Like chess pieces moved around the board, the St. Louis Rams have players who'll be key for their chances in Atlanta. No one doubts the experience edge going to the Falcons. Older, wiser, they have more players who have been around each other for multiple seasons than the Rams. The most visible unit for Atlanta is their wide receiver group. Headlined by Julio Jones and Roddy White - who's listed as questionable for this game - they're augmented by Harry Douglas as their 3rd wide receiver. Add in tight end Tony Gonzales - a future NFL Hall of Famer - and you can see why many feel this may be the best receiving group in the league for 2013.
The Rams face an uphill battle in Atlanta. They're facing a team that lost in Week #1 to division rival New Orleans. Returning home for this week, the Falcons will be in an almost "must win" situation. Only 11.5% of teams that start 0-2 have made the playoffs. Yes, it's early in the season, but stats like these can fester in the minds of coaches and players. Made more problematic by all the preseason hype of the Falcons being one of the best teams in the NFC -and sole challenger to powerhouses like San Francisco and Seattle - falling to 0-2 now could shatter their confidence at the very least. Enter: the St. Louis Rams...
Keys to victory are hard to discern in many ways. Each week we see a player or two rise to the occasion and shine. This week, it will be skill players who normally don't get much in the way of headlines. While star players of every description will be dashing around the field, it will be these unsung guys who'll make the difference...
Michael Brockers is BIG! He's listed at "only" 6'5" and 326 lbs., but he plays bigger. His incredible strength, and nose for the ball, make him someone to watch for fans. But what makes him more important, is who he plays next to on the right side of the Rams' defensive line. To his right, is Robert Quinn - the sack happy, Gumby-esk madman who contorts his body at amazing speeds as he heads pell-mell for the quarterback. If you watched the Rams-Cardinals game last week, you may have noticed Brockers being double teamed most of the evening. The NFL coaches' book on the former LSU star is "don't try to stop him man-on-man", and I think they're right. The few times he was faced with a single guard, he bull rushed his blocker back into the pocket. On running plays, Brockers has become an immovable force. I'm sure one of the things Steven Jackson may have mentioned to his new team when he arrived in Atlanta is "Run left, away from #90! Trust me!"
Last season, while Brockers battled back from a preseason injury, running plays to Robert Quinn's side became the vogue thing to do for opponents. Quinn would simply be ridden by an offensive tackle which ever way he chose to go, and the running back keyed off of the tackle's direction. Block him inside, break outside; block him outside, break in between the defensive end and tackle. When Brockers returned to the line up, this offensive trend ground to a halt. Suddenly the ability push whoever the Rams had at right defensive tackle out of the way disappeared, and it was replaced by this snarling, bearded wall with the strength to handle guards, tackles, D-9 Caterpillars, or even a Yugo?
What allowed Quinn to shine last week, was Brockers ability to take away blocking assets that could've been assigned to him. I'm not taking anything away from Quinn's talent, but football is known as a team game for a reason. Brockers is simply a player teams have to game plan against alongside Quinn, especially if the opponent features a pocket-passing quarterback. He has the ability to collapse the pocket quarterbacks like to step up into to escape an outside pass rush. How Michael Brockers plays against Atlanta will be key to how effectively Quinn can rush off the edge. If the Rams ever draft a pass rushing outside linebacker for the right side, NFL teams are going to be in serious trouble when they face St. Louis.
T.J. McDonald and Rodney McLeod have to be nervous. Last week, the Rams used a soft coverage for their corner backs to shrink the under-zone of the team's inexperienced safeties. The training wheels come off this week, or at least they should. This is a game that'll more than likely feature a hobbled Roddy White due to his ongoing ankle issue. It's a time where Rams head coach Jeff Fisher gets to see if he's solved glaring safety pass coverage problems from a year ago. Julio Jones is without a doubt one of the top five wide receivers in the NFL. He does his best work in the zone just under where safeties dwell, and has the speed to double move out of an inside break to stretch the field. To put it bluntly - he's a nightmare for safeties to cover. When you add in run coverage responsibilities with Steven "Arm Tacklin' Ain't Goin' to Do It" Jackson, the day for McDonald and McLeod could wind up being a long one.
Matt Ryan is a very good quarterback, who's always in that obscure "Elite" argument which pops up from time to time. The one thing keeping him out of the rarefied air of the NFL's best quarterbacks, is his slight tendency to - what looks like to me anyway - throw long passes without even looking. Whether he gets curfuffled, distracted, confused, or experiences a moment of "What the %$#&!", I have no idea. But it seems when he's experiencing a heavy pass rush continuously, at some point in a game he kind of flings it down the field, in the general direction of a crowd of players. A key to winning the game for the Rams will be turnovers, and intercepting one of these errant throws could be vital. McDonald or McLeod will shine on Sunday in a Rams win, or slink away after being shown how the NFL game is played in Julio Jones backyard.
Much has been made of the Atlanta Falcon's offensive line woes, and rightly so. They're just this side of 2011 Rams bad. Sam Baker is off to a bad start at left tackle (See: Robert Quinn's "Bernie" moves). But the line I'm thinking about here is on Atlanta's defense. "Overlooked" is an understatement, and the Rams offensive line needs to be ready for an all-out blitz-stunt frenzy. They'll be playing at least 7 or 8 in the box at times and sending every one of them at Sam Bradford. What better way to stymie a young team trying to work on their passing game, right? Be warned: This is absolutely going to happen. The Falcons have no reason to respect any of the Rams' running backs' blocking skills. In sets where there's a single tight end on the field, look for them to pin their ears back and rush the quarterback. The downside for them is it's a gamble, that'll include lots of man-on-man coverage in the secondary.
So it's the Rams offensive line who'll need to have a big day for their team to win in Atlanta. The gang of Jake Long, Chris Williams, Scott Wells, Harvey Dahl, and Rodger Saffold will need to play lights-out football, and stay healthy the entire game to do so. If there's an area the Rams lack quality depth, it's the offensive line. While I have complete faith in Paul Boudreau's wizardry to coach the offensive line of the Rams, second level talent in games against elite NFL teams isn't something that make me feel all warm and fuzzy. For three straight game, Sam Bradford hasn't been crushed into a variety of NFL turfs. To win this game, it has to be four in a row...