Cover 9@9: 5 Falcons to watch in the exhibition opener

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

1. The no-spin zone: The Falcons’ first exhibition game can’t get here fast enough.

While most eyes will be on quarterback Marcus Mariota to see if he can get the ball to Kyle Pitts, there are other themes and several players to watch Friday night.

At the top of the list, can the Falcons’ offense run the ball (31st in the NFL last year) and can the defense stop the run (27th)?

Here are five players to watch:

» Rookie outside linebacker DeAngelo Malone, a third-round pick from Cedar Grove and Western Kentucky, has been crushing the game in practice.

» Wide receiver Stanley Berryhill has flashed in the seven-on-seven drills. He’s dropped some passes but has made some spectacular plays, too.

» Left guard Elijah Wilkinson is slated to get the start over Jalen Mayfield. Is he an upgrade?

» Outside linebacker Quinton Bell, who played at Prairie View A&M, has been working with the second-team defense behind Lorenzo Carter. He has looked good. The Falcons need to see if he can set the edge and get after the passer.

» Backup quarterbacks Desmond Ridder and Feleipe Franks. Franks saw some quarterback action Tuesday and could see the field at quarterback.

“Yeah, it depends on how the game goes, but, yeah, he’s got to be ready to go,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said of Franks.

Franks has spent most of training camp at tight end.

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2. Newcomers: Defensive tackle Abdullah Anderson and tight end MyCole Pruitt, who signed this week, will be available.

“Hopefully they’ll be ready to go and compete and show us what they can do Friday night,” Smith said. “Abdullah looks fast the last two days, let’s see what he can do day after day, and let’s see what he can do Friday night.”

Pruitt played with the Titans under Smith as a position coach and a coordinator.

“He’s coming off an injury, and I’m giving him the chance to come in here and compete,” Smith said.

3. Backup plan: Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota has a plan if things go haywire against the Lions.

“If things go wrong, you got to kind of snap it real quick,” Mariota said. “You have to go out there and communicate, be able to talk through certain situations. Talk through the scenario. What happened. What you saw. What we can get better at.”

Mariota believes that communication is the key.

“At the same time, you know what, I think it’s just it’s a little bit of encouragement as well,” Mariota said. “I think sometimes guys get a little bounce not getting the ball.

“I think they understand that there is a competition, but if you put out great routes and you go out there and you practice hard, you know, that’s all we’re asking for.”

4. Staying calm: Mariota, who has not started a game since 2019, plans to stay calm against the Lions.

“When it comes down to just focusing on taking care of the business, one play at a time,” Mariota said.

5. Identity of the offense: While the play-calling likely will be vanilla, the Falcons will reveal their new identity on offense with Mariota.

“I think we’re going to be very versatile and do a lot of different things,” Mariota said. “That’s going to play to our advantage. When we’re out there and we’re all communicating and everybody’s on the same page. Guys are lining up in the right spots. Ending up in the right spots. I’m putting the ball where it’s supposed to be, I think this offense can hum.”

6. What will be a good outing? The Lions hope to play their starters for a quarter. The Falcons have not said how long their starters will stay in the game.

“I’m not so focused on the results,” Mariota said. “You know, I really just want to try to get better as a unit. Like I’ve been saying constantly, this is a young team. It’s a young offense. And for us as vets, we try to help these young guys coming along so that when we roll the ball out for the first game of the season, these guys are ready to go.”

7. Coffin corner: Punter Bradley Pinion wanted to land with the Falcons.

“Soon as I kind of knew that I was going to get cut in Tampa, it was one of those situations where Atlanta was my top choice, honestly,” Pinion said. “It’s only about an hour-and-a-half from where I live in the offseason. It’s a dream come true to play this close to Clemson. This is close to home.”

The Falcons were in the punter market after not re-signing Dustin Colquitt, who came in and stabilized the position last season.

Couldn’t have been a better circumstance, honestly,” Pinion said.

He’s played with San Francisco and Tampa Bay. Pinion also kicks off, and 418 of his 530 kickoffs (78.9%) have been touchbacks. He has averaged 43.7 yards per punt over his career.

Pinion is looking forward to getting some action in the exhibition games.

“You kind (of) have to get the reps in,” Pinion said. “I love live reps. So, getting those live reps in is huge. Just getting used to the flow of the game. (Exhibition) games are always nice.”

8. Super Bowl experience: Pinion was on the Bucs’ Super Bowl team.

“It was awesome,” Pinion said. “We kind of knew when Tom (Brady) came in that we had a shot. It was just, the first time ever going to the playoffs and winning the Super Bowl. It was a different transition.

“Everybody says you catch that second wind, and that’s 100% true. You just catch that second wind and you just grind it out. At that point, the next game counts. You just have to win. You have to do anything and everything you can to win.”

9. Depth chart: The Falcons listed Mariota as the No. 1 quarterback in their first depth chart released to the media previewing the exhibition opener against the Lions at 6 p.m. Friday at Ford Field.

KhaDarel Hodge and Olamide Zaccheaus are listed as the top receivers. Rookie Drake London is listed as the fifth receiver behind Hodge, Geronimo Allison, Damiere Byrd and Auden Tate.

Matt Hennessy and Drew Dalman are both listed as the No. 1 center.

Cordarrelle Patterson is listed as the top running back.

Here’s the first depth chart released by the Falcons:

OFFENSE

WR: KhaDarel Hodge, Geronimo Allison, Damiere Byrd, Auden Tate, Drake London, Tyshaun James

TE: Kyle Pitts, Anthony Firkser, Feleipe Franks

LT: Jake Matthews, Rick Leonard, Leroy Watson

LG: Elijah Wilkinson, Jalen Mayfield, Justin Shaffer

C: Matt Hennessy -OR- Drew Dalman, Ryan Neuzil

RG: Chris Lindstrom, Colby Gossett, Jonotthan Harrison

RT: Kaleb McGary, Germain Ifedi, Tyler Vrabel

TE: Parker Hesse, MyCole Pruitt, John FitzPatrick, Tucker Fisk

WR: Olamide Zaccheaus, Bryan Edwards, Frank Darby, Cameron Batson, Stanley Berryhill, Jared Bernhardt

RB: Cordarrelle Patterson, Damien Williams, Keith Smith, Qadree Ollison, Caleb Huntley, Avery Williams, John Raine, Tyler Allgeier

QB: Marcus Mariota, Desmond Ridder, Feleipe Franks

DEFENSE

DL: (DE) Grady Jarrett, Jalen Dalton, Abdullah Anderson, Timothy Horne

DL: (NT) Anthony Rush, Nick Thurman, Derrick Tangelo

DL: (DE) Ta’Quon Graham, Marlon Davidson, Darrion Daniels

OLB: Adetokunbo Ogundeji, Arnold Ebiketie, Kuony Deng

ILB: Mykal Walker, Nick Kwiatkoski, Rashad Smith, Troy Andersen

ILB: Rashaan Evans, Dorian Etheridge, Nathan Landman

OLB: Lorenzo Carter, Quinton Bell, Jordan Brailford, DeAngelo Malone

CB: A.J. Terrell, Cornell Armstrong, Mike Ford, Corey Ballentine, Matt Hankins

S: Richie Grant, Erik Harris, Henry Black

S: Jaylinn Hawkins, Dean Marlowe, Teez Tabor, Tre Webb

CB: Casey Hayward, Darren Hall, Isaiah Oliver, Dee Alford, Lafayette Pitts

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Younghoe Koo

P: Bradley Pinion, Seth Vernon

LS: Liam McCullough

H: Bradley Pinion

PR: Avery Williams

KOR: Avery Williams

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