Isaac Bruce (left) and Torry Holt figure to see one-on-one coverage when the Falcons blitz.
ATLANTA - From 1995-2001, when Atlanta was part of the NFC West, the St. Louis Rams played before almost as many empty seats as occupied ones on their annual treks to the Georgia Dome.
In 1996, for example, 26,519 spectators watched the Rams beat the Falcons 34-27 behind three touchdown passes from Tony Banks to Eddie Kennison.
Even in 1998, the Falcons' Super Bowl season, a mere 37,996 made their way into the 71,000-seat Georgia Dome to watch the Falcons improve to 6-2 with a 37-15 thrashing of the Rams.
But this Sunday, the Rams will see something entirely different in the Georgia Dome. Excitement. Energy. Michael Vick. And a packed house.
"I know it's going to be loud," Rams wide receiver Torry Holt said. "I know they're going to be excited. It's their home opener. Hopefully, we can go down there, stay focused, and come out of there with a 'W.' "
New Atlanta coach Jim Mora is telling everyone within shouting distance to show up wearing Falcons red. Adding to the festivities, Atlanta will christen its Ring of Honor on Sunday honoring former Falcons greats.
Last week, the Falcons ended a 10-game losing streak in San Francisco. This Sunday, they'd like nothing better than to end their seven-game losing streak to the Rams.
"Usually, when we went there, that stadium by the end of the game would be a pro-Rams stadium," defensive lineman Tyoka Jackson said. "I don't expect it to be that way this year. I expect it to be a hostile crowd for four quarters. They're excited about their football team, obviously. They're excited about their quarterback."
And excited about playing the Rams. Isn't everybody? They are, after all, the NFL's winningest franchise since the start of the 1999 season.
"There are a lot of people that don't like us out there," defensive end Leonard Little said. "We know that. So we've just got to go out there and try to play our game. Try to get off to a good start, silence the crowd early, and go from there."
The Rams' very best teams since the move to St. Louis have at least held their own on the road:
The '99 Super Bowl
championship team went 5-3 away from home.
The '01 Super Bowl
runner-up squad was 8-0.
Last season's 12-4
squad broke even at 4-4.
So any road victory is a good victory. And with subsequent away games this season against Seattle, Miami, Green Bay, and Carolina, the Rams would love to fly out of Georgia with a 2-0 record.
"Like Coach (Mike Martz) said earlier in the week, the same passion and emotion and skill that we play with at home - do the same thing on the road," Holt said. "I think that's the biggest challenge."
As for all the hoopla surrounding this game for the Falcons, 14-year veteran Aeneas Williams says: "None of it matters when you're on the field. Very seldom do I ever hear crowds anyway. Once you get tuned in, those things are not even an issue. It's more focusing. ... doing what we do best, and not letting the other variables change the way that we play the game."
Make no mistake, the Falcons will try to change the way the Rams play the game on offense. For one, they hope the expected crowd noise will affect quarterback Marc Bulger and the Rams' offensive line. For another, familiar nemesis Jim Mora will be concocting all manner of blitzes to disrupt the Martz offense.
"I know Jim Mora's not going to let their defense play bad," Rams guard Chris Dishman said. "He's going to try to make a statement on us in their first home game."
Mora is in his first season as Falcons head coach after serving as San Francisco's defensive coordinator the past five seasons. Last year with the *****, Mora mesmerized the Rams with his zone-blitzing schemes. He's brought many of those elements to the Atlanta defense this year.
"I know they have it in their packages," Bulger said. "We have certain down and distances, and different things, where we think they'll bring it more. When they're successful blitzing, he'll keep bringing it."
That certainly was the case last year with the *****. On Sept. 14, 2003, in Bulger's first start replacing Kurt Warner, Mora blitzed the Rams 23 times. But the Rams pulled out a 27-24 overtime victory.
Seven weeks later, at 3Com Park, Bulger was sacked five times and threw two interceptions in a 30-10 loss to the *****. Martz is quick to point out that the Rams were playing with a rookie running back (Arlen Harris) and a tight end at fullback (Brandon Manumaleuna) in that game.
"So we made some significant mental errors in our blitz pickups," Martz said.
Martz doesn't think that will be the case this time. Bulger has another year of experience at handling blitzes. And based on last week's game with Arizona, the Rams have re-discovered the kind of running game that keeps defenses honest.
If the blitz is picked up and properly blocked, that normally means one-on-one coverage for Holt and Isaac Bruce. And that's the surest way to take the air out of the Georgia Dome on Sunday.
"That's what we're hoping for," Holt said. "We've focused on that all this week."
Reporter Jim Thomas