5 things to watch in the Falcons at Jets’ game

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The Falcons, a rebuilding work in progress, have several positions up for grabs.

The Falcons (1-0) hope to get some clarity when they face the Jets (1-0) in their second exhibition game at 8 p.m. Monday at MetLife Stadium.

Falcons coach Arthur Smith said he planned to play his starters this exhibition season, while Jets coach Robert Saleh is thinking about sitting his starters, who played well in the practices.

The Falcons pulled out a 27-23 win over the Lions on a 21-yard touchdown pass by rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder with 1:30 to play in their exhibition opener.

“We’ve got to (correct) some of the mistakes that we made,” Smith said. “That’s some of the internal stuff, operational stuff. We want to see progress.”

Here are the five things that Smith plans to watch in the game:

1. Pass protection: The Falcons quarterbacks scrambled nine times for 82 yards against the Lions.

The Jets, who will be without defensive tackle Quinnen Williams (high ankle sprain), have a respectable defensive front led by defensive edge Carl Lawson, from Milton High and Auburn. He’s expected to return from an Achilles injury against the Falcons.

“The way that we play against their front, how we hold up in pass pro, that’s always a good evaluation,” Smith said.

The Falcons’ offensive line has given up at least 40 sacks over the past three seasons.

Quarterbacks Marcus Mariota and Ridder are more mobile than Matt Ryan, who was traded over the offseason to the Colts.

But Smith wants to see if the protection is good enough for the quarterbacks to get the ball to tight end Kyle Pitts.

“That’s always a priority for us,” right guard Chris Lindstrom said. “We always want to keep Marcus safe and really everybody at quarterback. Our job is to finish in the pocket and keep those guys upright so that they can make their plays.”

Rookie wide receiver Drake London, the team’s top draft pick, will be held out of the game as a precautionary measure.

2. Penalties: The Falcons had five penalties for 34 yards against the Lions.

Referees were on hand for the joint practices with the Jets, and that should help heading into the game.

“See if we can keep the penalties down,” Smith said.

Against the Lions, Lindstrom had a holding call. Left guard Elijah Wilkinson had a false start. Cornerback Mike Ford had a face-mask penalty. Outside linebacker Quinton Bell was flagged for illegal hands to the face. The offense had a flag for too many men on the field.

Penalties against Ta’Quon Graham (offside) and Corey Ballentine (holding) were declined. Also, a holding call on long snapper Liam McCullough was offset by the Lions having too many men on the field on a late-game PAT.

3. Third and fourth downs: The Falcons want to convert on third downs offensively and get off the field on third down defensively.

“See who shows up on those critical downs,” Smith said. “Third downs, fourth downs or downs in the red zone.”

Atlanta’s defense gave up six plays of 20 yards or more against the Lions. They gave up three long-gainers on third down.

The Falcons were 3 of 10 on third downs offensively (30%). The Lions converted 8 of 15 (53.3%).

“We are building every day,” safety Richie Grant said. “Every day we are meshing. Seeing what works and what doesn’t work. Then we are improving every day. Just moving forward.”

Grant said the defense will play with a lot of effort. He also said he’s settling in at safety after playing nickel back last season.

“We have a really good group as a defense,” Grant said. “I think we all pretty much just want to get better every day. You can’t ask for (anything more) from a group than that.”

4. Special teams: Players looking to make the team will need to perform well on special teams.

“It’s a good opportunity to cover some kicks,” Smith said. “Make those plays in space. Make blocks in space in the return game. All those things are what you are looking for, too.”

5. The rushing attack: The Falcons running backs rushed 20 times for 86 yards for a respectable 4.3 yards per carry against the Lions.

“It’s Year 2 in the system, the second year of feeling what the coaches want from us and knowing that now as players,” Lindstrom said. “We have all of those reps banked. Now we’re able to hit the ground running this year. It’s just going to continue to get better, and we’ll continue to work with each other on that.”

Falcons offensive line coach Dwayne Ledford enjoyed practicing against the Jets’ 4-3 defensive front. The line has been working against the team’s 3-4 front during training camp in Flowery Branch.

“Different type of combo (blocks) that we’ll work,” Ledford said. “Get that work for a couple of good days before we get into our next (exhibition) season game. Obviously, we’ll see it during the season as well.”

The Falcons plan to lean more heavily on the rushing attack as the post-Ryan era starts. Also, Cordarrelle Patterson didn’t get any carries against the Lions and needs some action.

We added some pieces, and you see those guys really competing,” Ledford said. “Just them knowing what we are wanting from them more and more. It’s been really fun this year.”

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