Come Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons' coaching staff will get a true measure of the offseason upgrades up front on both sides of the ball.
Speaking strictly from an offensive perspective, offensive line coach Mike Tice certainly doesn't expect his guys to back down against the NFC South favorite New Orleans Saints. In other words, you won't see a repeat of last season's Week 1 matchup, when a sliding Matt Ryan was hit by Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro without any of the Falcons' linemen really getting in Vaccaro's face afterward.
Evidence of the renewed toughness was displayed in the third preseason game against Tennessee, when a number of linemen -- most notably center Joe Hawley and tackles Lamar Holmes and Ryan Schraeder -- ran to Ryan's defense after Ryan took a finger to the face mask during a confrontation with Titans linebacker Zach Brown.
"The one thing they won't be, they won't be punked over by anybody," Tice said of his line. "That's encouraging."
Whether or not the offensive line keeps Ryan upright is another story. Last season, the Falcons quarterback was sacked eight times and was hit 16 times in two losses to the Saints. For the season, Ryan was pressured on a league-high 204 of his dropbacks, contributing to him being sacked a career-high 44 times.
This preseason, Ryan was sacked twice while playing 79 snaps behind a rebuilt offensive line that now includes rookie first-round pick Jake Matthews at left tackle and veteran Jon Asamoah at right guard to go with holdovers Hawley, Holmes and left guard Justin Blalock.
Although the Falcons still have significant strides to make with their run blocking, Tice was extremely pleased with the pass protection during the preseason.
"I'd lose a lot of sleep if we were getting our ass kicked in pass protection, but we're not," Tice said. "We're not going to be a run-first team, so we'll get the runs cleaned up. We've just got to keep protecting that quarterback."
The Saints will pose quite a challenge for Matthews and Holmes off the edges with Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette, a duo that combined for 24.5 sacks last season. But what really hurt the Falcons in the last meeting between the teams was the inside pressure from Akiem Hicks, who destroyed then-Falcons right guard Garrett Reynolds.
Hicks won't be able to push around Asamoah, unless a minor groin injury resurfaces and affects Asamoah's play. The backup at right guard is Gabe Carimi, who had a solid preseason before suffering an ankle injury but appears to be fully recovered now.
Tice gave his general thoughts on the challenge posed by the Saints' front.
"I can tell you this," Tice started, "I know all their players are pretty good."