By Tony Softli

The St. Louis Rams will board their charter flight early this afternoon and head south to face the Atlanta Falcons in their first road game. The Falcons carry a 0-1 record into Sunday’s contest in the Georgia Dome, having suffered a Week 1 defeat to the division rival New Orleans Saints.

With the Rams facing their first challenge of the season away from the Edward Jones Dome, they can’t allow the presence of Steven Jackson to obscure the real task at hand: taking down a team that fell one victory short of appearing in the 2012 Super Bowl.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher, for his part, has attempted to downplay the reunion between SJ39 and his former teammates.

“Again, personally, really happy for ‘Jack’,” Fisher said. “He’s in a good situation down there. You watch him in the first game, and he looked like he’s in great shape for the number of years that he’s played in this league.

“It’s going to be a big challenge for our defense. I’m sure he’s going to be excited to play. They’re a very talented team. He only ran it 14 times last week, and I’m sure they’re going to try to get their run game back on track. It’s going to be a big challenge for us.”

The Rams will have several obstacles in their path to victory. First, the Falcon fans will be loud and crazy for three-plus hours. The only way to keep them quiet is for the Rams to get and maintain a lead for most of, if not the complete, game. Secondly, Atlanta will be angry and highly motivated in all three phases, and eager to show the Rams and the NFL that last weekend’s loss against the Saints was just a bad day for a team picked by several NFL insiders to make it back to the NFC Championship game. The Falcons looked out of sync and struggled to gain any continuity offensively, and defensively will have their hands full with Sam Bradford and his new weapons.

As for the Rams’ offense, which left too many opportunities on the field vs. Arizona last week, it will need to put a lot of points on the board. Bradford must spread the ball around the yard with great read progression to locate what the defense is giving him, taking advantage of the open receiver. Look for the Rams to exploit the Falcons’ defense early, often finding the mismatch in space.

Key matchup: Rams defense vs. Atlanta Offense

This game will be won on defense. Football starts at the line of scrimmage. Defensively, the front four of the Rams will have to squeeze the pocket vs. the pass and be explosive off the edge, consistently turning the corner to get after Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan with a heavy dose of pressure, hits and sacks. The Rams use a seven-man defensive front rotation, and they all contributed to the success of the defense in Week 1. The Big 5 (Chris Long, Robert Quinn, Kendall Langford, Michael Brockers and William Hayes) harassed Arizona’s Carson Palmer with 10 pressures, six quarterback hits and four sacks. The linebacking corps, meanwhile, was led by rookie Alec Ogletree (nine solo tackles, two assists and a forced fumble), who continues to get better and better with more live reps and boasts a huge upside.

Ultimately, though, can the Rams’ front dictate and attack the pocket, making it a very long day for Ryan and the Falcons? Look for “Matty Ice” to get the ball out quickly to receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White, as well as future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, in order to slow down the edge play from the Rams. I see Atlanta running the football with Jackson (wow, that is strange) with several extended handoffs (screens and short passes to the running backs). The Rams’ run defense must play with gap discipline, leverage from the backside and gang-tackle SJ39 on every play.

Ryan completed 25 of 38 passes for 304 yards with two touchdowns, one interception and passer rating of 96.8 in last week’s loss. In my mind, he is in the top five of quarterbacks currently playing in the NFL. If his offensive line continues its struggles in pass protection (ahem, last weekend), however, then the offense will sputter and struggle to finish drives. Third downs won’t be converted, which won’t yield many points on the board.

Rams Injury Report

CB Quinton Pointer (thigh) – OUT

DB Darian Stewart (thigh) – DOUBTFUL

DE Chris Long (hip) – QUESTIONABLE

TE Cory Harkey (knee) – PROBABLE

When these two teams last faced each other in 2010, the Falcons emerged with a 34-17 win. The bruising Michael Turner pounded his way to a 131-yard running day for Atlanta, and Jackson suited up in blue and gold. Will this game be different or a lot of the same – only with Jackson, the Rams’ franchise leader in career rushing yards, rushing the ball for the Falcons. It is extremely important that the Rams focus on the Falcons in all three phases of the game for 60 minutes and don’t let the reunion with Jackson jeopardize their primary objective: coming back to St. Louis 2-0.