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Falcons ready for dress rehearsal

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Falcons ready for dress rehearsal

By D. Orlando Ledbetter

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

FLOWERY BRANCH — The Falcons’ trip to Heinz Field to open the 2010 season was fruitful.

After standing up to the rugged Pittsburgh Steelers in a hard-fought 15-9 overtime loss, the Falcons went on to win 12 of their next 13 games on their way to the NFC South championship.

The Falcons hope their meeting with the Steelers in the key third exhibition game at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, which will serve as their dress rehearsal for the 2011 season, can propel them on a similar run to start the new season.

“We have an opportunity here to go against a great defense,” tight end Tony Gonzalez said. “It’s a good chance to see how we stack up.”

The Falcons’ first-team units have sparkled in the two exhibition games. The starters built a 17-0 lead against Miami and helped forge a 13-3 margin against Jacksonville.

Last season against the Steelers, the offense managed only three field goals from kicker Matt Bryant. Running back Michael Turner was held to 42 yards on 19 carries, and Gonzalez caught two passes for 35 yards. All-Pro wide receiver Roddy White caught 13 passes for 111 yards.

Saturday is the Steelers’ tune-up game, too, and the defending AFC champions want to toss their A-game on the field. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan would like to see the Falcons’ running game get rolling against the Steelers, who had the No. 1-ranked run defense (62.8 yards per game) last season.

“Pittsburgh is certainly notorious for being stout against the run,” Ryan said. “They’ve got some talented guys in that front seven. Again, in the preseason, it really is nice to have a good physical test like this. It’s going to get us right for when we gear up and go in September.”

The Falcons believe they are taking more offensive firepower to Pittsburgh this time. They added wide receiver Julio Jones in a big draft-day trade with the hope of adding more long-gainers to the attack.

While the brief outings against Miami and Jacksonville were solid, the Falcons know that the Steelers’ 3-4 defense and their wily defensive coordinator **** LeBeau can slow their operation.

“It can only help us,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a real positive for us from the way I’m looking at it. As long as we respond to it and go out there and play the way we are capable of playing.”

Gonzalez believes the Falcons will be up to the test.

“We are a good team,” Gonzalez said. “We were good on offense last year. We are going to do the same things that we did last year and add to it.”

The defense is expected to receive a stiff test, too.

In last season’s opener, Pittsburgh played without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal-conduct policy.

But he’s set to play in this exhibition game. The Falcons’ revamped pass rush, which will feature prized free-agent signee Ray Edwards and All-Pro defensive end John Abraham together for the first time, will get tested.

Roethlisberger is noted for shaking off tacklers and scrambling before launching deep and accurate passes.

But center Todd McClure cautions against stacking too many chips on what happens during the third exhibition game.

“You’re preparing like it’s a regular-season game,” McClure said. “But if you go out and you have a lot of success, or you have not too much success, you don’t put too much weight on it. It’s still the preseason.”

The Falcons host the Baltimore Ravens at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Georgia Dome in their exhibition-season finale. They open the regular season Sept. 11 on the road against the Chicago Bears. While they want a good test against the Steelers, they want to avoid a rash of injuries.

“Ultimately, it’s about being healthy going into that first game against Chicago,” McClure said. “We want to have everybody healthy to go up there and win one when it counts.”

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