By Jim Thomas
Of the Post-Dispatch
Trouble in the trenches

The Falcons came out of their season-opening victory against San Francisco with major injury problems on the left side of their offensive line, making this an area the Rams could exploit.

Atlanta's starting left guard, Michael Moore (shoulder), is out for the season. Starting left tackle Kevin Shaffer is listed as questionable because of rib and knee injuries. But Shaffer didn't practice all week, and isn't expected to play Sunday. Shaffer's likely replacement, Steve Herndon, has started 12 NFL games with Denver, all at guard. Herndon is proficient technically. He has no glaring weaknesses, but no glaring strengths, either.

With no true backup tackle on their roster, the Falcons tried to re-sign veteran Bob Whitfield, a 10-year Falcon whom the team cut Sept. 5. But Whitfield said no thanks. DE Bryce Fisher, who registered a sack and 10 tackles for the Rams against Arizona, will line up over Shaffer - or whoever Atlanta starts at LT.

At left guard, either Martin Bibla or Robert Garza is expected to start in Moore's place. Bibla is a scrappy type, with better than average quickness and good strength. Garza is a drive blocker and more of a power guy.

Chasing Vick

Line woes or not, Atlanta QB Michael Vick has the kind of scrambling and running ability to make any blocker look better.

"He will stay alive the entire play," Rams defensive lineman Tyoka Jackson said. "You've got to get him on the ground. When the whistle blows, then you know he can't hurt you anymore. He puts a lot of stress on your defense, and you have to play 100 percent all-out."

The Rams' pursuit skills and overall defensive team speed will be put to the extreme test. They must stay disciplined in their rush lanes as well. Blitzing Vick may be one way to get him out of his comfort zone. The Rams defense blitzed 12 times against Arizona last week in Larry Marmie's debut as Rams defensive coordinator.

More than Vick

With Warrick Dunn as the feature back, Peerless Price as the go-to receiver, and Pro Bowler Alge Crumpler at tight end, the Falcons have a good set of skill position players to go with Vick.

Dunn has superior quickness, and plays with heart and toughness. Price has decent size, and defense-stretching speed. The Falcons will move him around to create matchup opportunities. Crumpler is emerging as one of the league's top TEs. He had six catches for 82 yards and a touchdown in the first half against San Francisco, but got shut out in the second half.

"Even with double coverage, he's a guy that's able to go get the ball, because of his athleticism and size, and ability," Rams coach Mike Martz said.

Beware of Coleman

The offseason addition of DT Rod Coleman has provided an immediate upgrade for the Falcons' defensive line. Over the past two seasons with the Oakland Raiders, Coleman had more sacks than any other defensive tackle in the NFL, 16 1/2. Last week in San Francisco, he had a sack, two QB pressures, and the pass breakup that kept the ***** from tying the game on a 2-point conversion with 40 seconds to play.

Nose tackle Ed Jasper is no slouch either, according to Rams LG Chris Dishman.

"Jasper, he's kind of a guy that people are sleeping on," Dishman said. "He's a big body, and looks like he's gotten a lot stronger this year. We've got to worry about him, too."

Secondary opportunities?

Atlanta hoped to upgrade its secondary by making Virginia Tech cornerback DeAngelo Hall the No. 8 overall pick in the draft last April. But Hall suffered a fractured hip socket in the Falcons' third exhibition game and could be sidelined for another month or so. That leaves journeymen Aaron Beasley, Kevin Mathis, and Jason Webster as Atlanta's top corners.

Beasley, who had a key interception against the *****, isn't fast, but plays smart. Webster, a former 49er, is steady and highly competitive. Mathis plays much better inside covering the slot receiver than on the edge. One thing to note: Rams receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt have done some of their best work in the Georgia Dome over the years.