By Jim Thomas
Of the Post-Dispatch
01/12/2005

By noon Tuesday, Blaine Saipaia already had watched two Atlanta Falcons game tapes, and he was going back for more after a lunch break.

Some offensive linemen can rely on experience in preparing for an opponent. But as Saipaia says: "I don't have any past experience."

Saturday's NFC divisional playoff game against Atlanta marks just his sixth NFL start and 11th game overall. Saipaia was on the sidelines but didn't dress when the Falcons shellacked St. Louis 34-17 on Sept. 19. He was one of seven pregame inactives for the Rams.

So he has no personal experience to go on against Atlanta - just game tape. And what he's seen on tape this week is an eyeful.

"I'd say that their defense is relentless," Saipaia said. "I think they just rely on their tenacity."

If the dazzling play of quarterback Michael Vick was the No. 1 reason the Falcons won on Sept. 19, the play of Atlanta's defensive line was reason No. 1A.

"They've got good people up front," Rams coach Mike Martz said. "They're big, physical guys who get off the ball quickly. They do a great job of penetrating, bull rushing, and changing things up."

Last September in the Georgia Dome, just about every member of the Rams offensive line had some rough moments. Chris Dishman, then the Rams' starting left guard, got beat by underrated Falcons defensive tackle Ed Jasper for a sack. Grant Williams, then the Rams' starting right tackle, had a tough time against Pro Bowl defensive end Patrick Kerney.

Late in the third quarter, Jasper got behind right guard Adam Timmerman on a key third-and-1 play, dropping Marshall Faulk for a 2-yard loss.

The Rams had the momentum at that point, but were forced to kick a field goal, tying the game at 17-17 after Jasper's stop. The Falcons proceeded to score the game's final 17 points.

All told, the Rams managed only 30 yards rushing in the game, their second-lowest total of the season.

In one of the key plays of the game, Falcons defensive end Brady Smith went wide around left tackle Orlando Pace and stripped the ball from Marc Bulger in the end zone for an Atlanta touchdown. In the blink of an eye, that turned a 24-17 Falcons lead into a 31-17 advantage with 11 minutes 48 seconds to play in the fourth quarter.

"I didn't even realize until I watched the film that (Smith) came from the left side," Bulger recalled Wednesday. "Because usually, when the ball gets taken from you, it's from the front side. I didn't know he wrapped all the way around. We were going for the home run from our own end zone, and that's the risk you take when you have to hold on to the ball that long for a home run."

Bulger wanted to throw deep for Isaac Bruce on a second and 19 from the Rams' 1 before Mr. Smith showed up. The sack-fumble-TD play illustrated two things:

Pace, less than two weeks after signing his franchise tender, wasn't quite up to game speed.

The Falcons' front four is all about hustle, hustle, and more hustle.

"They go hard every play," Bulger said. "They're 'downhill' players - they go straight up the field. They have linebackers that come downhill. That's what they bank on - that you're not going to be able to hold the ball long enough."

Schematically, the Falcons aren't that complicated up front. They don't do a ton of blitzing or stunting.

"You see Philly and New England, it gets confusing sometimes," Bulger said. "But they (the Falcons) won't confuse you. They pretty much line up and say these four guys are going to beat your five blockers."

That formula has worked against many teams, not just the Rams. The Falcons led the NFL with 48 sacks this season, and 32 1/2 came from the four defensive line starters. Kerney finished fourth in the NFL with 13 sacks.

"He just seems like a really big motor guy," Saipaia said. "A strong guy that keeps coming. So I've really got to be staying on him and staying with him until the whistle blows."

The Rams will give Saipaia some help, but not a lot. That's simply not how their offense operates. Besides, he already has faced some of the league's best defensive ends in his brief tenure as a starter, including Carolina's Julius Peppers, Arizona's Bertrand Berry and the New York Jets' Shaun Ellis.

And if you spend too much time worrying about Kerney, defensive tackle Rod Coleman will make you pay. The addition of Coleman as an unrestricted free agent this season (from Oakland) has put the Falcons' line over the top as one of the NFL's best units. Don't be fooled by Coleman's modest dimensions - 6-2, 285 pounds. He has a strong upper body and routinely beats double teams.

He had 11 1/2 sacks in the regular season, a huge number for a defensive tackle. In fact, only Minnesota's Kevin Williams (12) had more sacks among NFL defensive tackles this season.

Smith suffers in comparison with Kerney, and doesn't get a lot of sacks, his effort against Pace notwithstanding. But he is good against the run. So is Jasper, who's smallish for a nose tackle (6-2, 293), but quick.

The Rams will send out two new starters on the offensive line against the Falcons in Saturday's rematch: Saipaia at right tackle and Tom Nutten at left guard. The Rams can only hope things go better this time around than they did in September.

"They lined up and whipped us, and whipped us good," Martz said.