The sight is burned in Thomas DeCoud's mind.
Last season in Week 1, Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Medenhall slipped through a seam in Atlanta's defense during overtime to race 50 yards for the game-winning touchdown. DeCoud was right there as the running back burst by. Before the safety could shed the block occupying him, Mendenhall was gone.
DeCoud could only turn and chase, watching Mendenhall's No. 34 run away from him.
To that point Atlanta, specifically the defense, had played valiantly, trading blows with the historic franchise. Unfortunately they came up one blow shy of a win. It taught the Falcons a lot about themselves and in many ways helped propel them forward toward their exciting 13-3 season.
"Just knowing that we it was the first game of the season, usually in that first game the team that executes their stuff the best usually wins," DeCoud, the Falcons starting safety said on Wednesday. "The Steelers are a great football team and it was good for us to be able to go toe-to-toe with them until that last play. It taught us the lesson that we have to finish. We can't let up on that last play, thinking it's going to be it. We've got to finish plays, every play, whether it goes 70 or 80 snaps or 40 or 50."
In the all-important third week of the preseason the Falcons are making their return to the Steel City with hopes of using the Steelers as another litmus test for what they're capable of this year. This week marks the introduction of a game plan for the team as they try to get their starters the longest look of the practice season. It's a dress rehearsal for the regular season and what better way to get started than against the AFC's representative in the Super Bowl last season.
"It will be big for us in terms of play time and play time for our starting unit," head coach Mike Smith said. "Most of the guys that are going to be on our 53-man roster will be extended this week, so it will be a good test. That's a very good football team. That team represented the AFC in the Super Bowl last year so it will be a big challenge for us."
There's almost an air of fortune around the team. What better test could they draw for the third week of the preseason than to take their shown on the road against an opponent of the Steelers' mettle?
"It'll be fun to play against one of the best teams in the NFL and it's a great place to play," quarterback Matt Ryan said. "Pittsburgh is a great city to play in. It's going to be a good learning test for us to get up there and clean up some things before we get into the regular season."
The Falcons aren't really interested in returning North with a chip on their shoulder, avenging last year's loss. There's no bulletin board material coming out of Atlanta.
Ryan said the previous year's game tape is helpful for their study of the Steelers. It's fresh in their minds and the lack of turnover in personnel for both teams means they feel comfortable with the looks they'll see. At the end of the day however, the preseason is about getting better as a team, not gaining wins, so there's few thoughts about last season with the Falcons.
"We look forward to the game," DeCoud said. "We want to go out there and play hard, no matter who we're playing or where we're at. We approach this game as us going out there and doing what we need to do as a football team: execute and make sure we're getting better each preseason game as they come along."
But they know what kind of test they received last season to begin the year and they're excited to have a similar measuring stick in the preseason this year, especially since they're facing one of the best defenses the league has to offer. 2011 is littered with more than a few teams with the notoriety of playing physical. This week will help them prepare for what could be some tough games down the line.
"It's going to be a big challenge for us this week," Smith said. "Ball security is going to be very important and keeping our guy at quarterback on his feet. Those are the two things that we want to do. That's a physical football team, historically through the years and (Pittsburgh Head Coach Mike Tomlin) has done a great job with that team, making that Pittsburgh Steeler aura still be there."