Five things to watch
By Jim Thomas
Of the Post-Dispatch
Friday, Jan. 14 2005

Dunn and Duckett

There's a lot more to Atlanta's league-leading rushing attack than QB
Michael Vick. With 1,106 yards, the underrated Warrick
Dunn
finished with his third 1,000-yard season in eight NFL campaigns.
Slight in stature at 5 feet 9, 180, Dunn isn't afraid to take it between the
tackles but still has breakaway speed.

"He's capable of going the distance at any time, and we know that," Rams coach
Mike Martz said. "There are very few backs in the league who can
really do that."

T.J. Duckett is the Falcons' 254-pound change of pace. Although he
missed two late-season games with minor knee surgery, Duckett played more as
the season progressed and has become the Falcons' goal-line back. After taking
a 31-17 lead over the Rams in September, Atlanta pounded the St. Louis defense
with Duckett, who had eight carries for 43 yards in the fourth quarter.

On the receiving end


Atlanta had the league's 30th-ranked passing offense, and only Pittsburgh had
fewer passing attempts than the Falcons' 395 in the regular season. The Falcons
didn't have a wide receiver with more than 45 catches, or more than 575 yards.

Peerless Price hasn't come close to fulfilling the potential he
displayed at Buffalo two seasons ago. Former Chicago Bear Dez White
has speed but never has posted big numbers in five NFL seasons. Some feel the
team's No. 3 receiver, tall and rangy Brian Finnernan, is the
Falcons' most reliable wide receiver.

But put the three of them together, and they total just 1,203 yards, or less
than either Torry Holt (1,372) or Isaac Bruce
(1,292) of the Rams.

The Crumpler factor

The Falcons' go-to receiver is tight end Alge Crumpler, a two-time
Pro Bowler. Even though he missed Atlanta's final two regular-season games with
a knee injury, Crumpler set the franchise mark for catches by a tight end with
48 this season. Atlanta coach Jim Mora says he has the best hands of
anyone he's seen other than former Minnesota great Cris Carter.

No doubt, the Falcons were taking notes last week when Seattle TE Itula
Mili
caught six passes for 98 yards against the Rams. If totally healthy,
Crumpler represents a huge challenge for Rams linebackers, particularly
Tommy Polley, but also strong safety Adam Archuleta. When
the teams met in September, Crumpler had a 33-yard reception late in the third
quarter, setting up the go-ahead TD for Atlanta in what was then a 17-17 game.

"The tight end is such a factor (blocking) in the running game, then all of a
sudden he's downfield, with all of the linebackers and safeties in run
support," Martz said. "You can't account for that."

Going deep

The Rams offense had a total of 12 pass plays of 20-plus yards in the
regular-season finale against the New York Jets and the playoff opener against
Seattle.

That represents the Rams' best two-game total of the season. In comparison,
Atlanta wide receivers had just 18 receptions of 20-plus yards all season.

"Usually, it goes back to the offensive line," Martz said. "They allow us to do
all of those things and let guys have the opportunities to make plays outside."

The emergence of Kevin Curtis as a deep threat has helped. He may
get even more work than usual if Bruce is limited by his groin injury. Holt has
been hot down the stretch, and Shaun McDonald continues to flash
big-play ability.

Atlanta's back seven

The Falcons use LBs Keith Brooking and rookie Demorrio
Williams
(off the bench) in their nickel package.

They are also the Falcons' main blitzers. But the Rams also should keep an eye
out for strong safety Bryan Scott on the blitz. He dropped Marc
Bulger
for a sack in September, beating Rams RB Steven
Jackson
.

Brooking came into the league as an inside LB but has flourished on the outside
this season with three interceptions - or three more than the entire Rams LB
corps.

Rookie CB DeAngelo Hall didn't play against the Rams in September
because of a fractured hip but started the final nine games of the regular
season. He has shown flashes of play worthy of being a No. 8 overall draft
pick, but for the most part he's just been OK.

The other starting corner, Jason Webster, missed four late-season
games with a groin injury but returned to start in the regular-season finale.

Bruce and Holt are very familiar with him, having played against Webster six
times when he was a 49er.

Journeymen Aaron Beasley and Kevin Mathis come in when
the Falcons go to their nickel package.

Overall, this is a solid group, but the Rams have faced better. If Bulger can
stay upright, there should be opportunities against the league's 22nd-ranked
pass defense.