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Falcons, Steelers ready for a test
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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger understands the third exhibition game is the closest thing to the real thing as the NFL preseason gets.

Still, when asked what he’s looking for on Saturday night when the Steelers host the Atlanta Falcons, Roethlisberger didn’t hesitate.

"Health," he said.

Keeping stars off the trainer’s table hasn’t been much of an issue for the defending AFC champions. The same can’t be said for the largely anonymous offensive line, which has been so unstable during camp the Steelers re-signed veteran Trai Essex on Monday just a few weeks after Essex appeared to have eaten himself out of a job.

Tackles Jonathan Scott and Marcus Gilbert and guard Chris Kemoeatu have all missed practice time with injuries, though Gilbert will be healthy enough to start at left tackle if Scott is unable to go after hyperextending his knee in the first quarter of a 24-14 victory over Philadelphia last week.

On a team with few question marks, who will protect Roethlisberger and open up holes for running back Rashard Mendenhall when the regular season begins in Baltimore on Sept. 11 remains a bit of a mystery.

Though Roethlisberger takes solace in the fact the faces will be familiar.

"I don’t think you can ever have enough linemen as fast as sometimes they seem to drop around here," said Roethlisberger, who encouraged the Steelers to reach out to Essex after keeping in close contact with him during the lockout. "The thing is to just get that chemistry going."

Atlanta, like Pittsburgh, has few roster concerns and no major injuries, though wide receiver Roddy White and cornerback Dunta Robinson will all sit out with relatively minor problems.

The Falcons, who went 13-3 and were the NFC’s No. 1 seed last year, haven’t been quite as sharp as the Steelers during the preseason. They’re eager for the competition Pittsburgh will provide.

"It really is nice to have a good physical test like this," Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan said.

"It’s going to get us right (for) when we gear up and go in September."

Save for trading up to get Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones in the NFL Draft and landing free agent defensive end Ray Edwards, the Falcons have remained largely quiet, re-signing their own players in hopes of keeping together a core group that’s led the team to consecutive winning seasons for the first time in franchise history.

Drafting — and then keeping — homegrown talent has been an overriding theme in Pittsburgh for years, one the Falcons are starting to follow.

"They’re a team that has sustainability," Atlanta coach Mike Smith said, "and that’s what we’ve talked about since we got here is about being a team that can sustain from year to year."

Atlanta’s main goal on Saturday will be looking to gain some confidence after a pair of so-so games against Miami and Jacksonville, both losses. Ryan is 13 for 25 for 206 yards and two touchdowns in the preseason and tight end Tony Gonzalez has just one reception so far. The veteran and future Hall of Famer knows it’s time to start ironing the kinks out.

"We have an opportunity here to go against a great defense," Gonzalez said. "It’s a good chance to see how we stack up. It can only help us. It’s a real positive for us from the way I’m looking at it. As long as we respond to it and go out there and play the way we are capable of playing. We are a good team."

The starters for both teams will play a half, though the Steelers could find it difficult to one-up their performance against the Eagles, when the offense scored three touchdowns and the defense picked off Philadelphia’s Michael Vick three times in two quarters of regular season worthy play.

Even normally picky coach Mike Tomlin is having a hard time looking for areas where he needs to see improvement. He’ll be more focused on individual efforts with the first roster cuts coming next week.

"This is a big step for us, for a lot of people," Tomlin said. "The clock is ticking on some men making a statement or making a move."

On a team loaded with proven veterans at nearly every position, there are precious few spots open on the depth chart. The punting competition between Daniel Sepulveda and Jeremy Kapinos remains up in the air, as does the fight at backup tight end and secondary reserves.

The game could also be vital to Pittsburgh backup quarterbacks Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon. The team will only carry three quarterbacks into the regular season, with Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich locks to stay with the team.

Batch has the experience, but Dixon’s mobility brings an added dimension to the position. Tomlin hasn’t set his rotation against the Falcons, but Dixon could get extensive looks in hopes of drawing interest from another team.

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