Confident Rams try different approach
By Jim Thomas
Of the Post-Dispatch
Friday, Jan. 14 2005

ATLANTA - In September, the Rams took the field in the Georgia Dome secure in
the knowledge that they hadn't lost to Atlanta since 1998. Arthur Blank didn't
own the Falcons; the Rams did.

"We beat them seven in a row, and some of those were 30, 40 points plus," Rams
offensive guard Adam Timmerman said.

Actually, the Rams scored 30-plus points in all seven of those games. The
"closest" game in that streak was a 16-point St. Louis victory in 2000. The
average score of those seven contests: Rams 38, Falcons 13.

So why should anything have been different on Sept. 19?

"It looked like the same guys on paper," Timmerman said. "I think it was hard
to get ready for that game mentally."

Well, the Falcons were ready. And so were their fans. Atlanta jumped to a 14-0
lead, withstood a third-quarter rally by St. Louis that briefly tied the score,
and then left the Rams in the dust in the fourth quarter.

That 34-17 Atlanta victory in Game 2 helped jump-start the Falcons to an 11-5
record and the NFC South championship.

"I think (the Falcons) were still trying to figure out how good they were,"
Timmerman said. "I don't think anybody knew what kind of season they were going
to have. They put together a real nice season."

No doubt. On the other hand, the Rams were searching for their identity - a
process that ended up taking most of the season.

But a different-looking Rams team will take the field in tonight's NFC
semifinal in Atlanta. And the Rams will tell you, they're a much better team
than the one that lost to the Falcons in September.

"We look like a completely different team," defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said.
"It's like a night and day difference in how we played then and how we're
playing now."

The Rams will have seven different starters on the field tonight than they did
in September. (Compared to three new starters for Atlanta.)

Travis Fisher is at cornerback after missing the first six games of the season
with a broken arm. Jimmy Kennedy is making his mark at defensive tackle after
missing the first seven games of the season with a broken foot.

Energetic rookie Anthony Hargrove has moved into the starting lineup at right
defensive end. Linebacker Tommy Polley didn't play in September, partly because
of a rib injury and partly because rookie Brandon Chillar had beaten him out in
training camp.

At free safety, Antuan Edwards has stabilized the position after a season of
injury problems for Aeneas Williams, who is now on injured reserve.

On offense, left guard Tom Nutten and right tackle Blaine Saipaia are starting
ahead of Chris Dishman (injured reserve) and Grant Williams (bad shoulder).

In September, rookie running back Steven Jackson and young wide receivers Kevin
Curtis and Shaun McDonald were bit players. That's all changed now.

"I think everybody's confidence is up," Pickett said. "Before we were playing
tight. I think everybody has loosened up. We're just playing football now. ...
Coach (Mike) Martz told us, 'Hey, don't worry about making mistakes. Just get
off and play fast and hard.' And I think that's what we've been doing."

Saipaia wasn't even in uniform for the first Atlanta game, but he remembers it
well.

"We were in the game, and then we just kind of fell apart at the end," Saipaia
said. "But we played hard that game. And we weren't the team then that we are
now. We're 10 times better now than we were then."

We'll see. Undoubtedly, the Falcons also have improved since Game 2. But the
Rams won't enter the Georgia Dome tonight with a false sense of security, as
might have been the case four months ago.

"It's definitely different this time - just our mind-set going down there,"
Timmerman said. "Hopefully, we can right some wrongs."

What's the old expression? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on
me.

The Rams now realize that the 2004 (and now, 2005) Falcons are not a team to be
trifled with. The Rams now realize that the noisy Georgia Dome has become a
definite home-field advantage for the Falcons, something that wasn't the case
just a few years ago.
Just to make sure the Rams realized how poorly they played Sept. 19, Martz made
sure the Rams watched game film of that performance this week.

"They were very physical on both sides of the ball," Martz said, speaking of
the Falcons. "We just weren't prepared to play when we went down there. We just
did a very poor job as coaches, getting them ready to play. There's a lot of
excuses, but none of them count. They just lined up and whipped us."

Martz freely admits that part of the blame should fall on the coaches. For
example, Martz expected Atlanta to run the style of defensive scheme that new
head coach Jim Mora ran for years in San Francisco as ***** defensive
coordinator. In San Francisco, Mora used to mesmerize the Rams with his zone
blitzes.

As things turned out, the Falcons are running more of a Green Bay-style scheme
under defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, the former Packers coordinator.

That means less blitzes but a ton of hustle.

"It's all Ed," Martz said. "They're really playing well."

So are the Rams. We'll find out how much better tonight.