Preseason week three is typically the closest thing to the regular season as you're going to get without games actually counting. Teams treat it more like a regular season game than the other three preseason weeks and starters are expected to play three full quarters (or so). This means the most obvious thing to watch will be how the first-team players perform. Past that, teams finally start to gameplan and roll out some more creative schemes, so hopefully we'll see some of that.
Tarvaris Jackson will play three quarters. The first-team offensive line with play three quarters, and hopefully they'll give Tarvaris a few shots to throw the ball. Zach Miller will get more snaps. Sidney Rice and Mike Williams will get more targets. But you all knew this. Here are some more specific things I'm going to be watching for.
On the offensive side...
The Hawks have yet to really get into any kind of rhythm on offense, due largely to a combination of protection issues, penalties, lack of a run game, and dropped passes. It would be nice to see Tarvaris string together a good drive or two and march up the field. Hell, I don't even need to see them score a touchdown, I just want them to put together a few first downs and look like a real NFL offense.
Past that, it will be interesting to see how the Hawks get Mike Williams and Sidney Rice involved. I'm hoping that Golden Tate bounces back and has a strong showing after struggling mightily last week. He's been used in the slot a lot in the first couple of preseason games but I have yet to see them use him in the Percy Harvin style role so many of us were hoping for -- motioning into the backfield, end arounds, reverses, etc. Granted, they've been running pretty vanilla schemes on both sides of the ball, but as we've talked about all summer, I'd like to see the Hawks find ways to get the ball in Tate's hands so he can make some plays. We'll see.
It looks like Marshawn Lynch won't play, so the combination of Leon Washington, Justin Forsett, Thomas Clayton and hopefully Vai Taua will look to get the running game on track. Likely, we'll see a lot of Washington and Forsett and it will be worth watching how their zone running develops. So far, Washington has been very good in the zone scheme, running decisively and elusively through the created holes. Forsett hasn't been bad, per se, but hopefully he'll show us more.
I'm curious to see what the Hawks do at fullback. Michael Robinson is the incumbent and presumptive starter there but Dorson Boyce has looked pretty good actually. He's been impressive catching passes out of the backfield and I would think that figures to be a pretty big part of the offense. Because of this and because I haven't seen them use Mike Rob in that role all that much, he could be a candidate for the roster. Is that crazy? Probably. But if the Hawks want to keep a fourth running back in addition to their fullback Michael Robinson, Boyce could be one of those bubble guys over Thomas Clayton or Vai Taua.
Ryan Travis is still on the roster and hasn't really gotten any reps that I remember. Considering guys like Boyce and Taua have been released and re-signed and gotten reps, I suppose there's a chance they're looking to hide and stash Travis on the practice squad. Same goes with Ricardo Lockette. They almost certainly won't see much of the field on Saturday, so it's hard to say.
I'm hoping Kris Durham has another good game. I've got irrationally high hopes for Durham and was encouraged by what I saw in the Vikings game. He appears to have a pretty good rapport with Charlie Whitehurst after the two of them trained together in Georgia during the lockout (not that this matters if the QB competition remains closed). Durham has been used in the slot and on the outside (so has Sidney Rice, by the way) so I'll be watching closely to see how he lines up on Saturday (assuming he gets some snaps).
On the defensive side...
Walter Thurmond. WT3 will be making his premiere this year and it will be fun to see where they put him. I guess the last few days he's been lining up in the slot or nickel spots so I'm wondering if that's going to be his role or if they're just easing him back in until they can put him on the outside. Apparently he'll be getting some snaps though so I'll be watching him closely. He's one of those guys that, if healthy, could be a major contributor for the Hawks in 2011.
Alan Branch is a guy to watch. The Hawks haven't gotten much interior pressure on the quarterback thus far and that is mildly disconcerting. With the youth of the secondary, getting pressure on the passer will be important and the Hawks haven't exactly made heavy investments on the line outside of bringing Brandon Mebane back and signing a borderline starter (in his career anyway) in Branch.
Aaron Curry. Because he was the fourth pick, duh.
I'll be keying into the schemes we run. Will it be mostly the hybrid unbalanced defensive line with Red on the strongside or will we see more stuff with a traditional balanced line featuring Raheem Brock and a mixture of Jimmy Wilkerson, A.J. Schable, Pierre Allen, Lazarius Levingston and Maurice Fountain.
Finally, the roster battle between Mark Legree, Jeron Johnson, Josh Pinkard, and Atari Bigby is shaping up to be one of the most compelling competitions on the team. Johnson and Pinkard have been making plays but I'd love to see Legree show some of his famed ballhawking skills this week. Though I'm pulling for him, I have to admit I haven't really noticed him do anything quite yet. I wouldn't think he's in danger of getting cut, but it wouldn't be the first time a mid-round pick didn't make the roster (cough*EJWILSON*cough). Something to key in on.
Anyway, I'm pumped. Facing off against the Broncos. The Sunshine State... Denver, gorgeous. Gorgeous!