3TFO: Rams @ Falcons, Week 2
Many would have expected their record to be reversed right now, but the fact remains that the NFC’s top seed last year comes into Week 2 at 0-1. They’ve returned largely the same team that sported a 13-3 record a year ago, with the biggest loss being John Abraham to the Cardinals. In his place is former Giant Osi Umenyiora, but most of the offseason hype surrounded the team’s signing of Steven Jackson. Jackson, a career Ram, looks to earn his first winning season in his 10th year in the league. Securing a win against his former team would both further the cause and help justify his decision to leave St. Louis.
Like the Falcons, the Rams had to mount a fourth-quarter comeback last week. Despite being down 11 points in the third, St. Louis rallied back against an improved Arizona unit to get the ‘W’. They’ll have to keep winning too, as the NFC West is shaping up to once again be one of the league’s strongest divisions. St. Louis fans have been patiently waiting for Sam Bradford to step up his play, and with a couple new receiving options and what looks to be the best offensive line of his career, this would be the year to do it. Let’s look at three important battles that can determine who the real winner is in the break-up between Jackson and the Rams.
Falcons Receivers vs. Rams Cornerbacks
It’s no secret that Atlanta has a pair of big, physical receivers, but it was actually the smaller Harry Douglas who led the team in receiving yards last week. Douglas spent nearly 75% of his snaps in the slot, and while Atlanta prefers him there, only 32 of his 93 yards came when lined up inside. While not producing the same in terms of yardage, Julio Jones made seven catches last week and secured a touchdown, making a strong case that he’ll lead the team in scores again this year. The big question mark in the receiving corps is Roddy White. While no one is questioning his talent, a high ankle sprain severely limited both his effectiveness and his playing time in New Orleans. If he’s near 100%, St. Louis may have some trouble locking down all of Ryan’s receiving threats.
Leading the way for the Rams at right cornerback is second-year man Janoris Jenkins. Highly touted in his rookie year, Jenkins in fact had an up-and-down season. On three occasions last year an opposing quarterback had a QB rating of over 140 when targeting him, yet there were eight games in which he gave up less than 40 yards into his coverage. It’s been mixed again this year, as Jenkins has already given up a touchdown, but held Carson Palmer to just 36 yards on the nine balls thrown his way.
Opposite him in base defense, and moving to the slot in the Rams’ nickel, is veteran Cortland Finnegan. The 2012 addition from Tennessee played 1,031 snaps last year without surrendering a touchdown into his coverage. That streak was broken last week at the hands of Larry Fitzgerald, and after a three-penalty outing against the Cards, Finnegan has nowhere to go but up. Nickel corner Trumaine Johnson saw his playing time really pick up at the halfway point of last season, and dating back to last year has allowed just 53% of passes thrown his way to be completed. When on the field, he’ll be seeing a lot of White, so he’ll have to be on top of his game to slow down the four-time Pro Bowler.
Atlanta’s receivers may be more than a match for the Rams’ secondary, but St. Louis may be able to deal with them by getting pressure on Matt Ryan. Pass rush specialist Chris Long was at it again last week, scoring five pressures in addition to a batted pass. There’s no reason to think he won’t keep this up — his Pass Rushing Productivity was 11.0 in 2012, second-best at the position. He’ll be facing off against sophomore Lamar Holmes, who, outside of seven snaps last year against the Giants, saw his first meaningful playing time last week. He had a rough go of it too, conceding one sack, two hits, and five more hurries en route to securing the NFL’s worst Pass Blocking Efficiency at 85.1.
Coming at Ryan from his blind side will be the Rams’ 2011 first-round selection, Robert Quinn. Unlike Long, he had a thoroughly mediocre 2012, tallying 45 total pressures to Long’s 76 on only 43 fewer snaps. That said, he was an absolute monster against Arizona last week, recording three sacks and three additional pressures on his way to making our Team of the Week. Unfortunately for Quinn, he won’t get to play the Cardinals every week, but he’ll be salivating at the thought of facing left tackle Sam Baker. A solid tackle in 2012, he started this year similarly to Holmes, giving up a sack and five more pressures. Atlanta will desperately need to shore up the pass protection if it hopes to get back to its winning ways — Ryan had a QB rating of just 48.4 on the 22 plays under pressure last week.
The Jared Cook Factor
With the departure of oft-injured wideout Danny Amendola to New England, the Rams needed to step up and get a playmaker for Bradford. The eighth overall pick was spent on speedster Tavon Austin, but last week the real damage was done by free agent pickup Jared Cook. In his first game as a Ram, Cook lined up absolutely everywhere — twice in the backfield, 30 times as an in-line tight end, 14 times in the slot, and 19 more as the outside receiver. A quick check of the stat sheet indicates success in his first game with Bradford. Cook was targeted 10 times, catching seven and scoring a pair of touchdowns, narrowly missing out on the hat-trick thanks to an excellent defensive play by Tyrann Mathieu. His 141 yards receiving constituted nearly half of Bradford’s passing yardage.
Facing Cook and Jimmy Graham back-to-back is an unenviable task, but Atlanta absolutely must contain Cook if they want to slow down the Rams’ offense. Utilized in a similar way as Cook, Graham saw most of his targets come against Atlanta’s linebackers and safeties. In particular, Thomas DeCoud gave up 28 yards and a touchdown to the athletic Graham. When split out wide, Cook will likely match up against a smaller cornerback. Rookie Desmond Trufant will see him when split out wide to the left, while it will be up to Robert McClain and Robert Alford to shut down the playmaker when he lines up in the slot or wide right. Expect Cook to build off an fast start to 2013 and be targeted early and often.