When the Falcons play their first preseason game of the season on Thursday at the Georgia Dome against the Bengals, their lineup will lack some of their best players: starters Tony Gonzalez at tight end, Julio Jones at wide receiver and Sean Weatherspoon at linebacker.
But the coaching staff doesn’t need to see what those three are capable of. Don’t expect the likes of wide receiver Roddy White, cornerback Asante Samuel or quarterback Matt Ryan to play much either.
The Falcons do have some significant questions to answers, though. Thursday represents an important step in that process. Here are five positions to keep an eye on:
Prior to Tuesday, this game loomed as a first test for Mike Johnson to see if, after four years of development, he was ready to step into a starter’s role this season. With the news that Johnson suffered a dislocated left ankle and fractured fibula, he appears out of the picture for the foreseeable future. Head coach Mike Smith said on Wednesday that the position is “first and foremost” the one to watch on Thursday.
The competition now is between 2012 third-round pick Lamar Holmes and undrafted college free agent Ryan Schraeder, who are likely to earn the bulk of the reps on Thursday. Don’t forget that linebacker James Harrison, a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, now plays for Bengals. If he comes on the blitz, Holmes and Schraeder will have all they can handle.
Smith said Holmes received the majority of reps in Wednesday’s practice but that the competition remains open-ended.
“Moving forward, I couldn’t say,” Smith said of how many reps Holmes will get in the future.
Johnson is scheduled to have surgery next week. Smith did not answer directly as to whether Johnson will be placed on season-ending injured reserve. He wants to wait and see what happens with Johnson before the organization decides whether it needs to look into the free agent pool for a possible replacement.
“Thomas and his staff always have lists together and if we feel and deem that’s something we need to do, we’ll do it,” he said.
Expect first-round draft pick Desmond Trufant to play a lot at the right corner and for second-round draft pick Robert Alford to play a lot at the left corner for Samuel, who might not play much since he’s 32 and has nothing to prove.
Trufant and Alford won’t be tested in the same way as they would if the Bengals’ injured A.J. Green, one of the league’s best receivers, were playing, but they will face pro wideouts other than the Falcons’ own for the first time. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton is capable and after two seasons of seeing the likes of Pittsburgh and Baltimore’s defenses multiple times per season, he’ll be able to challenge the rookies.
Trufant also might spend some time at nickel, where he has practiced frequently during camp. The incumbent at that position, Robert McClain, had a breakout season in 2012 but has not had the greatest camp.
Smith said he also is eager to see the two safeties whom the Falcons drafted in the seventh round: Zeke Motta out of Notre Dame and Kemal Ishmael out of Central Florida. Draft picks from previous years, Shann Schillinger and Charles Mitchell, have received a lot more reps with the second team, leaving Motta and Ishmael mostly with third-team reps.
With Weatherspoon out with an injured finger, others will have more of a chance to play, notably outside linebacker Robert James, who is in his fourth season out of Arizona State but who has never made much of an impact during the regular season.
Inside linebacker Pat Schiller, who made the practice squad last season as an undrafted free agent out of Northern Illinois, has a chance to make the active roster. Joplo Bartu, an undrafted rookie out of Texas State, has also impressed during camp.
In addition, Stephen Nicholas, who has started 58 of the 68 games he has played since 2009, is in a battle for a starting spot. With the Falcons’ ever-evolving scheme, Nicholas might get pushed to the second string.
Kroy Biermann, who entered the league as a defensive end, is practicing more and more at outside linebacker.
Smith also said to look for the “dime” linebackers. Increasingly, the Falcons are using packages with five defensive backs and four defensive linemen, leaving only two linebackers. Nicholas needs to show he’s better at this role. With Weatherspoon sidelined, he’ll get a chance to against Cincinnati. The same is true with inside linebacker Akeem Dent, who started for the first time last season.
With Gonzalez in California with his family, Chase Coffman is getting the bulk of the reps with the first team. That workload increased recently when the team reached an injury settlement with Tommy Gallarda.
Rookie Levine Toilolo, all 6-foot-8 of him, will also get plenty of snaps. Toilolo has mostly worked with the second team in practice.
Smith said that Jacquizz Rodgers was most likely going to return kickoffs this season for the Falcons, but others will surely get a chance on Thursday. Alford, a speedster, might get a look and will definitely get an opportunity to return punts. Rodgers’ brother James, a practice squad wide receiver last year, also could return kicks on Thursday.
Defensive back Dominique Franks, whose chances of making the team could be shrinking, will probably get another chance to return punts, something he did not do especially well last season. Harry Douglas could return punts on Thursday, but don’t be surprised if Smith doesn’t want to risk Douglas’ getting injured and pulls the plug on that idea.
Smith said cornerbacks and safeties are especially needed on the four special teams units and roster spots could be won based on that.