Five things to watch in Bengals-Falcons


Roddrick Muckelroy

ATLANTA — The Bengals Face the Nation on Fox Thursday night (8 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) against the Falcons at the Georgia Dome and it's a nice measuring stick for the Sept. 10 regular-season opener in Baltimore because the Ravens beat the Falcons in their preseason openers last week.

Here are five things to watch:

DBS VS. MATTY ICE: Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan hit his first six passes against Baltimore and wide receiver Julio Jones capped the first drive with a seven-yard touchdown catch on his way to 100 yards in the first quarter. Then there is Roddy White with his 100 catches from last season and a 201-yard game on 11 catches against the Bengals in 2010.

The Falcons like to spread it and run screen and slants to make defenses tackle their 200-pounders and the Bengals are dinged up at cornerback. Besides the fact that rookie Shaun Prater (knee) and Brandon Ghee (wrist) are looking at season-ending injured reserve and rookie Dre Kirkpatrick (leg) hasn't been on the field yet, Adam Jones and Jason Allen are fighting pulls and tweaks and don't figure to play. Plus, rookie safety Tony Dye, who has been an emergency corner, didn't practice this week.

It's also a big challenge for the two leading candidates to play strong safety in Taylor Mays and Jeromy Miles. Mays suffered a concussion in the opener but has been cleared to play.

If offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is going with a committee at running back and No. 2 receiver, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has hinted he'll do the same in the secondary. He mused before camp that the defense could play with three cornerbacks and safety or three safeties and a cornerback. The versatility of cornerbacks Leon Hall and Nate Clements would be key there, but with the corners so banged up nobody's going to be moving anywhere for a while.

It's old home week. The new Falcons offensive coordinator, Dirk Koetter, is Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis's old teammate at Idaho State.

DES vs. FALCONS OFFENSIVE LINE: The Falcons have a new offensive line coach in former Fresno State head coach Pat Hill and they did a nice enough job against the Ravens that Ryan said they never touched him. The Bengals are missing their two left ends with knee problems, Carlos Dunlap and Robert Geathers, forcing them to start former Falcons No. 1 pick Jamaal Anderson after a camp he's worked as the backup right end.

The Bengals did get a lot of production Friday night from their backup ends and hybrid linebackers and those guys like Micah Johnson and Dontay Moch figure to get some snaps there, as well as rookie tackle Devon Still.

Atlanta has a rep for holding the ball on their opponents. Since 2008 the Falcons lead the NFL with drives of at least 10 plays.

BENGALS GUARDS VS. FALCONS RUN DEFENSE: The Bengals figure that suburban Atlanta native Clint Boling is going to replace Travelle Wharton (knee) at left guard. But they have to see how the backups play out. It's a huge outing for 2010 fifth-rounder Otis Hudson as he tries to find last year's camp form. Expect backup tackles Anthony Collins and Dennis Roland to work in there as well.

The emergence of third-year outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon coincides with the Falcons being stout against the run. They allowed just 70 runs of four yards or more last season, second best in the league, and gave up just 99.7 yards rushing per game while holding foes without a 100-yard rusher in 16 of their last 19 games.

BENGALS BACKUP RUNNING BACKS VS. STINGY FALCONS DEFENSE:Atlanta's first-team defenses threw three three-and-outs against Baltimore before retiring for the evening, and the Bengals go into it without their top two running backs, BenJarvus Green-Ellis (foot) and Bernard Scott (hand).

Third-down back Brian Leonard and special-teamer Cedric Peerman figure to be the reserve backs on the final 53 with veteran Aaron Brown looking to get on tape, and sixth-round pick Daniel Herron and rookie free-agent fullback-running back Jourdan Brooks vying for the practice squad.

But Brown is an interesting guy. He's got good upfield burst and has a 4.2 yard-average on 45 career carries during three seasons in Detroit.

BENGALS BACKUP LINEBACKERS FROM SCRIMMAGE AND ON SPECIAL TEAMS:Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (sprained knee) says he'll be back next week, so rookie free-agent Vontaze Burfict and 2010 fourth-rounder Roddrick Muckelroy are going to get plenty of snaps in their quests for the roster spot backing up Maualuga. Burfict is giving it quite a run, now that he's at his sophomore weight of 240 pounds and in much better condition.

The backers were extremely productive Friday night against the Jets. Burfict had an interception after a season the backers had only one all year and didn't get it until the 15th game. They also accounted for 4.5 of the five sacks with backups Dan Skuta and Dontay Moch combining for 2.5 after the backers had just three sacks in 2011.

The Bengals will be challenged on special teams against one of the NFL's better units over the recent seasons. Cincinnati's hunt for a punt returner among wide receivers Brandon Tate, Andrew Hawkins and rookie Marvin Jones brings them to the club that has allowed the fewest punt return yards in the league since 2008.

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