When Arthur Smith was asked what he wanted to see when the Falcons faced the Jets on Monday night, this is what he said:
"Are we better than we were a week ago? Some of the mistakes we made, some of the internal stuff, operations stuff that we want to clean up. We want to see progress."
He went on to note that he wanted to see how the offensive line held up in pass protection. He wanted to keep penalties at a minimum, and - of course - he wants to see who shows up during critical downs: third downs, fourth downs and in the redzone.
So, what am I watching? I am glad you asked.
1. Everything the run game has to offer
Let's be honest, the only time we really get to see the run game develop is during the preseason games. There's no tackling in practice, and even though the last two days of joint practices with the Jets have been competitive, you're not seeing a rushing attack operate anywhere close to 100 percent. That leaves us with the preseason game itself to truly see the run game in all of its glory.
Thinking back to the Falcons last preseason game against Detroit, I thought the Falcons ran the ball pretty well. The first team offensive line pleasantly surprised me with the lanes they were able to open up. We saw a lot of Qadree Ollison working with the first team (that's partially because we're going to see very little of Cordarrelle Patterson and Damien Williams, but still). We got a sprinkling of Tyler Allgeier, Caleb Huntley and even Avery Williams, and that'll likely be the case on Monday night as well.
There's also the layer of mobility that Marcus Mariota and Desmond Ridder bring to the run game. If they've got room to run, they're going to. Though Smith said there were no designed quarterback keepers drawn up against Detroit, things can break down. Chances are there will be moments like that against the Jets on Monday night, too.
What the Falcons can do in the run game both in these spontaneous moments and in the moments that are designed is something I will be watching.
2. Separation at wide receiver
I know I've written a few times recently about the receiver position, but here I go again.
The Falcons have some openings on the 53-man roster at the position. Whether they carry five or six receivers, you're only talking about a couple spots actively being open for grabs. The Falcons have decisions to make at the position with the cut down date less than 10 days away. If you don't think they'll be watching these receivers closely you're just wrong.
In terms of competition within a position, there are very few positions on this team that are as heavily contested as the wide receiver room. Who earns those final two - or three - spots on the roster? Frank Darby? Geronimo Allison? KhaDarel Hodge? Auden Tate? Damiere Byrd? Or a dark horse like Jared Bernhardt? Hopefully we'll have a bit more clarity after the second preseason game.
3. The center rotation keeps on turning
Last week, Matt Hennessy got the start at center, working with the first team offensive line against the Lions. If the pattern that's held up throughout all of training camp continues into the second preseason game, Drew Dalman should get the start at center against the Jets on Monday night.
If he doesn't, perhaps we have our answer as to who the starting center will be come Week 1 of the season. If he does, that spot is still up for grabs.
The coaching staff has said from the onset of training camp that they wanted to get a fair assessment of both Hennessy and Dalman before the season began. They've kept true to their word. Neither has more reps with the first team than the other.
At some point, though, a decision will have to be made. So, my question is, how long does this competition last? To be honest, it wouldn't shock me if this thing goes all the way to Week 1.
4. Cross training defensive backs
For the last week, Dee Alford has been working more at nickel, even getting some reps with the first team defense at times. We know Mike Ford has been holding that spot down with Isaiah Oliver working back from injury. Dean Pees likes to cross train his nickels as much as he can, so it didn't come as too much of a shock when Oliver was getting some reps at safety over the last week, too.
Oliver didn't make the trip to Detroit, but he's in New York. Will we see Oliver? And in what capacity?
Alford had one of the best plays of the game in Detroit. How much will we see him at nickel? Smith said Alford has earned his reps, can we see him continue to capitalize on more opportunities?
Then, there's the safeties. Like Oliver, Jaylinn Hawkins did not make the trip to Detroit. Dean Marlowe slotted in beside Richie Grant in Hawkins' absence. In the last week since his return, though, Marlowe has continued to take significant first team reps as Hawkins worked back. Will we see Hawkins return to his normal spot alongside Grant, or does this coaching staff want to see a bit more of Marlowe?
We'll get answers to all of these questions on Monday night.
Trading Flowery Branch for Florham Park, we take a look at the second joint practice with the Jets.
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