5 things to watch in the Falcons’ final exhibition game

FLOWERY BRANCH – The Falcons plan to play the majority of their starters in the exhibition finale against the Cleveland Browns at 8 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The Falcons have played only four of their projected starters thus far. Cornerback Fabian Moreau, outside linebacker Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard and right tackle Kaleb McGary have seen exhibition action.

“The majority of these guys will play,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said Friday. “We’ll finalize it (Saturday) in the staff meeting. I expect the majority of the guys to play Sunday night.”

The Falcons are projected to have nine of 22 new starters, and quite possibly the first time they take the field together in a game will be in the opener against the Eagles on Sept. 12.

“Everybody is at different points,” Smith said. “The way we’ve gone about (the exhibition) season, it’s been about developing and evaluating the young guys. At the same time, we feel good about the vets that we know are going to be out there and the progress that they’ve made.”

Quarterback Matt Ryan has yet to take a snap, and prized rookie tight end Kyle Pitts has not made his NFL debut yet.

Ryan, who’s set to enter his 14th season in the NFL, is comfortable with not playing in the exhibition season thus far.

“I feel pretty good with where we are at,” Ryan said. “I thought the joint practices last week in Miami were really good. To go against some different looks, different players, to not see the same thing, react to some different things and different speed.”

Smith pointed out that the Falcons had 95 competitive plays in each of the practices with the Dolphins. That’s the equivalent of two games.

“I thought that was really good for us,” Ryan said. “Whatever Art asks me to do, I’ll be ready to go Sunday night. I feel like I’ll be ready to go in a few weeks when we kick it off (against) Philadelphia.”

Here are five things to watch in the game against the Browns:

1. The Kyle Pitts show. Pitts, was the fourth player selected in the NFL draft.

He dressed for the opening exhibition game against the Titans, but did not play. Smith wanted him to get used to his routine.

He’s been working hard in practice, but hit a few rough patches during the joint practices with the Dolphins in his battles with safety Eric Rowe.

The Browns started safeties Jovante Moffatt and Richard LeCounte in their previous exhibition game, a 17-13 win over the Giants. LeCounte, who played at Georgia, is having a fine exhibition season.

But the Browns projected starting safeties are Ronnie Harrison and Johnnie Johnson. They also have Grant Delpit, who’s returning from injury.

Facing the Browns secondary would be a good second test for Pitts before the start of the season.

“We’re in a new territory,” Smith said. “Everybody is trying to figure out how you want to handle only three (exhibition) games. The reality is that we’ve got to play 17 regular-season games.”

2. No Instagram highlights. The Falcons did not put together a game plan for the final game.

“There are some guys that need snaps,” Smith said. “They all are at different parts of their career. Some of these young guys do need to play. How long, will be determined by how they are playing and what we can get accomplished.”

The Falcons cut their penalties from 11 to five in the second game.

“We’re not going to have some elaborate scheme,” Smith said. “We are not going to sit there in (an exhibition) game and try and trick (Browns coach) Kevin Stefanski and his staff so we can feel good about an Instagram highlight.”

The Falcons will keep it basic.

“What we want to do is make sure that we’ve got guys who can get in and out of the huddle,” Smith said. “Block, tackle in space, get open and catch the football and a quarterback who can drop back and deliver the football.”

3. Defense to get tested. The Browns, who went to the playoffs last season and are AFC title contenders, are set to play starting quarterback Baker Mayfield.

The Falcons defense, which is projected to have five new starters, will get tested.

Outside linebacker Steven Means, defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard, right cornerback Fabian Moreau, strong safety Duron Harmon and free safety Erik Harris are the projected new starters.

“The more repetition, the better it gets,” defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said of the new defensive scheme. “We are going to have a lot of multiple looks. Wherever (Smith) wants to put the guys where he feels it’s going to be most effective.”

The Falcons will play a 3-4 defense with multiple looks.

“Guys are willing to learn and ... there is no excuse for not knowing multiple positions,” Jarrett said. “Whether it’s in the front end or back end, so that we can put the best group of guys out there together to have a successful defense.”

4. Josh Rosen to play. The Falcons had Feleipe Franks follow Ryan at practice this week with the second-string offense.

Josh Rosen, who signed Tuesday, followed Franks.

With AJ McCarron out for the season on injured reserve (knee), the Falcons are looking for a backup quarterback.

Rosen, who was the 10th player selected in the 2018 draft by Arizona, will play against the Browns.

“Josh has done a nice job,” Smith said. “He’s in a unique situation. That’s the life of guys in that spot that get signed. In that position, he’s a smart guy. He’s prepared all week. We’ll see him at some point Sunday night.”

5. Oklahoma drill: Smith can’t use the Oklahoma drill anymore to work on tackling in practice. So, the coaches want to see who’s going to tackle in the exhibition games.

“It’s more about getting up (to the line of scrimmage), getting the call in and playing good fundamental defense,” Smith said. “We have to make sure that we are in the right call.”

After getting lined up right, the Falcons are worried about missed tackles.

“Obviously, we want to see guys tackle,” Smith said. “That’s usually the issue early in the season. It’s not the old days. I know that everybody use to tackle a lot more in practice. We don’t want to be the team that’s missing a lot of open-field tackles early in the season.”

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