St. Louis Rams vs. Atlanta Falcons: The Ties That Bind

Jeff Curry-US PRESSWIRE

The St. Louis Rams visit the Georgia Dome on Sunday, to play the Atlanta Falcons, in an eagerly anticipated match up. There are many firsts to look for in this game. This is the first time [for the Rams] seeing Steven Jackson wearing anything other than a Rams uniform. This is also the first game against Atlanta, for a former employee of the Falcons: GM Les Snead. Lastly, it is the first meeting between the two teams since the Rams and Atlanta conducted their 2013 draft-day first round trade.

For all its enormity, the NFL is a small world at times. That seeming contradiction will be on display this weekend, when the St. Louis Rams visit the Atlanta Falcons. This is a big game for the Falcons; no 2012 playoff team started the season 0-2. Conversely, a victory on the road, against a top-tier team like the Falcons, could be a big confidence booster for the Rams, and give them a lot of momentum.

Former NFC West rivals [before realignment prior to the 2002 season], the Falcons and Rams have not met in the regular season since a 34-18 Atlanta win in November, 2010, at the Edward Jones Dome.

Since their last meeting, the destinies of the two teams have been inextricably linked:

On February 10, 2012, the Rams hired Les Snead away from the Falcons, to be their General Manager. Snead had been with the Falcons for 14 years, before being hired by the Rams. Snead was one of the architects of the spectacular 2011 draft-day trade that brought WR Julio Jones to the Falcons.

On March 14, 2013, Atlanta signed free agent running back Steven Jackson to a 3 year, $12 million contract, ending his stellar 9 year career with the Rams.

During the 2013 NFL Draft, the Rams traded the #22 selection to the Falcons, for the #30, #92, and #198 picks in the draft. The Falcons went on to select CB Desmond Trufant with the #22 pick. The Rams selected LB Alec Ogletree with the #30 pick, WR Stedman Bailey with the #92 pick, and traded the 6th round pick (along with their other 6th round pick) to secure RB Zac Stacy in the 5th round.

A small world indeed...

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Earlier this week, Atlanta Head Coach Mike Smith participated in a conference call (on the Rams' official website) (link). The following are excerpts from the call, fascinating for their linkages to the Falcons' recent history with the Rams:

(On how Jackson has fit in with the team)
"Extremely well. Right from the very beginning, he got involved with our off season program. He’s got a great work ethic in terms of weight training, and working with our athletic performance staff. He’s fit in very well and he’s a guy that’s had a lot of success, some of our young players definitely look to him for leadership. I think his work ethic will attest to how much of a leader he is. I’m sure he was that way in St. Louis and he’s that way here."

(On if having young cornerbacks changes how he goes about coverage's)
"I don’t believe so. I believe when you try to make alterations because – if the guy has the skill set to play the techniques that you want him to play, you’ve got to go as a play caller and make those calls. If he doesn’t have the skill set, then you have to protect him. But, we really like the skill set of these two young corners and you don’t want to hamstring your play caller just because it’s a young corner. You play to his strengths, and if they can do the things you want them to do and fits into your scheme then you just go ahead and call the game."

(On how Snead helped with the Falcons’ success during his time there)
"Les was an integral part of building this team. Very knowledgeable, not only on the pro side, but on the college side and the different roles that he had while he was here. Worked very closely with Thomas Dimitroff in terms of putting a plan together in how we retool our roster every year, and that’s something that happens every season in the NFL. The good personnel men have a much longer view than coaches. Coaches, we work from Sunday to Sunday, and we’ve got to rely on having those guys that are looking down the road maybe a year or two and realizing who’s going to become available, what kind of draft class you’re going to have at certain positions. Les is a very good football guy and he’s been doing it a long time."

(On what he sees from the Rams’ linebackers)
"(LB James) Laurinaitis is a very active middle linebacker. I was very impressed going through the draft process with (LB) Alec Ogletree."

(On what he thought of how rookie CBs Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford did in their first game last week)
"I thought that they played efficiently. They were going against a very good quarterback last week in Drew Brees. But, I thought for their first regular season action that they did well. We all made too many mistakes. Obviously, we didn’t make enough plays as a football team to get the outcome that we wanted, but I thought those two young guys did a nice job. Desmond played every snap in the ball game and Robert Alford came in and was a contributor in our sub packages. Both had plays on the ball. Robert had the interception. I think there is going to be a learning curve just like any young guy goes through, especially at the corner position. That’s a position that you have to have a very short memory."


