Falcons Should Not Underestimate Rams
By Barry Waller
The first thing those looking to evaluate the playoff game between the Rams and Falcons should do is ignore the Falcon’s 34-17 win over the Rams in week two. That loss, in which the struggling Rams were tied after three periods, has as much relevance to the game tonight as the Rams 37-0 win over the 2003 Falcons does. Anyone who puts a lot of stock in the week two victory by Jim Mora Jr.’s club is wasting their time.
Sure, the Falcon’s led the league in sacks, and not just against the Rams line that they shredded to win that game and start people believing that they were a playoff caliber squad. However, the Rams line they face in this game is not the same one they dominated back in September. The offensive line was in shambles then, with Chris Dishman forced into action way too soon, and playing with a sore ankle to boot, Pro-Bowler Orlando Pace in action after two weeks with the team following an extended holdout, and right tackle Grant Williams at right tackle trying to block a speed rusher in Patrick Kerney.
Even veteran Andy McCollum is better now, after a whole season back at center, and the whole line is playing, and especially pass blocking, far better than they had early this season. The proof is in the numbers Mark Bulger is now putting up. The sacks are still there, as teams blitz to get pressure on the Rams hot passer, but many are coverage sacks, where Bulger gets what he can rather than throw a risky ball. When guys are open, and they seem to be a lot these days, Bulger is getting time to hit a good share of them, even on deep balls.
Bulger is throwing the long pass better now than he ever has, and that’s a far cry from how he was doing in that early game. Bulger is picking things up faster after a season of seeing things, and he knows his third and fourth receivers better. He’s even hitting his tight ends for big plays. The game winner to Cam Cleeland last week, his first TD of the season, and as a Ram, reminiscent of Rickey Proehl’s only touchdown catch of the 1999-2000 season, that beat the Bucs in the NFC title game.
In September, Steven Jackson was not ready to play in the Rams sophisticated offense, because he couldn’t pick up blitzers. Now he is a big part of what the Rams want to do, and his knee appears to be 100%, though he has some bruised ribs to deal with. Marshall Faulk was ineffective in that early game, after carrying a big load in the opener on the home cement-like turf of the Eddie Dome.
Now, Faulk and Jackson appear to be ready to give a far better test to the Falcon’s defense, one offensive Dr. Mike Martz has had time to dissect and find ways to exploit. In the loss to the Falcon’s only the top two receivers caught passes, and though Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce went over 100 yards, the need to provide maximum protection for Bulger because of the weak, slow line, made the use of the talent the Rams possess behind those two difficult. Kevin Curtis, who is making huge strides recently, wasn’t even available, because of shin splints, early in the season.
Now Martz arsenal is fully loaded, and should provide a far bigger test to that Falcon’s defense, which is quick, but small, and lacks great talent in the defensive backfield. The Falcon’s have decent depth, with veteran’s Aaron Beasley and Kevin Mathis as the nickel and dime backs, but the Rams receivers know those guys very well, and know they can beat them. D’Angelo Hall is a top talent, but the first rounder wasn’t available in the first meeting, and he will get his first dose of “Martz Madness” tonight.
The Falcon safeties, Bryan Scott and ex-Bengal Corey Hall, are average at best, and Hall probably still has nightmares about the beating his team took at the hands of the “Greatest Show on Turf” in 1999. The Falcon’s linebackers are good, and Keith Brooking is a star, but MLB Chris Draft is small, and not that fast, which is not good when your D-line is also on the small side by NFL standards. Both tackles are around 290, and though Rod Coleman has had a pro-bowl season with 11.5 sacks, the lack of size could be one the Rams try to exploit with the bruising Jackson.
The biggest worry is that Kerney will be too much too handle for young Blaine Saipaia, but the Rams latest right tackle is a huge improvement over Williams in handling speed rushers, and he has played surprisingly well since he began starting. Coleman will find Tom Nutten a bit more of a challenge on pass plays than Dishman was, even with Nutten, called “Lazarus” by his teammates for his ability to play through injuries, still hobbled.
As far as Brady Smith, the right DE, who forced a Bulger fumble and scored a touchdown on the strip in game two, he’ll find a different #76 will be lining up across from him this week. The odds of even hearing Smith’s name in the game broadcast this week is very slim, other than when they introduce the lineups.
Michael Vick had his best game against the Rams in the Falcon’s big win this regular season, but like the offense, this is a far different defense than he faced back in mid September. Cornerback Travis Fisher, the best tackler and run support defender in the Rams defensive backfield, was out in that game, and Rams future hall-of-fame free safety Aeneas Williams, now on I.R., was too hurt to perform up to his standards. Antuan Edwards seems very comfortable and has been effective as the replacement for Williams.
The Rams now have Fisher back, and he and Jerametrius Butler are playing in stellar fashion against far tougher receivers than the Falcon’s offer in Brian Finneran and Peerless Price. The Falcon’s other two receivers, Dez White and rookie Michael Jenkins, haven’t done much this season, though White has had some big games against the Rams in his career. If the Rams can force Vick to beat them with his arm, they will win easily.
