thinks that the rookie has managed to handle the transition to the NFL, despite having an important role in the offense.
"I think Brian's done a good job," Ryan said. "You know, rookies coming in it's hard for everybody. I think at the running back position there's so much on your plate, because you're critical in the run game. In our run game, it is really the foundation of our offense, it's what gets us going.
"We ask the running backs to do a lot in pass protection and also catch the ball out of the backfield, and we're fortunate to have two really versatile guys in front of him to learn from. I think he's done a great job of watching those guys compete and practice, and those guys have really helped him out, taking him under their wing and kind of giving him the knowledge that he needs."
Preseason is a time for coaches to evaluate their players while they determine the best 53-man combination to comprise the active roster. This season will be the first that NFL teams can wait until after the final preseason game to make cuts, going from 90 players in training camp to 53 before the start of the season.
This change helps coaches track a player's growth and potential role over a longer period of time before having to make a decision.
"It's an excellent evaluation for us," Quinn said of the rule change. "There could have been a player, maybe he got banged up in the first game and didn't get enough (reps), so now, we're getting extra evaluations on players all across the league. I couldn't be more thrilled with this small addition."
The competition for the Falcons' third running back spot may not seem as important as other position battles, but every spot on the final 53-man roster is a crucial one. With three preseason games left, Hill has plenty of time to continue his growth and prove what he can do. "He's done a good job, and that's one of the things you want to see at this time of year is to see guys do a good job in practice but take it to the preseason games," Ryan said. "I think he's got that first game under his belt, and I'm sure he's excited to get to that second game, because he's been doing a great job in practice."