Until 2002, the average fan's level of investment in a contest between these two teams might have been a little higher. The Falcons and the Rams were division rivals in the Coastal Division starting in 1967, one year after the Falcons' inception. The Rams were located in Los Angeles at the time, and the division was re-named the NFC West after the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. The Falcons, despite being located in the southeastern United States, remained in the NFC West division until 2002, and the Rams remain in that division today, despite a 1995 move to St. Louis--a move that placed the team farther east than the Dallas Cowboys, who are members of the NFC East division.
The Rams have a significant edge in this series history, with 47 wins to Atlanta's 27 wins, plus two ties between these two teams since 1966. In the Matt Ryan/Mike Smith era, these teams have met twice, and both match-ups have resulted in wins for the Falcons. The first meeting was in 2008, Matt Ryan's rookie season, in the Georgia Dome, and the Falcons pulled off a close win by just four points in late December, a factor on their way to securing a wildcard playoff bid that season. In 2010 the Falcons beat the Rams 34-17 on the road, one of their 13 wins that season.
One of the key storylines heading into this week's game will be Falcons running back Steven Jackson, a free agent acquisition after the 2012 season, facing his former team. The Rams drafted Jackson 24th overall in the 2004 NFL Draft, and he was a key factor for the offense throughout his career. Jackson's departure from St. Louis unfolded amicably. Now an Atlanta Falcon, Jackson says that facing his old team does not inspire any additional motivation beyond his typical drive to win.
A less-popular storyline will be former Falcons offensive lineman Harvey Dahl. Dahl was a key factor in protecting Matt Ryan and making way for Michael Turner in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Dahl is exactly the kind of offensive lineman teams love--aggressive and nasty. He will make things more difficult for Atlanta's pass rush on Sunday.
That being said, the Rams' offensive line was not graded very favorably by Pro Football Focus for their performance against the Arizona Cardinals last week. They did protect Sam Bradford from being sacked at all, however, they allowed three quarterback hits and 16 hurries. Bradford is susceptible to pressure, posting a quarterback rating of 52.9 last week on plays under pressure, as opposed to a rating of 120.3 when not pressured.
St. Louis has seen a decline in their rushing game, not surprisingly, following the departure of Steven Jackson. Against the Cardinals, starting running back Daryl Richardson managed just 63 yards on 20 carries. Richardson is also currently listed on the Rams' injury report with a foot injury. One key factor in containing Richardson and limiting the Rams' running game will be to wrap up--Richardson caused three missed tackles in his effort against Arizona in week one.
As far as receivers go, the Falcons are going to have to contain tight end Jared Cook. Cook languished for a few seasons in Tennessee, never quite fulfilling his potential, and his week one premiere as a St. Louis Ram showed what he is actually capable of on the field. Cook finished the day with seven receptions on 10 targets for 141 yards and two touchdowns. Given the Falcons' consistent difficulties in covering tight ends, Atlanta will need to be particularly mindful of Cook.
The Rams' defense looked particularly disruptive against Arizona. That pass rush was relentless, managing five sacks, five hits and ten hurries against Carson Palmer last week. This is a concern heading into Sunday's game, considering the performance of Atlanta's offensive line against the Saints last week, in which they allowed three sacks, four hits, and a staggering 18 hurries. With Sam Baker held out of practice on Wednesday and Thursday with a knee injury, the offensive line is even more uncertain heading into Sunday's game.
Steven Jackson should be quite familiar with the Rams' defense, which will hopefully help the ground game develop. Not only that, but part of the benefit of having a player like Steven Jackson on the roster is his versatility. When Jackson is on the field, defenses should be concerned about whether it's a called rushing play, or whether Matt Ryan will take advantage of the Rams' formidable pass rush and hit Jackson on a screen.
Mike Smith's team rarely posts back-to-back losses, and their record at home is stellar. Based on their week one performance against the Cardinals, this is a significantly improved Rams team, but even with Atlanta's injuries and offensive line weakness, they should come away with a win on Sunday.
What do you expect from the Falcons against the Rams this week?