Both teams enter the preseason as serious playoff contenders. For the Cincinnati Bengals, the questions include: can they overcome the Ravens and can Andy Dalton beat playoff-caliber defenses?
For the Super-Bowl-or-bust Falcons, the questions are: can the offensive line protect Matt Ryan long enough for him to deliver the ball to all of those weapons and what will the secondary look like?
For both teams, a Super Bowl berth wouldn't be a surprise, but if things start going wrong early in the season and a snowball effect is created, it is not unreasonable that neither makes the playoffs, either.
With that in mind, what should we expect for Thursday night's game in Atlanta? There are many stories at play in both camps, but these five should provide some interest:
Atlanta’s offensive line play
When right tackle Mike Johnson went down this week with a dislocated left ankle and broken left leg, it highlighted a glaring issue with the Falcons offensive line -- it is thin and there are a lot of unknowns.
The Falcons released Tyson Clabo during the offseason and Johnson was the early favorite to replace him. Lamar Holmes, a second-year man out of Southern Mississippi, now moves into the starting right tackle position, barring a free agent pickup.
Holmes is more of a pass protector than Johnson, who was highly-regarded in the running game in college, but after Holmes, there aren’t many options. Currently, Ryan Schraeder, an undrafted rookie from Valdosta State, will back up Holmes.
While the left side of the Falcons' offensive line is solid with returning starters Sam Baker and Justin Blalock, Wisconsin product (and Rimington finalist) Peter Konz is moving from the right side of the line to his more natural position of center, but he is in his second year and struggled at the right guard position last year.
Garrett Reynolds is penciled in at the right guard position for now, but he’s been here before and the history is not good. Tagged as the starting right guard at this point last season, Reynolds was injured in November and has only played 922 snaps over the last two seasons.
Harland Gunn was a two-year starter in college at Miami (Fla), but is only considered an average lineman. Behind these starters is Joe Hawley, who only played six games last year, and a lot of rookies and second-year players.
Clearly, the Falcons are banking on youth maturing quickly. How the line holds up during the season will determine just how far Atlanta advances this season.
Giovani Bernard and Tyler Eifert
With wide receivers A.J. Green (knee), Andrew Hawkins (ankle) and Marvin Jones (hamstring) not participating in the first preseason game, there should be plenty of opportunity for younger and less experienced wideouts to get some reps. However, look for the Bengals to turn to the run game Thursday night and utilize rookie Giovani Bernard’s explosive versatility coming out of the backfield, as well.
While the pounding BenJarvus Green-Ellis is the No. 1 guy and powers the Bengals' running attack, North Carolina product Bernard is more of a pass-catching option and offers a different look in the Cincinnati backfield. Look for him to get plenty of time in the first half, at least.
Similarly, Tyler Eifert, the rookie from Notre Dame, could also receive some significant playing time as he learns the Bengals offense. The 6’6”, 250-pound tight end has impressed in Cincinnati’s training camp and looks to be an option in the passing game from the get-go.
The question for Eifert will be how well he blocks for Green-Ellis and Bernard, who may be more likely to run laterally to take advantage of his explosiveness and speed. Watch for the Bengals to use him in both situations against Atlanta’s revamped defense.
It would be easy to write two or three points to watch here. The Falcons' secondary has undergone a great deal of turnover in the offseason as the Falcons have tried to revamp their pass defense, but the defensive line has also undergone turmoil of its own.
Gone is sackmeister John Abraham, replaced by the former Giant Osi Umenyiora. The knock on Abraham was age (35), but he was still a productive pass rusher with 32.5 sacks over the past three seasons. In comparison, the younger Umenyiora (32) has 27 sacks over the past three seasons.
While that may not seem like a huge drop-off, Abraham’s totals were consistent over the three-year period (13, 9.5, 10 sacks), while Umenyiora’s have dropped consistently (12, 9 in 9 games, and 6). Umenyiora has impressed so far in Atlanta’s camp, but will the new environment be enough to propel him back to the Pro Bowl level that he enjoyed earlier in his career with the Giants?
