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Sarah Woodall: Falcons preseason game a chance for fans to get a sneak peek of what's to come
01012018 FALCONS RAMS 2
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan passes against the Los Angeles Rams during the first half of an NFL football wild-card playoff game, Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

It’s finally here. The Atlanta Falcons kick off against the New York Jets on Friday.

Yes, the Falcons play in their first game since January. It will give fans a whiff of that fresh start Atlanta has yearned for since a heartbreaking loss to Philadelphia in a divisional playoff game last season (we all know who went on to win Super Bowl LII).

But before you let that excitement take control, pause. Take a deep breath. OK, that’s better. You remember that it’s only Week 1 of the NFL preseason — a small sample size of what’s to come further down the road with the Falcons’ Sept. 6 season opener in Philly.

And that’s exactly what it is — a sample size. It’s that free demo download you sometimes get on a video game console. The parts are refurbished — some brand new — but not quite off the assembly line.

The Falcons you’ll see in their first preseason game Friday night will get their first real opportunity to work out the kinks in an actual game setting, in pads and against an opponent. And it’s important to put in perspective a number of factors as you tune in to the broadcast on NFL Network.

First and foremost, it’s not all about the stats. Any NFL team can go undefeated for the preseason and still go on to miss the playoffs with a sub-par showing in the regular season. For the Falcons, it’s all about the reps, most importantly for the incoming class of rookies and free agent signees. This is the time for coach Dan Quinn and his staff to evaluate that talent, while shuffling the pieces around to see what works in their schemes.

Execution is also important. As 92.9 The Game host Jeff Benedict pointed out during his late-night show this week, the actual playcalling may not be dire during this time because what fans see is a presentation of a tentative script. Coaches like offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian are taking a set of plays through a test drive as the players themselves get their first real reps in.

It’s important to keep that in mind as we jump into the bigger bullet points for Atlanta’s first exhibition game against the Jets.

Battle at right guard continues

Filling the right guard position continues to be a stressful transition for the Falcons, to say the least. Chris Chester’s retirement resulted in Wes Schweitzer somewhat filling that gap in 2017. We witnessed a lackluster season for Schweitzer, who showed flashes of his true potential but struggled in pass blocking and was pushed around most weeks.

While the recent signing of Brandon Fusco created the assumption that he will take over that slot, Quinn made it clear this offseason that it will be an open competition at guard, giving second-year player Schweitzer an opportunity to defend his starting job.

Schweitzer was listed atop the team’s first unofficial depth chart at guard earlier this week, indicating that the battle is ongoing.

Rookie talent on display

Newcomers like wideout Calvin Ridley and running back Ito Smith have been generating buzz since their arrival for rookie minicamp. Ridley is projected to make big waves in his first season, while Smith could eventually succeed Tevin Coleman, who enters the final year of his rookie deal and could be going elsewhere after 2018. It will be interesting to see how well they handle the pressure outside a practice setting.

Quinn defense 4.0

Following the departure of interior linemen Adrian Clayborn and Dontari Poe, the Falcons deploy a revised look of a defensive line fronted by Grady Jarrett and Vic Beasley. Just like the offense, the first-team defense should see very limited action, but it’s still intriguing to know that Beasley is back on the defensive line full-time and Takk McKinley will be lining up on the opposite end. Also, draft pick Deadrin Senat should see some snaps.

The elevated play of staples Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, Ricardo Allen, Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford are a given, so the spotlight should fall on second-year players like safety Damontae Kazee or linebacker Duke Riley, whose injury limited him for a number of weeks last season. Riley should be feeling the heat as Atlanta added draft pick Foye Oluokun into the mix beside De’Vondre Campbell.

Riley, another LSU alum on this defense, struggled with execution as a rookie and has shown some growing pains during training camp this summer.

Dodging injury bug

The recent close calls with McKinley (shoulder) and Ridley (hamstring) revealed that anyone is subject to injury. While the Falcons have managed to deepen their roster significantly since Quinn’s arrival, that initial exposure to full-blown contact outside training camp opens doors for unwanted ailments.

McKinley is one to look out for, as he was cleared to play against the Jets earlier this week. So here’s to hoping Atlanta averts the injury bug for another week. 

Sarah Woodall is a sports writer for The Times. She can be reached at swoodall@gainesvilletimes.com or @Woodall8Sarah on Twitter.

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