After a tough opening week loss to New Orleans, the Falcons will play the first game in front of their home fans this season against the St. Louis Rams. While the Rams 7-9 record last season seemed mediocre, you can credit that to playing San Francisco and Seattle twice a year.
The Rams are no pushover. They have an aggressive defense, a solid offensive line and a decent quarterback. The Falcons will be tested this week.
Here are a few things we are looking for during tomorrow's game.
OFFENSIVE LINE VS. RAMS PASS RUSH
The Rams defense terrorized the opposing quarterback with an absolutely brutal pass rush last season. Armed with two powerful defensive ends in Robert Quinn (10.5 sacks last season) and Chris Long (11.5 sacks last season) that are poised to threaten the safety of QB Matt Ryan.
Quinn was a force last week, registering three sacks against Arizona. The Rams also have LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar who registered 4.5 sacks last season, back up DE William Hays who had seven sacks last season.
In total, the Rams had 52 sacks last season as a team, tied for first in the league last year.
The Rams showed no signs last week of slowing down from last year's rabid sack pace.
The Falcons much maligned offensive line could be throttled this week if they aren't able to step up their play. RT Lamar Holmes will hopefully get some help from some blocking tight ends and backs to help shore up the struggling O-line.
This is the biggest match up this week: The brutal Rams pass rush vs. the weak Falcons pass protection.
NOLAN VS. BRADFORD
Mike Nolan has held some of the best quarterbacks in the league to mediocre days during his tenure with Atlanta, including the Manning brothers and Drew Brees. The Rams' Sam Bradford hasn't really emerged as a consistent NFL QB. Even if the Falcons don't generate a pass rush against an improved offensive line, which is expected, it doesn't mean that the Falcons can't terrorize Bradford.
With Asante Samuel expected to return, the Falcons won't have to lean as heavily on rookie Robert Alford. Having that veteran leadership back on the field will be big for the Falcons. Nolan will throw his confusing schemes at Bradford, who has never seen them before. If Nolan can confuse Bradford the way he was able to confuse quarterback last season, the Falcons secondary could force some major turnovers.
THIRD DOWN CONVERSIONS
The Falcons are not doing well on third down to start the year. This was also present during the preseason as well. Last week, the Falcons were just 3-11 on third down conversions. This was partially due to the offensive line, but it can't be all on them, can it? There were some drops from receivers and a couple of bad passes from Ryan last week on third down. As a unit, the Falcons must improve on third down if they're expect to compete this year.
Too many times, a drive would get going and then third down would come up, and the Falcons would either have to punt or settle for a field goal. This can't become a trend for this team. They must outscore their opponents. It's how they won last year, it's how they'll win this year. But not converting on third down at a consistent, or even average rate will not yield good results offensively.
WHITE AND JONES' HEALTH
Roddy White was very limited in practice this week and at times, didn't practice. The Falcons receiver has stated that he isn't close to 100% yet, and won't be for some time. While White is a good decoy, we saw last week that when he's not functioning at a high level, it can hold the Falcons back.
Julio Jones is also injured, but wasn't as limited as White was. His knee injury doesn't appear to be as serious, but who knows how effective he'll be until we see him on the field.
It was bad enough when White wasn't at full strength, but if White and Jones can't be effective? It could be very bad news indeed.
These injuries will mean that third WR Harry Douglas could be getting a larger role in the game plan this week, it could also mean that back up receivers Kevin Cone and Drew Davis could see more action than expected.
With an offensive line that is struggling to protect its quarterback, the Falcons do not need to couple that with inexperienced WRs receiving a lot of playing time (ask New England how that worked out), but they may have to in light of these injuries to White and Jones.
Again, both are expected to play, but their effectiveness will be in question because of these injuries.
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