Likewise, will the rest of the defensive front be able to up the pass-rushing pressure? The left side lacks a true pass rusher. Will anyone step up?
Likewise, the secondary for the Falcons has had a tumultuous offseason. Atlanta let Dunta Robinson go for cap reasons and chose not to re-sign Brent Grimes, who suffered a torn Achilles just 52 plays into the season in 2012. In their place, the Falcons drafted Desmond Trufant out of the University of Washington and Robert Alford of Southeastern Louisiana.
Both have impressed greatly in training camp, with Trufant being the first Falcon to report to training camp, and Alford receiving the majority of playing time in camp while Trufant took care of graduation matters with Washington.
With ten-year veteran Asante Samuel providing the teaching, the Falcons rookies are getting on-the-job training and impressing both Falcons coaching and quarterback Matt Ryan, who has had several passes tipped and intercepted in camp by the rookies.
Can the rookies keep it up during the preseason and season? While definitely the future of the Falcons' secondary, can they mature enough this season to keep opposing offenses from abusing them for huge chunks of yardage?
The best-case scenario for the defense is that all of GM Thomas Dimitroff’s and head coach Mike Smith’s moves work, the rookies and second-year players mature quickly, and the Falcons' defense becomes a lock-down-type defense.
Worst-case scenario is that Umenyiora continues to deteriorate and the young guys do not gel, in which case Atlanta’s defense morphs from the bend, but don’t break group from last year to a bend, break, and allow-a-ton-of-points defense.
Cincinnati’s run game
We know that the Bengals have some offensive weaponry, especially in the passing game, but Cincinnati’s running game was 18th in the league last year with 107.4 yards per game.
While the team as a whole averaged 4.1 yards per rush, primary back BenJarvus Green-Ellis averaged only 3.9.
In the offseason, the Bengals drafted not only Giovani Bernard, who provides an alternative to Green-Ellis’ bruising style, but also picked up Nebraska’s Rex Burkhead.
Burkhead was injured in his senior year and played only a limited amount of time, but when he did play, he averaged 6.9 yards per carry and had 5.2 yards per carry over the course of his career.
Burkhead has been getting some work in during training camp while Bernard, who is currently the undisputed number two back, has been working with the special teams unit.
Watch for Burkhead to receive a majority of touches in the game, especially in the second half, as the Bengals try to attain a balance in the run/pass game.
Overall, Cincinnati's offensive line is decent, with Andrew Whitworth, Andre Smith, Kevin Zeitler and Clint Boling being highly ranked in Pro Football Focus' grading. However, the line was rated as the sixth worst run-blocking line last year. How is this possible?
According to Pro Football Focus, the line was highly-ranked as a pass protecting line, which requires a different set of skills from the linemen than run protection does. The Cincinnati line was inconsistent in penetrating the defensive line to set up blocks on linebackers to allow Green-Ellis to break free beyond the three- or four-yard gain.
Even in practices against the Falcons last week and this week, reports were that the Falcons defensive line was holding its own against this group. Can the Bengals line turn the disparity in pass- and run-protection around? To get the balance that coordinator Jay Gruden is looking for in the offensive game, they may have to.
How long the starters play
Mike Smith has made it quite clear that his only objective this preseason is to get to the season opener in New Orleans with a healthy team. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis echoed those sentiments on Tuesday after practicing with the Falcons. The Bengals and Falcons have both already been hit by injuries and there is a rash of teams being hit hard by the injury bug this preseason. With that said, how long will the starters play?
Look for most of the starters to play one or two series, at most. Getting Dalton some reps with Eifert or Bernard and the newer wide receivers might be important in the Bengals’ development, but it is not so important in the first preseason game on a Thursday night.
Likewise, watch for Trufant and Alford to play two to three series, but don’t expect Jackson or Umeniyora to play more than two, despite being new to the Atlanta system.
At this point in the preseason, both coaches are simply attempting to keep their team healthy until the real season rolls around. Both coaches are intelligent enough to know that how deep they advance in the playoffs begins right now and they will act accordingly.