Jeff Fisher's September 11 press conference (link) was revealing; for his thoughts and feelings about Steven Jackson, and for his analysis of the Falcons young corner backs:

(On facing RB Steven Jackson)
"Again, personally, really happy for ‘Jack’. 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 11 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."

(On if it was tough seeing Jackson go in the off season)
"We felt like it was in the best interest of everybody involved. This way the story ends real good. You’d like to think certainly his jersey’s retired back here whenever he’s done. We just wish him the best. He’s a class guy and was a tremendous leader in the locker room last year."

(On the Falcons’ rookie CBs Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant)
"We don’t know about (CB) Asante (Samuel), but they both played very well. It’s a well-coached defense. (Head Coach) Mike (Smith) does a great job with them. They’re sound. They’re disciplined. They’ve got really good speed on defense. They’re going to be hard to attack. Again, when you’ve got a talented group and a sophisticated scheme that’s sound it creates problems for you."

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Sunday's game has increased significance, for those associated with the transactions involving the two teams over the past 2 years. One can only imagine the thoughts and emotions that each of them will have, once the game begins.

What emotions will run through the psyche of Steven Jackson, as he is tackled for the first time by a horn-helmeted St. Louis Ram? Will he be pumped, and ready to steamroll through the defense, like in the old days? After getting past his initial shock, will James Laurinaitis greet Mr. Jackson with a smile, then a bone-jarring hit? How about Daryl Richardson, who is still close to Jackson, and is still mentored by him, to this day?? As he bursts through a hole in the line, will he keep SJ39 in the corner of his eye...and the back of his mind. The connection between Daryl Richardson, the Rams, and Steven Jackson, remains poignant to this day...as articulated by Brandon Bate, in his excellent article on Friday, for TST (link).

As Chris Givens lines up across from him, will Desmond Trufant feel the pounding of his own heart, knowing that the Falcons traded up with the Rams to select him?

Will Alec Ogletree be carrying a big chip on his shoulder, filled with the adrenaline of a young player taken 8 spots lower in the draft, because of the Falcons/Rams trade? This is a homecoming of sorts for Ogletree, who played his college ball at Georgia. The whole state will be watching him. How's that for motivation? And pressure? If Tony Gonzalez wasn't enough...

Tom Dimitroff and Les Snead. The mentor and the disciple. They will be watching, no doubt with mixed emotions. The mentor, signing Jackson, making a big (desperate?) push for a Super Bowl trophy. All the while remembering Les Snead, what he meant to Atlanta, and what he means now to a young, budding dynasty. The disciple, Les Snead, smiling broadly as Julio Jones jukes for a first down; then smiling even more broadly, as Tavon Austin returns a punt for a large gain. A smile of satisfaction, knowing that he was a significant factor in the development of both teams. Watching the game, knowing that no matter how hard he might try, Dimitroff will never out-style him with the hairdo.

The words of Les Snead lend insight into the deeper connections that run through this weekend's match up:

“Hey, I owe a lot to the owner Arthur (Blank), Thomas (Dimitroff), Mike (Smith),”

“The success Mike and Thomas are in the midst of is one of the reasons I’m sitting here in this chair. The stuff I learned that kind of helped get them on this roll is helping me here today, and it’s one of the reasons why I’m here today.”

“I think what’ll be different about this game is as you walk the quarters of the stadium, you’ll see people in support roles that maybe aren’t necessarily on stage as coaches, owners, GMs, (people) that you’re not expecting to see. Or you’re not thinking that you’re gonna see. And all of a sudden there they are, and you’re like wow. I’m sure there’ll be a lot of those. So that’ll be cool.”

The NFL is an enormous, cold, business conglomerate, for the most part. Football is a violent, ultra-competitive team sport. Yet the ties that bind, the human element, can transform the NFL into a much smaller, gentler, and more intimate world at times. Les Snead, Tom Dimitroff, Desmond Trufant, Daryl Richardson, Alec Ogletree, and Steven Jackson would all agree...

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