Since the Rams’ come-from-behind victory in the season opener this past Sunday I’ve heard a lot of grumbling—some of it justified, some not—about everything that the team didn’t do right against Arizona. But me, I’m basking in it. Partly because I called it. I knew it was going to take a lot more than people were expecting to start the season 1-0, and I wasn’t disappointed. But also, for the first time in nearly a decade, the sense of newness and hope for the upcoming season has not been soiled after week one. For that reason, I just haven’t spent a whole lot of time dwelling on the details. A win is a win is a win and to start the season, that’s good enough for me.
But now it’s time to move past all that. As I predicted in my preview last week, the Cardinals aren’t quite the pushovers they were last year, but that doesn’t mean they’re Super Bowl contenders either. This week’s opponent, the Atlanta Falcons, on the other hand, are considered to be just that. The win against Arizona at home is a nice morale booster and a very good start, but if the Rams want to show that they’ve truly arrived, they’re going to have to start winning games against contenders (especially since their own division features two of them).
Coming off a tough divisional loss against the rejuvenated New Orleans Saints, the Falcons will be hungry to prove that they are still the team to beat in the NFC South, and teeing off on the unproven Rams would be a step in the right direction.
Matt Ryan and Julio Jones make up one of the most formidable young QB/WR tandems in the NFL, not to mention the veteran presence of Roddy White and the immortal Tony Gonzalez in the passing game. Couple that with the offseason acquisition of Steven Jackson, and the Falcons’ offense is intimidating to say the least.
Defensively, the Falcons are not nearly as imposing. Led by a couple of Mizzou alums in linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and safety William Moore, the defense ranked in the middle of the pack in most defensive categories in 2012. They were a top-ten defense in terms of yards per game, but those numbers are a little misleading, as the prolific offense was able to keep the defense off the field better than most. They were especially unimpressive with their pass rush, ranking 28th in total sacks, and with the loss of pass rushing specialist John Abraham to the Cardinals in the offseason, they don’t seem poised for a breakout in 2013. One category the Falcons did excel in last season was defensive take-aways, posting 31 total for the season with a +13 differential, so sound decision making from Sam Bradford will be a major key to the Rams staying competitive in this game.
Players to Watch:
Cortland Finnegan (CB, Rams): Finnegan was clearly the weak link on the Rams defense last Sunday, and it’ll be interesting to see how he bounces back. There’s no doubting that he is an emotional leader on the team, and a valuable resource for the Rams stable of young defensive backs, but if his physical skills are breaking down, it may be time for the Rams to start grooming some of the younger guys to take his place. Finnegan made a name for himself as one of the best slot corners in the league, and Atlanta’s slot guy, Harry Douglas, is a good one, despite being overshadowed by some of the bigger names on the roster.
Harry Douglas (WR, Falcons): Speaking of, with Roddy White questionable this week with a high-ankle sprain, Douglas could see an expanded role in the receiving game. It’s a small sample size, but slot man Andre Roberts picked apart the Rams’ secondary in week one to the tune of eight catches for 97 yards (called that too). Part of that could be due to the soft coverage being called by the coaching staff, but Douglas is generally considered a superior talent to Roberts, so it will be interesting to see what kind of attention he gets from the defense in comparison to the wealth of other weapons on offense.
Chris Long (DE, Rams): Robert Quinn is the hot name this week after his dominant performance in week one and subsequent NFC defensive player of the week honors, but now that the secret is out it will be interesting to see how Atlanta alters their game plan to account for the presence of two elite pass-rushers. If they decide Quinn is the greater threat, it could leave Long with a lot of single blockers and potential big week two.
Steven Jackson (RB, Falcons): Duh. Really, isn’t this the biggest story for most Rams fans this week? Jackson left in the offseason to sign with a more established team in hopes of snagging himself a ring in the twilight of his career, and there is nothing I would love more than to see him get there. Every other week this season, I’ll be a Falcons fan, but I’d also love to see the Rams show their all-time leading rusher just how far they’ve come (and secretly, maybe he would too?). Either way, I fully anticipate Jackson to be absolutely jacked up for this game, and as such I’d expect his performance to reflect that.
If I’m being honest with myself, the Rams are still a few tiers removed from the Falcons. That isn’t to say they don’t have the talent to come in and pull off the upset, but ultimately Atlanta has that perfect storm of youth, talent, and veteran savvy that the Rams brass is striving for. On the plus side, one of the men most responsible for collecting and building that mix of players in Atlanta is now in charge of doing the same in St. Louis. Rams General Manager Les Snead was the director of player personnel in Atlanta before being hired on with the Fisher regime and it is certainly encouraging to get a glimpse of exactly what it is he’s working toward. Although, in this game, that glimpse may be a little too close for comfort.
Final Score: Rams 24 Falcons 35
For more on the game, check out this week’s preview podcast.