Vick will be looking to play it safe, and run rather than throw a bad ball, and he’ll be looking quickly to his halfback, Warrick Dunn, and his tight end, Alge Crumpler, if the Rams blitz or get quick pressure from just one lineman. Those two are the key players to stop, or at least limit, especially in the red zone.
Both Dunn and Crumpler have had big days against the Rams in the past. Mike Martz said of Dunn, the former Tampa Bay halfback, “Warrick (Dunn) with all of the success he's had, has a great burst of speed. I've always had great respect for him when we've played him. He's capable of going the distance at anytime, and we know that. There are very few backs in the league that can really do that. You had the ball off at the 20-yard line, then take it 80 (yards), and you're not going to catch them. He's one of those guys."
Martz is particularly aware that Crumpler is a big factor. "Alge has had a great year, just a terrific year. The range that he brings, and when you run the ball as well as they do, and the tight end is such a factor in the running game, then all of a sudden he's down field, with all of the linebackers and safeties in run support, you can't account for that. They have done a good job of getting him the ball,” said Martz earlier this week.
The Rams front seven will have to plan their attack on Vick to limit his scrambling, while still pressuring the young signal caller, and must disguise what they are doing to prevent any pre-snap run reads for him. The Rams are getting far better pressure from the right end position, where rookie Anthony Hargrove and Bryce Fisher provide a great one-two punch, and Leonard Little, slowed by a groin injury last week, appears to be better this week in practice. That should help keep Vick inside, where the Rams tackles should be able to defeat their opponents.
Jimmy Kennedy wasn’t even dressed in the first Falcon’s game, and Damione Lewis was struggling with increased playing time. The Rams could again be without defensive leader Tyoka Jackson again this week, so more pressure will fall on the youngsters to keep Vick in check and stuff Dunn. The Rams linebackers are playing far better than in the first month of the season, with MLB Robert Thomas as healthy as he has been all season, and Tommy Polley playing his best ball, rather than languishing on the bench as he was in September.
The Rams special teams are still a major concern, though Aveion Cason looks to be far better kickoff return specialist than Arlen Harris was. The Rams must at least be average in coverage in this game, and the return of Mike Furrey to that unit has appeared to help greatly. The turnover edge will probably again be the biggest factor in who wins this game and moves on the NFC Championship game.
The Falcons were one of the better teams in that department this season, and that’s why they were 11-5, and the Rams were the worst, which are why they were 8-8, or at least a big part of the reason why. If the Rams can come out ahead, or even, they should win, as they almost always do in that situation since 1999.
The Rams are a battle-tested team, with more playoff experience that the Falcons, surviving a difficult schedule that saw their opponents, including 7 games against eventual playoff teams, win 125 games. Atlanta, off a last place schedule, played just four games against playoff teams, and those four, the Rams, Seattle, Denver, and the Chargers, were hardly a match for the slate the Rams played. If you subtract the worst two opponents the teams faced, the two against the Niners in the Rams case, the Niners and Raiders in the Falcons’, the Rams other 14 opponents won 121 games to the Falcons’ 104 wins by those 14 foes.
Had the Falcon’s traveled to Green Bay, and faced the Eagles, Jets, and Patriots, not to mention facing red hot Buffalo and Carolina teams late in the season, maybe that 1—5 would be closer to the Rams 8-8 after all. The Falcons may be the only 11-5 team to score just three more points than their opponents, and anyone looking at their record, let alone the first meeting between these teams to give the Falcons a big edge is dreaming.
One Atlanta writer said the home team has “Nothing to fear” from the Rams, who he labeled as somehow lucky recently, rather than looking at the reason’s for the big improvement in many areas. He also disses Bulger, the hottest passer in the league, who would have led the NFL in passing yardage had he not been hurt two plus games. I hope the Falcons take the Rams as lightly as that scribe, who seems to be trying to convince himself as much as his readers with his piece. The Rams probably took his team too lightly in game two, since they thrashed mostly the same squad a year earlier.
In fact, the loss to Atlanta was an anomaly, since the Rams have owned that team for years, and hold a 46-24-2 all time record against Atlanta, so there should be plenty to worry about for a team facing big time pressure because of that paper-mache record that included a 6-3 victory over Arizona the week after they beat the Rams, as well as a 21-19 opening week win at San Francisco that the Niners should have won, a 17-10 loss to the Lions, a 14-10 win over Eli Manning and the hapless Giants, and late three point wins over the Panthers and Saints, not to mention a 56-10 dubbing at the hands of the Chiefs.
Since Dick Vermeil’s club uses the same offense as the Rams, with less talent at receiver, one would think that the folks in Atlanta should be as wary of these invaders as they were General William Tecumseh Sherman in 1864. Anyone who thinks otherwise should not be covering football.