Originally posted on Fox Sports South  |  By JOHN MANASSO  |  Last updated 8/28/13
Here are five things to watch for Atlanta's preseason finale at home against Jacksonville on Thursday: 1. Dont expect to see the starters much. Head coach Mike Smith will follow the same plan as last year's preseason finale: Staying healthy is always the goal. Smith is the anti-Rex Ryan in almost every way, particularly when it comes to having the common sense not to jeopardize the health of his starting quarterback in a meaningless game. That likely means that Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan will not play, nor will running back Steven Jackson. Julio Jones may only play a few snaps. The same holds true with tight end Tony Gonzalez, who might play only because he missed the first two preseason games to be with his family in California. The offensive line and the entire defense will likely play several series before giving way to substitutes. 2. Can rookie Robert Alford rebound against the Jags? Starting left cornerback Asante Samuel will not play with a thigh injury, meaning second-round pick Robert Alford is likely to earn the start in his absence. While Smith said Samuel is expected to play in the season opener, the Falcons nonetheless would like to see a better showing from Alford. Alford had a rough go of it in Atlanta's preseason loss on Saturday, giving up several touchdowns. Smith refused to place too much blame on Alford. "What you see on that film isn't what actually happened," Smith said. "... The guy closest to the ball isnt always the guy responsible." Smith was making the point that Alford, at times, might have been looking for help from another defender on certain plays and that it was the fault of his teammates who blew coverages on certain plays. Over the last three seasons, Samuel (12th NFL season) has missed eight games. So, even if hes healthy for Week 1, its possible he might miss some time because of injury. In that event, Alford will need to be better than he was against Jake Locker, Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Titans hardly a dominating NFL offense. 3. Will the offensive line show improvement? As a unit, this could potentially be the biggest area of emphasis. After giving up five sacks in a little more than two quarters, the Falcons will want to do a better job protecting the quarterback no matter who it is. Atlanta has practiced "twists" or stunts this week in an effort to improve. After their difficulties last week against the Titans, the Falcons are likely to see these wrinkles aplenty against the Saints and new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in Week 1. Left guard Justin Blalock, the line's elder statesman, said the Falcons need to improve their communication both on the field and the sideline to handle those. Thursday is the ideal setting for such practice. Ever since the preseason opener against the Bengals, the Falcons have had good success running the ball. Blalock agreed, but said they still have a number of things to work on. "We were having more success doing it," he said of running the ball. "I dont want to say that one doesnt feed off the other in a way at all. But, yes, we were able to have some success early in the game, move the ball. "We still weren't able to finish in the red zone like weve wanted to. That's something well also have to work on, sustaining drives, throughout, obviously, the red zone, scoring touchdowns." 4. Can quarterback Sean Renfree impress? Renfree, a seventh-round pick, should log plenty of playing time in Thursday's preseason finale. For Renfree, a strong showing or merely an average one could represent the difference between forcing the Falcons to keep him on the active roster or getting cut and eventuall winding up on the practice squad. (The salary differences are fairly significant.) Renfree did not play in the third preseason game. In the opener, he went 2 of 4 for 20 yards and was sacked once. In the second games against Baltimore, he went 8 of 16 for 63 yards and took the Falcons' only sack of that night. The Duke product had a chance to rally Atlanta to a victory in the final minutes after driving the team to the Baltimore 21, but could not muster a touchdown and turned the ball over on downs. His passer rating has not been above 70, which is well below average. 5. Will Brian Banks make the team? Thursday also could be the final chance for the linebacker Banks to earn a spot on the active roster. His story is well known: Banks served five years in prison for a crime of which he was falsely accused and later exonerated. Inspiring story aside, he remains a long shot to make the team. So far, Banks has but two tackles in the preseason. He will likely receive his most snaps of the preseason against the Jaguars. If he shows well, maybe the Falcons keep him or, as Smith likes to say, 31 other teams are watching and maybe another signs him to its active roster. Banks' drama will play out over the weekend, with final cuts looming by 6 p.m. Saturday, and then practice squad signings on Sunday.
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