Washington Redskins vs Atlanta Falcons: Five things to watch in the preseason opener

As the Washington Redskins finish prepping for their first preseason game at Atlanta, Ben Standig and Manny Benton share five topics plus one extra point of intrigue for the game.

The Washington Redskins are going to play a football game Thursday night in Atlanta. While it may be "just a preseason" game there is plenty worth watching, tracking and noting now that some actual tackling will take place. Ben Standig and Manny Benton let you know what they're most interested in seeing from the Redskins against the Falcons

Running backs running

Manny Benton: The biggest question mark for the Redskins headed into the season is their running back position. It's an extremely inexperienced unit with third-year vet Chris Thompson having seniority in the group. Projected starter Matt Jones enters his second NFL season leading the group with 490 career yards. While he is pretty much a lock to start, Jones is also trying to lick his fumbling habits in preseason. Ball security will be key. The fact those two have notable injury histories adds to the uncertainty and makes getting a longer look at the other guys so interesting.

Keith Marshall, Mack Brown and Robert Kelley have shown flashes in the no-tackling practices. There's a chance Marshall could supplant Thompson with his blazing 4.30 speed. The group as a whole must display an ability to pass protect and the Atlanta Falcons present a perfect opportunity to evaluate that. Atlanta packs a potential double digit sack master in Vic Beasley and rookie Deion Jones could see his share of blitzes up-the-middle. Bottom line is whatever we've seen from this group in camp means little. Watching them avoid tacklers and get hit does.


Su'a Cravens, mystery man

Ben Standig: We get it. The Redskins plan on using the former USC safety as a hybrid linebacker. During practices, the second round pick repeatedly flashed his "football player" instincts in coverage and near the line of scrimmage. Now we'll see what happens when the lights turn bright. That doesn't just mean Cravens shows he has the goods, but how will defensive coordinator deploy his versatile toy. It's the preseason opener so all coverages will be rather vanilla, but after a few months of craving the chance to see Cravens in this new role, we're finally getting the chance.

Safety in numbers

Manny Benton: The Redskins have tried to address their safety positions for years and have never really been able to find legitimate solutions. This year, the team feels pretty comfortable starting 13-year vet DeAngelo Hall at safety. Hall, along with 10-year vet Will Blackmon are making a late-career position change to safety. Although Hall made a transition from corner to safety late last season, he's still very new to the position. Projected starting strong safety David Bruton appears to be the most experienced safety on the roster and he spent most of his time playing special teams for the Broncos before signing as a free agent. Former Redskins' offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, now with Atlanta, likes to attack safeties. I would expect him to do that early and often against Washington, especially with former Redskin WR Aldrick Robinson and 2nd year WR Justin Hardy.

The Kirk Cousins cook out

Ben Standig: The Redskins probably won't have the starting offense on the field more than a series or two. That's especially true if left tackle Trent Williams (knee) doesn't go. Therefore, making efficient use of their time works. Coach Jay Gruden has a plan for what he wants to see and who he wants to see. Regardless of any confidence in the QB, seeing Cousins do his thing is key. This is his first training camp as the starter. He's been sharp at times in camp, and wobbly during others. No Jordan ReedJamison Crowder or Josh Doctson Thursday doesn't help the cause, but viable starting quarterbacks make do. This doesn't need to be some Hall of Fame performance. Move the chains, perhaps put up some points and look crisp doing so. 


Pushing the front seven

Manny Benton: Much has been said about the Redskins' outside linebackers, but the defense as a unit must create more pass rush in 2016. Washington's talent and depth at OLB could be masked if their defensive lineman are able to generate pressure.

One of the Falcons' weaknesses is their offensive line and its depth. This presents an opportunity for Washington to show flashes of a competent pass rush. After an injury plagued season in 2015, I'm interested in watching DL Stephen Paea play. He's had an impressive training camp. As far as outside linebackers, the Redskins need someone to flash. Besides starters Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith, who might not play after hurting his shoulder in Tuesday's practice, no one has stood out in camp. Players such as Houston Bates and Lynden Trail have an opportunity to prove themselves worthy of a roster spot while Trent Murphy gets his feet wet back in his former position.

Extra point: Breakout player

Ben Standig: He could be someone already on the team, like inside linebacker Martrell Spaight. Perhaps a draft pick like Marshall or quarterback Nate Sudfeld, who might play the entire second half. Then there are the deep flyer types likes running back Robert Kelley, wide receiver Maurice Harris, linebacker Willie Jefferson and safety Geno Matias-Smith. Other than Spaight, none of these players are roster locks. That narrative could change by shining Thursday night.

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