TSN Rams Report

Just when it appears that RB Steven Jackson is about to take control of the St. Louis backfield, he gets nicked up and sidetracked. Right knee problems slowed him twice in December, basically costing him two games. Bruised ribs in the playoff game against Seattle limited his effectiveness and may have him at less than 100 percent this week against Atlanta. Jackson is a big, powerful, fast, and patient runner. When it's all clicking, it's a scary combination. But if Jackson truly wants to put RB Marshall Faulk out to pasture, he's got to stay on the field. . . .

An added emphasis on special teams, coupled with a few personnel changes, paid dividends on kickoff coverage against Seattle. A similar effort is needed against Atlanta or the Rams will find themselves in the familiar quandary of giving their defense horrible field position for much of the game. After spending the past seven games as a pregame inactive, the return of WR Mike Furrey helped the kickoff coverage unit against the Seahawks. Furrey has a toughness and tenacity about him, combined with surprisingly good strength for someone his size, which makes him a natural for his size. The Rams need to find a way to keep him active on game day, even if it means dressing six wide receivers. . . .

An ankle injury to Tyoka Jackson and a nagging groin injury to Leonard Little have taxed the depth on the defensive line. But rookie DE Anthony Hargrove turned in a surprisingly good performance against Seattle's Pro Bowl LT Walter Jones, and DTs Ryan Pickett and Jimmy Kennedy are becoming a solid run-stuffing duo in the middle. Although still not 100 percent after a training camp foot injury, Kennedy has been playing up to his draft status (No. 12 overall in 2003) over the last month or so.

KEY MATCHUP: Atlanta's defensive front four played like the Fearsome Foursome against the Rams offensive line in the regular season meeting. All four d-line starters had their moments in that game. Particularly disturbing from a Rams standpoint was the work of DE Brady Smith against Pro Bowl LT Orlando Pace. Pace needs to have a shutdown day. Smith has a non-stop motor, and Pace must never feel like the play is over. Just such a hustle play by Smith caused a key sack and strip of QB Marc Bulger around Pace, resulting in a key Atlanta touchdown. There's no doubt Pace has the size, strength, and athleticism to contain Smith. Doing it is another matter. Bulger needs to have the peace of mind that his backside is being protected on Saturday.

X-FACTOR:The Rams have a speedy corps of linebackers in Pisa Tinoisamoa, Robert Thomas, and Tommy Polley, but the LBs looked like they were wearing concrete shoes trying to chase Michael Vick when the teams met September 19 in the Georgia Dome. (Polley didn't play in that game because of a rib injury.) The Rams must do a better job of containing Vick, whether it's by using a linebacker to spy on him, or using a variety of blitzes to keep him off-balance. St. Louis used a passive approach in the regular-season loss, rarely blitzing, and the move backfired with Vick rushing for 109 yards. Teams that have had the most success against Vick have blitzed him and forced him to move on their terms, instead of his. After a largely disappointing season, the Rams linebackers -- particularly Polley -- are playing their best football of the season.

FREE-AGENT BUZZ: With a late-season surge, DE Bryce Fisher probably has made himself a lot of money. He finished with 8-1/2 sacks in the regular season and is scheduled for unrestricted free agency. The Rams undoubtedly were hoping they could retain him for a modest amount. Keep in mind, DE Leonard Little is facing a possible NFL suspension, or even jail time, after an alleged drunken-driving arrest last spring. Rookie Anthony Hargrove has made steady progress at defensive end, but remains rough around the edges. Veteran Tyoka Jackson is best when used as an end-tackle swingman off the bench. So signing Fisher appears to be a priority .