After a tough season opening loss to the New Orleans Saints, the Atlanta Falcons looks to return to their winning ways and earn their first victory of the 2013 season against Sam Bradford and the young St.Louis Rams.
Atlanta is 17-3 after a loss under the Mike Smith era and will look to bounce back in front of a sell out Georgia Dome crowd on Sunday afternoon. St. Louis, coming off a 27-24 comeback victory over the Arizona Cardinals, will look to start 2-0 for the first time since 2001. The young defense, which led the NFL in sacks last season, will attempt to cause havoc for a Falcons team vying for a victory. The Falcons, coming off a heartbreaking 23-17 loss against the Saints will look to improve some of the issues that prevented them from earning a rare victory in New Orleans such as offensive line problems.The Falcons allowed New Orleans to apply pressure and forced the offense to surrender three sacks and two crucial turnovers.
Another huge story line in Sunday's match-up is return of Steven Jackson's former team. Jackson, who played for St.Louis from 2004-2012, set the franchise record with 10,138 rushing yards over nine seasons will look to earn a victory for his new team, the Atlanta Falcons this week. Here's the keys to victory, match-ups to watch, and final prediction.
KEYS TO VICTORY
1. Falcons Offense Must Establish Balance
In Sunday's loss, the Falcons established a balanced offensive attack early in the game which led them to an early 10-0 lead. However, after a critical Julio Jones turnover in the second quarter, which the Saints capitalized on and tied the contest, Atlanta would abandon their game plan. That would ultimately lead to an opening season loss. On Sunday, the Falcons must find a sense of balance on offense early and continue to stick with their plan throughout the contest with the Rams. St.Louis boasts one of the best, young defensive lines around the league and if Atlanta becomes one-dimensional too early, it could prove to be costly in the football game.
In the loss against New Orleans, the Falcons attempted (38) passes while only rushing for (14) attempts, which is far from a balanced offense. Coordinator Dirk Koetter must stick with their game plan in order to keep the defense honest and assure that the Falcons strategy don't prove to be predictable and give the Rams defense an opportunity to be aggressive. Establishing a balanced game plan could open up opportunities for Matt Ryan to get Julio Jones and the rest of Atlanta's explosive offense going and cause issues for the St.Louis Rams all afternoon.
A balanced attack could also help the Falcons improve their third down efficiency as well. In Sunday's loss, Atlanta was (3-11) on third down attempts offensively, which is unacceptable with the weapons the Falcons have. A balanced offense will give the Falcons an opportunity to look efficient this weekend.
2. Red-Zone Efficiency
This is one of the biggest issues that the Falcons offense faced in their loss against the Saints. On Sunday, the Falcons were (2-4) in the red-zone, including failing to capitalize on the final drive which could have sealed a victory for Atlanta. This Sunday, Atlanta can't afford to have long drives come to an end with a field goal or no points at all and it starts with execution from the offense. With the addition of Steven Jackson, the Falcons look to open their playbook this season and assure that they are scoring touchdowns when Atlanta is driving into the red-zone.
Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter needs to address their red-zone approach because on Sunday, the final drive was another head-scratcher as the Falcons gained three yards on a run by Jackson in a first and goal situation. However, he procceded to call for three pass attempts, which were incomplete. The final attempt was intercepted by Saints safety Roman Harper to seal their victory. Atlanta must work on mixing their plays when they are approaching the end zone because at times, the Falcons will throw in situations where they should run the football. That leads to trouble in situations when they run the ball instead of utilizing their passing weapons such as Julio Jones, Roddy White or Tony Gonzalez.
Atlanta's defense, despite surrendering over (300) yards passing to Drew Brees and the Saints offense, held their own when they were tested in the red-zone. The Saints were (1/3) in the red-zone, including settling for three field goals, which was a plus especially for a team that was one of the highest scoring offenses in the NFL in 2012.
On Sunday, the Falcons defense must contain Sam Bradford from making any impact when the Rams offense enter the red-zone. Similar to Atlanta, the Rams were (2-4) in the red-zone in their victory over the Cardinals; however, the Falcons should feed off their home crowd and once again, step up to the challenge and contain the Rams for scoring touchdowns and force them to settle for field goals as well. The Falcons were one of the best secondaries in preventing opposing passing attacks from scoring touchdowns last season, and they will need to step up to the challenge and come up with some crucial stops to make Sunday very difficult for the Rams.
3. Allow Steven Jackson To Set The Tone Early
Atlanta needs their running game to set the tone for Sunday's game, especially to give Matt Ryan and the passing attack the opportunity take flight. That's due to the limited snaps for Roddy White, who is suffering from a high ankle sprain. Last Sunday, Steven Jackson was impressive as he posted 11 rushes for 77 yards and five receptions for 45 yards. Unfortunately, his great day fell short as he had a key drop on third-and-goal with the Falcons looking to score a last-second touchdown.
An effective and clock-controlling ground attack will also help prevent the Rams defense from making a huge impact on the game. Atlanta can dominate the time of possession as well. Also, establishing the running game will help our offensive line gel throughout the game in one piece.
In the first half of the Falcons vs. Saints game, when Atlanta played with balance, the offensive line was pretty solid. When the Falcons leaned more on their passing attack, the young offensive line struggled and it disrupted the flow of Atlanta's offense. It's imperative that the Falcons give Steven Jackson at least 15-20 carries, especially facing his former team on Sunday.
Last week, as mentioned above, Jackson only received (11) carries while averaging seven yards per attempt. In this game, the Falcons need to find a way to balance their offensive play calling and it all starts with the rushing attack in order to help our line adjust and create the necessary lanes for Jackson.
