NFL preseason: Previewing the Steelers, Falcons in game 3

The Pittsburgh Steelers, who’ve won their first two of three NFL preseason games in 2023, will be on the road for a Thursday night showdown with the Atlanta Falcons on August 24 (7:30 PM, EDT) at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The Falcons won their first preseason game over the Miami Dolphins before ending their second game in a tie with the Cincinnati Bengals.

The third, and final, exhibition game for both teams should feature more action from traditional “first-stringers” as the Steelers and Falcons make final evaluations ahead of upcoming roster cuts, but don’t discount the snap totals of depth players on both squads in what should be an interesting match.

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Tomlin hints at who Steelers fans may see most in Atlanta

This week, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was open in answering questions about the division of labor among players in the final preseason game: the players they want to see play, will play. Yes, that seems to be purposefully vague, but he explained that no promises or guarantees are given to veterans or young players as to how much time they’ll see on the field, if any.

“Within the groups, there’s things that we want to see from individuals in terms of stating the case for themselves in terms of dividing the labor up or being a component of the group,” – Mike Tomlin

The overall plan appears to be that the “first group” – likely how Tomlin classifies the team’s primary starters and immediate backups – will be on the field to open the game and be pulled off once the coaching staff are satisfied by the performances of both team and individuals before the second group – down to guys trying to make the team – are rotated in. Tomlin did seem to indicate that there would still be some players, including fan-favorites, that may not play a single snap.

Kenny Pickett is expected to start the game once again this week as he acclimates to running the offense and building rapport with teammates he has worked with previously as well as new pieces to the Steelers offense. If Pickett is able to orchestrate a quick trip into the end zone for points on the scoreboard, like he has in the first two preseason games, his snap totals are less likely to increase simply because this is the final test run before the regular season.

“It’s not about the guys oftentimes that I choose not to play,” Tomlin explained, “it’s about the opportunity for others.”

Those “others” include a number of players that need real-time experience on this Steelers team in a true NFL game situation, at NFL speed and tempo. For many players, time to show why they should remain with Pittsburgh is quickly nearing an end; it’s an unfortunate reality for professional football players, but league roster limits are what they are.

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Falcons roster and notes

The presumptive starting quarterback for Atlanta on Thursday night is Desmond Ridder; the team placed him in the top spot on their pregame depth chart. Against the Bengals, the second-year QB completed seven-of-nine passes for 80 yards and an interception. Ridder, and the Falcons offense, are set up in a more run-heavy scheme that utilizes his ability to scramble and gain yardage on his feet. The Falcons aren’t looking for him to pass 30-35 times in a game, in other words.

That isn’t to say Ridder can’t throw the ball. In four games in 2022, Ridder completed 73-of-115 passes for 708 yards and 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. During that same span, Ridder ran 16 times for 64 yards.

The Falcons are banking on Ridder breaking out this upcoming season, hoping to set him – and their offense – for much more production and success.

The return of tight end Kyle Pitts provides a nice security blanket to pair with running backs Bijan Robinson, Cordarrelle Patterson, and
Tyler Allgeier as well as a slew of receivers currently rostered. Pitts, too, is looking for a big season in 2023.

As for the Falcons as a whole…

“There have been some guys competing for jobs that got injured. That’s unfortunate. But the new guys came in here and there are guys that have made a really good impression. There will be a lot of opportunity again Thursday night. We have a couple practices to go after that, too, before we have to make any final decisions.” – Falcons head coach Arthur Smith

The Atlanta defense has been working hard throughout training camp and the preseason to solidify as a unit into a highly-competitive group. Offensive lineman Chris Lindstrom called his counterparts on the defensive line “phenomenal,” calling out David Onyemata and Grady Jarrett for putting him through the paces and making the offensive line play better.

The Falcons’ run defense has been predicted to be among the top-10 in the league in 2023, with a third-place ranking carrying over from last season.

Bud Dupree will get an opportunity to reunite with former Steelers teammates on Thursday night. Dupree has been working with rookie Zach Harrison, as well as  Kaden Ellis and Troy Anderson to create a more-formidable linebackers group in both pass-rush and stopping the run.

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Additional insights

Although players on the Steelers roster know there are looming cuts, the focus has been to continue to improve. If a player doesn’t stick in Pittsburgh, there’s a chance another team may pick them up, so  an impetus on remaining focused on the task at hand in Atlanta has not been lost on a single individual.

“We have all bought in,” cornerback Levi Wallace said this week. “We want to continue to improve each and every day.” He mentioned how key communication has been to meeting that goal.

“Football is one of the weirdest jobs, where you are competing for a job but then you are building team chemistry at the same time,” Wallace added.

Steelers fans will get one final preview of some players on Thursday night before potentially having to say goodbye to others next week. Meanwhile, the game should be an exciting opportunity to see just how much this Steelers squad has grown as the 2023 NFL regular season quickly approaches.


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