Falcons vs. Cardinals: Mercedes-Benz Stadium debut, matchups to watch and things to know

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Saturday should offer a lot of excitement for Falcons fans. Not only will the team play their third preseason game – the one in which starters often see the most action – but the Falcons' matchup against the Arizona Cardinals will be the first ever football game played inside of the brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The atmosphere is expected to be invigorating when the ball is kicked off for the first time at 7 p.m. ET. While the stadium will undoubtedly draw a lot of attention, there are important things for fans to watch for on the field as well.

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Atlanta is 0-2 this preseason, and while the record doesn't matter at this time of the year, coach Dan Quinn has said he holds all members of his team to the same standard. The Falcons will face a Cardinals squad that is 1-2 in their exhibition games, including a 20-18 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the Hall of Fame Game.

Here is everything you need to know about the Falcons' third preseason game.

1. Mercedes-Benz Stadium grand opening

Because this is still a preseason game, the biggest storyline for Saturday is the opening of the state-of-the-art stadium. After years of anticipation, Mercedes-Benz Stadium is ready for football, and it should truly be a sight to behold.

Prior to even entering the stadium, fans will be greeted by the 73,000-pound Falcon statue stationed outside of Gate 3. Once inside, the size of the stadium and the personality becomes immediately apparent. With a massive 1,075-feet long, 58-feet tall halo board wrapped around the top of the roof, fans will have a clear view of the action from wherever they sit.

For fans who are making their first trip down to the stadium, here are a few helpful maps to guide you.

2. Quinn's approach to the third preseason game

While most teams generally use the third preseason game as a "dress rehearsal" for their starters, that won't necessarily be the Falcons' approach.

"Our approach will be more on an individual basis – who we really want to try to feature," Quinn said.

"You can't put a big blanket on the whole thing, because there's a lot of guys on the team that are in different stages of their development. A first-year player is still trying to figure out where's the bus going to the game, and the veteran player is trying to really be sharp in their approach."

Quinn has been consistent in pointing out that evaluations are the most important part of the preseason. With only two games remaining and a lot of players competing for spots, the Falcons want to give them plenty of opportunities during live action.

3. Robert Nkemdiche out against the Falcons

SEC fans will certainly remember former Ole Miss defender Robert Nkemdiche. The former 5-star prospect from nearby Grayson High School was drafted by Arizona in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Nkemdiche suffered a calf strain in practice this week, according to team reporter Kyle Odegard, and he won't play on Saturday.

Nkemdiche would have provided yet another nice test for the Falcons' offensive line, which has faced Ndamukong Suh and the Steelers' good crop of pass-rushers thus far in the preseason.

Also sitting out against Atlanta is starting guard Mike Iupati, who suffered a triceps injury. In his place, the Cardinals will start John Wetzel. The combination of Grady Jarrett and Dontari Poe has been a good one for the Falcons this preseason, and Wetzel may have his hands full with either of them.

4. Jones and Gabriel will be game-time decisions

Two of Atlanta's most dynamic offensive weapons have yet to see the field this preseason, and it appears the status of Julio Jones and Taylor Gabriel will once again be announced just before the game.  

"I'll check with (Gabriel and Jones) tomorrow," Quinn said after Thursday's practice. "They did well, they went hard today, and I want to see if, as long as they're good tomorrow, then they may get a little bit (of action) on Saturday. But I'm going to check them tomorrow, and I can give you an update before the game."

Five players have already been ruled out for Saturday's game. Running back Devonta Freeman will miss his second preseason game as he continues to progress through the NFL's concussion protocol; defensive end Martin Ifedi, tackle Austin Pasztor and cornerbacks Damontae Kazee and Blidi Wreh-Wilson will also be held out.

5. Key matchups to watch

Although the Falcons beat the Cardinals 38-19 last season in the Georgia Dome, Arizona should provide a great benchmark for Atlanta at this point.

The Cardinals have several elite players on both sides of the ball who can match up with the Falcons strength-on-strength. Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu are two of the best defensive backs in the game, and it will be interesting to see them line up against Mohamed Sanu or either Jones or Gabriel, if either receiver is available.

David Johnson is one of the NFL's top young running backs and a versatile threat who can beat a defense as a runner or a receiver. The Falcons' linebacker corps has stood out this preseason, but Johnson will be the best player they've faced.

One Falcons player that fans are sure to watch closely is first-round pick Takkarist McKinley. In his debut last week against the Steelers, McKinley made the most out of his limited number of snaps and displayed the technique he's been working to refine with Quinn and defensive line coach Bryant Young. McKinley has flashed his potential in practice, and Saturday will provide another opportunity to monitor his growth.

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