4. Third Down Efficiency
One of the most critical keys to a win or a loss for any football team is how both sides of the football respond when a third down opportunity is presented. Last Sunday, this was a huge problem for the Falcons. In Week One's defeat to the Saints, the Falcons offense only converted three of their eleven attempts and it prevented the team from having long drives to result in points. Defensively, Atlanta surrendered six of the thirteen attempts when the New Orleans Saints were facing a third down, which proved to be a critical part of the Falcons loss.
Atlanta only converted one of their five attempts within five yards and against a good defensive line like the Rams, the Falcons must figure out a way to convert the short yardage situations, which was another key issue dating back to last season. Also, the Falcons must prevent themselves from getting in third and long situations, which the Falcons were only successful on two of six attempts. Against a defense that could cause havoc like St.Louis, Atlanta must avoid them in order to extend drives and score points.
On defense, the Falcons must limit the number of third downs surrendered to allow their opponents an opportunity to score points, as mentioned above. Atlanta allowed six of thirteen attempts to be converted, including three of four within 5 yards or less. The Falcons can't allow St.Louis and their finesse offense to extend drives by converting on short yardage situations.
Unfortunately, although the Falcons held New Orleans to three of nine of the attempts of 5 yards or more, two of the attempts converted exceeded nine yards or more and were critical in New Orleans scoring drives. This can determine the difference in winning and losing football games.
5. Dome Field Advantage
It's the Atlanta Falcons home opener and 70,000+ fans are coming to see their home team win their first game of the season. The Falcons fans need to be in their seats on time and although many people don't view this as a key factor to victory, it's critical because you can disrupt the flow of an opposing offense and force false start penalties. Atlanta's home crowd must "RISE UP" and continue to make the Georgia Dome one of the hardest venues to win in around the NFL. Since 2008, Atlanta is 34-9 and the Falcons will look to continue their home dominance but the fans will also play a huge part in Sunday's game. Fans need to be in their seats before kickoff and not making their way into the Dome late in the first quarter or halftime, the team needs to feel the support from their hometown fans from the start in order to motivate them to play Falcons football.
Sam Baker is up for a huge match-up on Sunday as he face one of the up and coming defensive lineman in the NFL in Robert Quinn. In the St. Louis victory over the Arizona Cardinals, Quinn was huge for the Rams as he posted three sacks to start off his 2013 campaign. Quinn, coming off a (10.5) sack season in 2012, is an offensive lineman nightmare and after some of the struggles in New Orleans last week, the Falcons will look to bounce back and prevent the Rams line from causing havoc.
Quinn possesses a lot of similarities to John Abraham, because he's an elite edge rusher who is looking to force a turnover. Baker must be prepared to take this challenge on Sunday.
2. Jared Cook and the Rams finesse receiving core vs Falcons Secondary
The Falcons secondary will be tested by yet another young and athletic tight end in Jared Cook. Cook, who was acquired during the off-season by the Rams from the Tennessee Titans, made an impressive debut as he posted (7) receptions for an amazing (141) yards and two touchdowns in St.Louis victory over the Cardinals.
Defending tight ends is one of the Falcons biggest concerns on defense. Akeem Dent, Sean Weatherspoon and the rest of the linebacker corps will need to play tight coverage on the explosive tight end because if he's allowed to have his way, it could be a long game for the Falcons secondary on Sunday afternoon. In addition to Cook, the Rams have a young receiving corps that possess big-play potential. These include Tavon Austin, who was a handful in the open field during his time at West Virginia and Atlanta's defense must limit his space or he could be in for a huge game.
Chris Givens is another option for St.Louis and he can fly on outside routes, so it's up to Atlanta's young secondary to stop them. That secnodary is led by veteran Asante Samuel and rookies Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant
3. Tony Gonzalez vs Rams secondary
Matt Ryan could have a favorable match-up as the Rams linebackers will face a huge test with Hall of Fame Tight End Tony Gonzalez. Gonzalez could cause fits for the Rams young linebacker core especially rookie Alec Ogletree. Expect Matt Ryan to give the rookie from UGA his first true test against one of the elite players at the tight end position in the NFL. Outside of Vernon Davis, the Rams haven't faced a good slate of tight ends and this could give the Falcons an advantage on Sunday.
4. Chris Long vs Falcons offensive line
Lamar Holmes, who is starting in his second NFL game of his career, will face one of the toughest defensive lineman in the game in Chris Long. Long, entering his sixth season in the NFL, is one of the most underrated linemen and can cause havoc for any opposing offensive line and the Falcons young right tackle will have to rise up to the challenge and control one of the elite defensive ends in the game.
5. Falcons receiving core vs Rams secondary
The Falcons have a major advantage on a very solid St.Louis secondary, which is one of the better ones in the league. However, when they are facing some of the most explosive receivers in the NFL, the tandem could struggle. For example, if Atlanta lines Julio Jones up against Janoris Jenkins or Cortland Finnegan, it's an automatic mismatch due to the explosive break-away speed and great abilities that Jones possess. Matt Ryan will test the secondary.
With Roddy White still recovering from an injury, Harry Douglas could be in for a good afternoon. As I mentioned above, quick receivers are an Achilles heel for the Rams secondary, and Douglas could expose this weakness and provide the Falcons with another valuable option.
The Falcons are back at home and will be completely focused on winning their home opener and the second game of the 2013 NFL season. I expect both football teams to compete and play great football but Atlanta will continue their dominance at home. I'm also expecting 100 yard games from Steven Jackson and Julio Jones. Tony Gonzalez will also have a great afternoon and will do enough for the Falcons to earn a home victory on Sunday afternoon.
Until next week, RISE UP and Beat The Rams!!!
FALCONS 31 RAMS 17