Five things to watch in Falcons’ exhibition finale vs. Steelers

Here’s what to look for in the Falcons’ exhibition finale Thursday night against the Steelers:

1. Who plays? The Falcons haven’t revealed their plans, saying Tuesday those would be finalized that evening but wouldn’t be shared publicly. Coach Arthur Smith indicated that the time gap and practices between the game and the Sept. 10 opener will play a role.

The expectation is that key starters won’t play. If that’s the case, quarterback Desmond Ridder will have played only 17 snaps in the exhibition games. Running back Bijan Robinson, receiver Drake London and tight end Kyle Pitts likewise would’ve barely played. Not that it matters; the players will be ready for Week 1 against the Panthers. Teams handle starters’ playing time differently in the exhibitions, and there’s no “right” answer.

“I have no clue (if I’ll play), but for me, like I said before, I’m ready to play when my name is called,” Ridder said Tuesday. “So if my name is called Thursday, I’ll go and go as hard as I can until my name is not called.”

2. Receiver competition: The Falcons are down KhaDarel Hodge (ankle) and Penny Hart (concussion) for this game. It seems unlikely that starters Mack Hollins and London will play (and if they do, it’ll be brief). That means lots of opportunities are available for receivers hoping to make an impression, such as Kentucky product Josh Ali, the 2022 undrafted free agent who’s generated excitement at times.

Other Falcons receivers: Scotty Miller, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Slade Bolden, Zay Malone, Keilahn Harris and Mathew Sexton. It’s unclear how many receivers the team will keep.

“It’s a tough spot,” Hollins said of being a receiver competing for a spot. “I was there really the majority of my career. Special teams is how I’ve been able to continue to thrive in this league. So if you can’t play special teams, more power to you because that probably means you’re a top-10 pick or something and your pockets are full and you’re well-gifted, but other than that, you better know how to make a tackle or protect somebody who can return or be very fast and return.”

3. More Hellams: Safety DeMarcco Hellams, the team’s seventh-round pick out of Alabama, has been a preseason star. He has had an interception in each game while showing sound tackling and a nose for the ball. Sometimes teams try to hide players that they want to stash on the practice squad, but Hellams clearing waivers seems unlikely, given what he’s shown in a limited time. He’ll be worth watching again Thursday, and it would be an upset if he didn’t make the cut.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

4. Offensive-line roles: Backup jobs are up for grabs along the line. The team’s starting unit seems set, with rookie Matthew Bergeron likely getting the only spot that was open at left guard.

“There’s a lot of good competition going on inside,” Smith said. “(Ryan Neuzil) continues to play well, Kyle Hinton played well, Tyler Vrabel certainly has played well. Josh Miles. Josh, Tyler, Jalen (Mayfield), we’ve rotated through them. That’s what competition does, it brings out the best in you. Josh has a shot this week. He’ll get some reps at left tackle, and we’ll see who can win those backup jobs.”

5. Cut down the penalties: Even though the game largely will feature players who won’t be on the final roster, expect an emphasis on more disciplined football. The Falcons committed 13 penalties last week. They had players running as punishment for penalties earlier this week. Smith’s team was the least-penalized group in the NFL last season – only 64 infractions – so there’s a track record of accountability there. It should be a cleaner performance.

Credit: Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

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