The Falcons have had most of the star players in bubble wrap for the first two exhibition games.
They never planned to play them against the Broncos in the Pro Football Hall of Fame game, but were set to give some a little time against the Dolphins a week later. But poor field conditions and pregame rain led coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff to sit several starters, including quarterback Matt Ryan.
Barring a torrential rain storm inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Ryan, finally, is set to make his exhibition season debut when the Falcons (0-2) face the New York Jets (0-1) at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.
Here are five things to watch in the exhibition season home opener:
Ryan to make debut: Ryan, along with the first-team offensive line, will play for at least a series.
“But these next two are where usually the bulk of the work goes,” Quinn said. “We don’t do a play number because you can have a lot of plays and it’s a quarter and a half and not many, and then you go all the way to the half. It’s usually by feel.”
In 2017 and 2018, Ryan played a series in the first exhibition game.
In the second game last season, he played a quarter against the Chiefs. He drove them for a touchdown on their first possession and his second drive stalled on Kansas City’s 20-yard line when the Falcons failed to convert on fourth-and-2. Ryan played 14 snaps against the Chiefs before Matt Schaub took over in the second quarter.
Ryan wasn’t sure how long he was going to play. Quinn said definitely a series.
“I generally don’t tell the guys how long they are going to go,” Quinn said. “I’d rather they just get ready to play. Then, (I tell them) ‘you’re out’ and they get mad at me.”
Ryan is looking forward to playing.
“Excited to get back on the field,” Ryan said. “I put in a lot of hard work the last couple of weeks. There’s still a lot of work for us to do to get ready for the regular season.”
Neal ready to go: Strong safety Keanu Neal, who coming off knee surgery, was irate when Quinn told him he wasn’t playing last week on the wet field in Miami.
Neal is expected to get his first action against against the Jets since suffering his knee injury in the season-opening loss to the Eagles in September.
“No one was madder last week than Keanu Neal,” Quinn said.
Cryptic Freeman response: Quinn was asked about Devonta Freeman and he went on a tangent about people wearing Freeman’s jerseys in the stands.
So, we’ll just have take that as a “no” to the question if Freeman would play against the Jets.
Freeman is coming back from sports hernia surgery that ended his 2018 season. He played in just two games last season and needs to start shaking off the rust in game conditions.
Quinn is clearly not comfortable with playing him yet or he wants to surprise the Jets as the Falcons are trying to stop their 10-game exhibition season losing streak.
Well, if Freeman doesn’t play, Ito Smith will start.
“He’s done a nice job,” running backs coach Dave Brock said of Smith. “He’s very consistent. Very steady. Very dependable. He sees the field so well. He’s able to cut back. He slashes.”
Oliver at right cornerback. Isaiah Oliver, the heir apparent at right cornerback to Robert Alford, has been turning heads in practice.
“Arguably the worst cornerback in the NFL,” Football Outsiders wrote about Alford. “He allowed the most receiving yards in the league last season, and his 34.7 percent coverage success rate was the lowest for a qualifying cornerback since 2016.”
That explains why the Falcons were ready to move on from Alford and handed his job to unproven Oliver, who’s in his second season in the league.
Ryan has been impressed with Oliver’s play.
“He’s got a swagger to him,” Ryan said. “You can see it when he’s out there. He’s confident. He has belief in what he’s doing.
“That translates into him being aggressive on certain routes, to go out and showcase his athleticism. I think he’s done a great job for us and he’s one of the guys that I’ve had my eye on, as a second-year guy, how much he’s matured. It’s been impressive to see that.”
Cleaner game: The Falcons have committed 12 penalties in each of their exhibition losses to the Broncos and Dolphins.
“No. 1, I’d like to see us function without some of the fouls that are limiting some of the plays,” Quinn said. “We’ve had more fouls in the last two games that we’d be comfortable with.”
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