Originally posted on Fox Sports South  |  By JOHN MANASSO  |  Last updated 8/23/13
Traditionally, the third preseason game is the most important. The starters play the longest and it also represents the only game for which the coaches game-plan. So here are five things to watch in the Falcons third preseason game on Saturday in Nashville against the Titans. 1. Linebacker spots up for grabs Last season, the Falcons kept just five linebackers on the active roster. Mike Peterson is the only one from that group not to return. With Kroy Biermann essentially moving to outside linebacker, the competition is heightened. Now throw in two of the undrafted rookies who have shown so well: Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow. With starter Stephen Nicholas injured, Bartu could get snaps with the first-team defense on Saturday. Linebackers coach Glenn Pires said Bartu has made an impression but a rookies still a rookie. Rookies always see something new: every day, every play, Pires said, so hes going through that phase. But yet why is he going to get work with us? Because he is showing some good things. Pires said the 6-foot-2, 230-pounder is explosive, runs well and has some good instincts. With the emergence of Bartu and Worrilow, Nicholas could be fighting to make the team. Pires addressed Nicholas situation. I think its the reality of the NFL, he said. Its a competitive league at all levels. Special teams, offense, defense and hes in the middle of the competition every years a challenge and every guys competitive. Robert James, who has mostly made his impact on special teams, also is by no means a lock to make the team. Sean Weatherspoon also will play in his first preseason game, as he suffered an open dislocation of a finger early in camp. 2. Holmes has right tackle position almost sewn up With the impressive performance of the Falcons first-team offense last week against Baltimore, the Falcons are showing a good deal of comfort in second-year right tackle Lamar Holmes, who has never started a game in the league. Head coach Mike Smith was asked on Thursday if he were ready to pronounce Holmes the starter. While he avoided a direct answer, he indicated that the situation is pointing in that direction. Lamar Holmes, simply because of the numbers and such, Lamars going to take the majority of snaps with the first group, Smith said. Right now, Lamar has done a very nice job. Each week, hes done better. Smith also said that undrafted free agent rookie Ryan Schraeder will get some snaps at right tackle, though dont expect those to come with the first team. Schraeder appears to have won himself a spot on the active roster and could become the jumbo tight end, which the Falcons use in short yardage situations. Schraeder played a team-high 58 snaps last week, as the Falcons continue to try to get him up to speed as fast as possible. 3. Falcons offense to face an old foe Remember the Bountygate scandal and the man at the center of it? No, not New Orleans head coach Sean Payton but the teams former defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams. Well, Williams has landed with the Titans, where he had coached in previous seasons, helping to build the defense that landed the franchise in its only Super Bowl back in January of 2000 -- in Atlanta, of all places. Williams owns the nebulous title of senior assistantdefense and some Titans observers have had difficulty discerning whether he has superseded Jerry Gray as the teams defensive coordinator. In any event, Williams imprint is sure to be on the Titans defense, which allowed 471 points last season -- one of the highest totals in league history. With New Orleans when he won the Super Bowl as defensive coordinator in 2009-10, Williams employed a gambling, attacking-style that often forced turnovers. It should be familiar to Matt Ryan & Co., although the personnel undoubtedly will be different. Smith said so far the Titans defense has not looked much like Williams former New Orleans counterparts. It hasnt been in the first two preseason games, he said. Theyve been very vanilla in terms of what theyve shown. We know Gregg has got a very multiple package and shows a lot of multiplicity but they havent shown it to this point in time. I would imagine that well see a little more than what weve seen in the first two preseason games. In the end, however, Smith acknowledged that no NFL team wants to show off its best plays, defenses or blitzes in the preseason. Video: White knows Falcons window wide open 4. Whos that guy wearing No. 88? Like Weatherspoon, tight end Tony Gonzalez is another key starter who will make his preseason debut. Gonzalez returned to the team on Sunday after a respite of almost three weeks, which he spent with his family. It would be surprising if Gonzalez played more than a few series against the Titans. Gonzalez said via the use of an iPad, he watched every practice and got to see all of the installations of plays. He said to stay in shape, he played basketball and caught passes from the quarterback at Huntington Beach High School. He told reporters on Sunday that his wind is pretty good and while its not where he wants it to be yet, he does have 20 days for it to be game-ready. He said he was a little bit concerned as to how his teammates would react to his hiatus but he said quarterback Matt Ryan visited him at his home in California before training camp began for both business and pleasure and that Ryan was OK with it. He said as Ryan is the teams leader, that if Ryan were OK with the decision, then that was good enough for him. They totally understand, Gonzalez said of his teammates. I was going to come in in-shape and I feel like I have and Ive proved that. With Gonzalez back, look for rookie fourth-round pick Levine Toilolo, all 6-foot-8 of him, to play the role of blocking tight end. 5. More opportunity for wide receivers With Roddy White out for the remainder of the preseason with an ankle injury, others will have a chance to move up the depth chart in these next two games. Chief among them is Drew Davis, who is firmly ensconced in the No. 4 wide receiver role. Davis was targeted four times last week and caught all four balls for a total of 45 yards, although he did lose a fumble. At the No. 5 wide receiver, a number of players are vying for a roster spot. Undrafted free agent Darius Johnson out of SMU was targeted a team-high nine times last week and caught a team-high six balls for 50 yards. Johnson is only 5-foot-10 but has the speed of a burner. Kevin Cone, on the roster the two last seasons, caught the only ball that was thrown to him for 17 yards. Cone, at 6-foot-2, gives the Falcons more size -- which they have aplenty in Julio Jones, White and Davis -- along with a valuable special teams presence. The decision could come down to how much value the Falcons put on size at that position.
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