And just like that it's time for another preseason game. This week, the St. Louis Rams take on an Atlanta Falcons team that surprised the league with an exciting run to the playoffs last year, a Falcons team the Rams came pretty close to beating in week 17.
Describing the Falcons 2008 season an exciting run was more than just an exercise in flowery language; it literally describes the most notable source of the Falcons success last season: a dominant running game. And that brings us to our first of three questions previewing this week's preseason matchup against the Falcons...
Can the Rams defense control the Falcons' running game?
Last week, Rams fans breathed a collective sigh of relief as they watched their run defense hold the Jets to just 102 total yards on the ground for an average of 3.6 yards over 28 rushing plays. Who was this team, we asked? Well, the Jets were a decidedly different team, and their starters played the first quarter without three of their starting offensive linemen. That other team, in the not-so-tough looking all white unis, was the Rams, and their run defense did look better, playing against starters or not.
However, the Falcons have their starting offensive linemen as well as double threat running backs Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood. I have not seen it reported anywhere how many reps the Falcons plan to give their starters this week, but if they hew to preseason tradition, they'll play a good part of the first half. In my own purely uninformed speculation, I tend to think they'll play Norwood a bit more Friday, as part of their plan to save Turner's legs. Turner did cross the 370 mark in carries last season, a notorious plateau that more often than not signals injury trouble for running backs.
Last season the Falcons running game had the second highest average rushing yards per game, with 152.7; they also had the second highest total rushing yards with 2,443 and the third most rushing TDs with 23. In terms of DVOA, however, they had a 3.5% mark, 19th in the league. Why? Partly, according to Football Outsiders 2009 annual, the issue was schedule (remember, DVOA is an adjusted stat) because the Falcons played some of the league's worst run defenses in their own division. Still, the Falcons have a good, tough offensive line that mustered the league's ninth best adjusted line yards number, 4.22. By comparison, the Rams ALY last year was 3.73.
Another number worth noting in the Falcons run game is their 10+ yards number from last season. A full 23% of their rushing yards were picked up more than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, partly a testament to the skills of Michael Turner and Norwood. That was the seventh best number in the league.
Let's go back to week 17 from last season, when the Rams damn near pulled off an upset to end their season. Our run defense was nothing spectacular that day. Turner had a 20+ yard game, and Norwood scored twice and picked up 56 yards on just three carries, one of those TDs came on a direct snap to Norwood on a misdirection play that had the Rams fooled. They'll have to do better this week, even if it is preseason.
Players to watch:
James Laurinaitis - He looked good last week, and has already played himself into the starting MLB role. This week his defensive quarterbacking skills will be put to the test against a team that used misdirection so successfully against the Rams last year.
Will Witherspoon and whoever plays SLB - The Falcons were pretty effective at runs through the left tackle and right end. Witherspoon is back to the weakside where he can use his athleticism to make plays. On the other side, the battle for the SLB job gets prime evaluation time. Draft and Larry Grant both looked good against the Jets, so did Vobora and Chamberlain.
Gary Gibson - Gibson had a nice game filling in for the injured Adam Carriker, reminded more than one fan of just how divergent expectations are between a first rounder and a former undrafted free agent. The Falcons don't have the best blocking up the middle, but it is respectable and Gibson and the other DTs (Darell Scott is likely to play this week) will have to keep it under control and give Spags and Flajole some tough decisions to make when it comes time to trim the roster.