The Atlanta Falcons are set to begin their 2013 home slate by welcoming the St. Louis Rams to the Georgia Dome the same way that they did nine years ago in 2004 when Jim Mora Jr. made his regular season debut in Atlanta.
The Falcons are aiming to avoid their first 0-2 start under general manager Thomas Dimitroff, head coach Mike Smith and Matt Ryan following last week's 23-17 defeat at New Orleans.
Former NFC West rivals before realignment prior to the 2002 season, the Falcons and Rams have not met in the regular season since a 34-18 Atlanta win in St. Louis in 2010. The Rams have made a lot of changes since then, including bringing in Thomas Dimitroff disciple Les Snead at general manager and hiring ex-Titans coach Jeff Fisher.
How do these 2013 Rams stack up against the Falcons? We broke down some Rams game film to determine the key matchups in Sunday's game and develop a game plan that will bring the Falcons their first victory of the 2013 campaign.
Let's start with a little more background on this week's opponent.
Meet the Rams
After a 2-14 season in 2011, the Rams' rebuilding process under Jeff Fisher and Les Snead was expedited when the team acquired three first-round draft picks from the Washington Redskins for the right to move up and select Robert Griffin III.
Suddenly armed with some of the best young talent in the NFL, the Rams are now looking to return to the playoffs for the first time since they lost to the Falcons in the NFC divisional playoffs following the 2004 season.
St. Louis opened its 2013 season with a come-from-behind 27-24 victory at home against the Arizona Cardinals.
When Atlanta Has the Ball: Falcons Offense vs. Rams Defense
The Falcons offensive line gets the benefit of playing at home this week, but the Rams probably have more talent along their front four than the Saints' defensive line that dominated the Falcons in the trenches last week.
Anchored by bookend pass-rushers Robert Quinn and Chris Long, the Rams defensive line is reminiscent of the attacking defensive lines that Jeff Fisher had during his most successful years in Tennessee.
Robert Quinn had three sacks and two forced fumbles last week against Arizona from his right defensive end position. You can see him blow by Cardinals offensive tackle Levi Brown in this sequence.
Quinn's speed off the edge means that Falcons left tackle Sam Baker cannot repeat his poor performance from last week, where he struggled against Junior Galette, if Atlanta wants to even its record at 1-1. If Baker struggles early on, Atlanta may want to run some screens and draws at Quinn or help Baker out with some quicker throws.
Falcons right tackle Lamar Holmes draws the task of taking care of Chris Long, while the interior of Atlanta's offensive line faces two quick interior defensive linemen in Kendall Langford and Michael Brockers.
In what's quickly becoming a theme for the Falcons, Atlanta's offense will only take off if its offensive line can handle this St. Louis defensive front.
As for the rest of the Rams defense, the Falcons have some matchups that they can exploit. James Laurinaitis leads a speedy St. Louis linebacker group, but all three Rams starting linebackers can be had if Atlanta can win the battle up front and run the ball downhill. The Rams built their linebacker corps to run sideline to sideline, and not necessarily to take on blockers head on.
The Falcons need to feed ex-Ram Steven Jackson the ball early and often in an effort to beat the Rams speed with physicality.
In the secondary, the Rams play a good bit of man coverage with Janoris Jenkins and Cortland Finnegan. Larry Fitzgerald was able to win a couple of one-on-one battles last week, and Matt Ryan would be wise to give Julio Jones a shot to do the same this week.
When St. Louis Has the Ball: Falcons Defense vs. Rams Offense
The Rams' base offensive set is a two-tight end, singleback formation. Aside from a fumble out of the end zone, North Gwinnett High School (Suwanee, Ga.) product Jared Cook put on quite a show in his first game in a Rams uniform with seven receptions for 141 yards and two touchdowns.
Cook's ability to create separation in the secondary along with tight end Lance Kendricks makes St. Louis' base set difficult to defend because you have to account for both tight ends in the passing game.
Atlanta's defense needs to prepare for Jared Cook the way they normally prepare for Jimmy Graham. Cook is the one player on this Rams offense who can be a serious matchup problem for Atlanta's defense because he can run away from Atlanta's linebackers and beat a defensive back one-on-one like he did here against Jerraud Powers.
On the outside, the Rams have smaller, quick receivers that are at their best when they get the ball in their hands in space.
Atlanta needs to be aware of where Tavon Austin lines up because you can bet that Sam Bradford will look for him at least once on a deep ball or a misdirection play. Wide receiver Chris Givens is also an underrated talent who knows how to create separation, particularly on crossing routes.
Atlanta's young cornerbacks played well against the Saints receiving corps for the most part, and this Rams receiver group is similar in that there is no stud No. 1 receiver in this group per say, but any one player can have the kind of 100-yard game Falcons fans have gotten used to seeing from Julio Jones and Roddy White.
Up front, Atlanta's defensive line should get some more opportunities for sacks this week because they'll have the crowd noise on their side and Sam Bradford doesn't have the kind of pocket presence that Atlanta saw with Drew Brees last week.
Atlanta's special teams had a solid outing against New Orleans, and if they want to have success against the Rams, they're going to have to be cognizant of Tavon Austin's presence in the punt return game.
Austin had a quiet outing against the Cardinals, but he is still a big play waiting to happen if he gets a crease in the return game.
Game Plan Keys
1. Establish the power run game on offense. The Rams defense is predicated on speed. Atlanta doesn't want to face a lot of third-and-longs or be in a position where they're trying to run sideline to sideline against this unit because they will lose. There's no better way to get the offensive line out of its funk than to just let them fire off the ball and hit somebody in the mouth.
2. Slow down the St. Louis pass rush with quick passes, screens/draws and play action off of the power run game. The Cardinals were able to take a couple of shots downfield off of play action and Atlanta will be able to do the same if they execute key No. 1.
3. Find Jared Cook and avoid situations where linebackers are stuck covering him. The Falcons need to find a way to keep their linebackers out of awkward coverage situations like the one that led to Akeem Dent being responsible for Marques Colston last week. Jared Cook is a tough matchup for anyone when he's playing well, but Atlanta will have a better shot at limiting him with a safety.
4. Use the Georgia Dome crowd to create more pressure and rattle Sam Bradford. Much has been made about the way Atlanta's offensive line performed in Week 1, but they were playing in a hostile environment. Atlanta's defensive line needs to ride the crowd noise the way the Saints defensive line did and disrupt Sam Bradford's rhythm.
5. Don't give up any cheap touchdowns on special teams. Tavon Austin is itching to show why the Rams moved up to take him with the eighth overall pick in this year's draft, and the Falcons need to be disciplined in their punt coverage to make sure they don't end up in Austin first highlight film.
This Rams team has talent, but this is a game that Atlanta should win at home because the Falcons have the better team from top to bottom and they need it more. It's too early to call this a must-win game for the Falcons, but an 0-2 start (especially an 0-2 conference start) isn't an easy proposition to overcome.
Despite how some fans may feel, the sky isn't falling on the Falcons following last week's loss in New Orleans. That sentiment could change if Atlanta slips up and drops its home opener to this Rams team.
All game screenshots are courtesy of NFL Game Rewind. All game stats are via ESPN.com.
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