Heading into the season, this was an easy game to mark down as a potentially lopsided loss. The Rams just won a Super Bowl, and while they certainly lost some key players, they still have as much talent as anyone in the NFL.
How quickly things change. After a sluggish, frankly lousy week against the Bills, the Rams look at least a little bit vulnerable now. The Falcons, meanwhile, were undone by late errors but looked good against a capable Saints squad. This went from being a game I thought the Falcons were extremely unlikely to win to one that I think they’re just regular unlikely to win, but the upset potential is there.
Here’s what I’m feeling confident about and what I’m worried about heading into tomorrow’s game.
One reason to feel confident: The Rams offense is in disarray
The Rams are not going to be as inept offensively as they were against the Bills. Buffalo has a better defense, and Sean McVay is a grinning football gremlin who will have spent the week tearing apart film and his office to ensure Los Angeles doesn’t fare that poorly again. It’s just not going to be as easy for Atlanta as it was for Buffalo, full stop.
That said, this is an offense with problems it didn’t have a year ago, and it starts up front. The offensive line might be rolling out two linemen making their first NFL start, they’re shifting a guard to center to compensate for an injury there, and there’s no one on the line outside of maybe right tackle Rob Havenstein who looms as a particularly tough matchup. Atlanta showed an ability to get after Jameis Winston without needing to send the house to do so, and they should have at least some success with a four man rush against the Rams.
Los Angeles’s weapons weren’t up to snuff against Buffalo, either. The Falcons have to keep a close eye on Allen Robinson, who was a non-factor against the Bills but isn’t likely to stay one for long. Still, Darrell Henderson was quiet, Tyler Higbee was largely limited to being Stafford’s safety valve (he had an average depth of target of 1.7 yards), and Ben Skowronek was simply not very effective. The nearly constant pressure the Bills managed impacted all of them—the Bills also did a really nice job of making Henderson’s life miserable—but only Kupp and Robinson are big-time threats to begin with. Coverage lapses against either would be fatal, but we’re hoping those were limited to the end of last week’s game.
Again, the Rams are going to be better this week, and you shouldn’t be surprised if they’re substantially better. With no compelling third receiver with Van Jefferson on the shelf, no scary tight end depth behind Higbee, and Robinson not being a priority target for Matthew Stafford last week, the Falcons absolutely should prioritize stopping Cooper Kupp and forcing someone else to beat them. If they can get even half of the pressure the Bills managed against the Rams, an offense that looked really bad a week ago will likely look well short of elite again in Week 2, and I feel very confident they can manage to get after Stafford Sunday.
One reason to worry: Aaron Donald
Aaron Freeman wrote about this quite capably, but if you had to pick one reason to worry about this matchup, this is the one you’d pick regardless.
Donald is the best defensive lineman in the NFL, and one of the best in NFL history. He’s incredibly strong, unbelievably fast, and his helmet-swinging ways in practice make it clear that he really should not be trifled with under any circumstances. Stopping him is just a difficult proposition, and the Falcons have to do it with some new starters on the interior of the offensive line.
Drew Dalman and Elijah Wilkinson both held up well against the Saints, which was impressive work and encouraging for the long-term viability of this offense, but Donald is an entirely different challenge. Will the interior be able to hold up against Donald, or will he be his usual brand of wrecking ball and help slow a very effective run game?
One big plus this time out is that Marcus Mariota has shown he is willing and able to get away from pressure and make plays, whether he’s doing so scrambling or rolling out to make a throw, which will help him and this offense should Donald slice through the Falcons’ line like a hot knife through warm air. The Rams do have capable edge rushers to help the effort, though.
The matchup likely won’t hinge entirely on whether the Falcons can effectively hold Donald in check, but the potential for him to make several game-changing plays if the line can’t hold up is very real and very high. It’s my greatest concern for Sunday.