The Rams face off against their superpowered alter-ego this week, the NFL team whose roster and philosophy most closely resemble what Billy Devaney and Steve Spagnuolo are trying to build in St Louis -- the AFC South leading Atlanta Falcons. The question is, after years of beating themselves, can these new and improved Rams beat their ideal image?
Sam Bradford vs Matt Ryan
Both quarterbacks are whip-smart on the field, and play with calm and poise. On the Wonderlic -- a test which measures not only a level of intelligence, but the speed of that person's decision-making, Ryan scored a very high 32; Bradford aced it with a 36. And in terms of raw performance, Bradford's rookie year is shaping up as a mirror image of Ryan's:
|Ryan '08||Bradford '10|
|Team's record through 9 games||6-3||4-5|
However, Bradford and the Rams don't get to play against Matt Ryan of 2008 -- they get this year's much-improved version. In the last month of the season, Ryan has taken a quantum leap forward in performance, throwing 7 TDs against only 1 INT in this last three games, all wins for the Falcons.
The big caveat? All three of those games were played on the comfortable home turf. If there's one hurdle still remaining for Ryan to get over before he can join the upper class of NFL quarterbacks, it's becoming more consistent on the road. (Sound familiar?) At home, Ryan is averaging 270 yards passing and 2.2 TDs per game; on the road, these lofty numbers drop to a much more pedestrian 229 yards, 1.2 TDs. And his team's fortunes have fallen in road travels as well: Atlanta is only 2-2 with a -7 points differential in road games; the Rams are currently playing +40 football, with a 4-1 record on our own home turf.
Falcons receivers vs Rams receivers
Here, well, there's just no contest. Roddy White is playing at an elite level, easily outperforming the likes of the more-hyped Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall. Ryan is doing his part to feed the beast, making Roddy one of the most-targeted receivers in the game. (With 110 targets, he's tied with Terrell Owens for the league lead.) One week after struggling in coverage against Michael Crabtree, Ron Bartell faces an even more difficult assignment.
Perhaps no matchup will be more crucial, though, than the Rams' interior defense versus the future hall-of-famer, Tony Gonzalez. Again, Ryan knows how to find his best receivers, and Gonzalez currently ranks as the third-most targeted TE in the game (69 looks in the passing game, trailing Jason Witten and Chris Cooley by a mere two passes). Spagnuolo and Flajole ahve been playing mix-and-match with their outside linebackers for the last several weeks, shuffling players in and out with abandon; whether they are playing down-and-distance or merely trying to keep legs fresh, this week presents a very difficult matchup problem.
The one advantage that Bradford may have over his counterpart is in the slot, where Danny Amendola ranks better than anyone on the Falcons roster. The interior threat has touchdown grabs in each of his last three games, taking the team lead in that category.
Steven Jackson vs Michael Turner
Both the Falcons and Rams feature about a 60/40 split in their offense, favoring the passing game. Taking quarterback scrambles out of the equation and including sacks on dropbacks, Atlanta has drawn up 353 passes, 256 runs. St Louis: 354 passes, 240 runs. And both run their rushing game primarily through a single workhorse back. Both Jackson and Turner are 28 years old, with Turner actually a few months senior to his counterpart. But of the two players, Jackson has far more wear on his tires, with 1740 career carries to Turner's 954. Both players are powerful runners with deceptively good movement, but neither is quite as good a blocker as he could be. Jackson's leadership intangibles give him a slight edge on value to his team over Turner, even as his productivity is beginning to trail behind.
Long/Laurinaitis vs Abraham/Lofton
Boiling down the Rams' defense comes down to two standout players having standout years: Laurinaitis has stepped up the intelligence of his game, and greatly improved his ability to drop back into coverage; Long is having a monster year, finally emerging after two years of paying dues and building up technique.
In terms of pure prodictivity per pass rush, Long is still looking up to the guy lining up on the opposite roster. Despite playing 100 fewer snaps, John Abraham's 8 sacks are outpacing Long's 6; however, Long's raw numbers of pressures and QB hits are higher than his counterpart's.
Meanwhile, the unsung Curtis Lofton has nailed down the middle of the Falcons' defense. The third-year pro from Oklahoma was a second-round pick, like Laurinaitis, and like his counterpart has led his team in tackles in each of the past two seasons. Where Lofton played understudy to Keith Brooking in his first year, though, Laurinaitis stepped in and captained this defense from day one.
On paper, the Falcons should walk. However, this matchup could be a lot closer than many might expect. Personally, I expect a dogfight that may not be decided until the game's last drive.