National Football League

Stalter’s Game Notebook: Rams-Falcons

+ Chris Long wasn’t offside in that first series. Right tackle Lamar Holmes should’ve been flagged for a false start, but instead the Falcons benefited from the Rams’ misfortunate. That doesn’t get St. Louis off the hook for allowing Atlanta to drive 60-plus yards for a touchdown, but a key “mistake” by the Rams wasn’t a mistake at all.

+ On that opening drive, fans unfortunately got another taste of the same bitter pill they were forced to swallow the previous week vs. Arizona. Harry Douglas drew Cortland Finnegan away from the middle of the field by faking an out route, only to cut back inside and catch a perfectly timed pass from Matt Ryan on a key third-and-7. On that play, Finnegan lined up off the ball in the same Charmin extra soft zone that the Rams have been running for the past year. Douglas had way too much space to catch the ball from Ryan, who had an open passing window due to the off-coverage look that he saw for most of the day.

+ Janoris Jenkins continues to take too many gambles. The “move” that Julio Jones put on him in the second quarter for that 81-yard touchdown pass was hardly a move at all. Yet, Jenkins bit hard on the out route assuming he had more help over the top and Jones burned him for the game’s second score. The play was a microcosm of the issues that the Rams have had in their secondary thus far.

+ That said, Jones’ touchdown wasn’t all on Jenkins. This is the second week in a row that Rodney McLeod had his attention diverted and the opposing team was able to score on the miscue. The week before, Larry Fitzgerald scored a touchdown from the slot while running right up the seam and with no help over the top; it was an easy pitch-and-catch between him and Carson Palmer. The same thing happened on Sunday, where Jones, once again from the slot, ran a fly route and Jenkins expected McLeod to be over the top. He wasn’t and the Rams’ secondary was burned again.

+ Now, Jenkins did do a nice job when he was allowed to press Jones on the outside. The Rams are a different-looking defense when the scheme allows Jenkins, Finnegan and Trumaine Johnson to press and get their hands on receivers. Jones had far less success with Jenkins in his face than he did when the Rams were giving Ryan eight-plus yards of separation. The issues in the Rams’ secondary aren’t just on the players, but the scheme as well.

+ Granted, the Rams have a lot to iron out heading into this Sunday, but the run defense was outstanding vs. the Falcons. Atlanta was without Steven Jackson, but it’s not as if he had success on the few rushes he attempted before exiting the game with a thigh injury. Robert Quinn has been a one-man wrecking crew from a pass-rush standpoint, but he’s also improved greatly against the run, which has helped the entire unit. Then again, Arizona wasn’t committed to running the ball in the first game, and Atlanta hasn’t been able to run the ball in two years. DeMarco Murray and the Cowboys will present the Rams with their biggest challenge to date.

+ Ryan and Jones were the difference between a Falcons victory and an 0-2 start. The Rams suffered way too many self-inflicted wounds, but due to Jackson leaving early, Ryan had zero running game to help take pressure off his shoulders. He also took a beating throughout the day from Quinn, who finished with one sack, six quarterback hurries and four QB hits. It’s not as if the Rams didn’t create pressure – Ryan just did a phenomenal job with his pre-snap reads and getting the ball out of his hand quickly.

+ The Rams waited too long to get into their no-huddle. They mustered just one Greg Zuerlein field goal before halftime but racked up three touchdowns in the final 17 minutes, largely because they sped things up offensively. Had they gotten into their no-huddle right after halftime, maybe they would have completed their comeback.

+ That said, keep in mind that Atlanta couldn’t run the ball and needed some way to salt away the clock in the second half. And because the Falcons couldn’t move the ball offensively, they decided to play things conservatively on defense by keeping everything in front of them and allowing the clock to run. Sam Bradford just did a great job of picking them apart. He hit Chris Givens for a 20-yard competition to start the fourth drive of the third quarter, and then followed that up with completions to Austin Pettis for 11 and 20 yards, respectively, and then found Lance Kendricks for a 17-yard pass before tossing a six-yard touchdown pass to Tavon Austin. The Falcons’ plan backfired because not only did they allow a score, but Bradford moved the ball into the end zone in less than two minutes. Atlanta was gassed, and Brian Schottenheimer knew it. It’s just too bad he didn’t act on it sooner.

+ Sunday has sparked discussion this week on whether or not the Rams should use the no-huddle earlier in games. As with most things, there are positives and negatives to the approach. If the Rams allow Bradford to go no-huddle against a fresh defense and they put together a series of three-and-outs, Jeff Fisher puts his own defense at risk of wearing down early in the game (not to mention handing the ball to the opposition with prime field position).

+ There’s also the matter of verbiage. Teams can only prepare their players for a certain number of plays and audibles per week for fear of overloading them on Sunday. Coaches don’t want to be basic on game day, but they also want to make things as easy as possible on players throughout the week. Peyton Manning is a different animal altogether. He gets his teammates up to speed all offseason and, by the time the season starts, they’re comfortable running an exorbitant number of plays from the no-huddle. He also sets the tempo throughout a game better than any quarterback in the league. Chalk it up to years of experience and countless hours of preparation. Matt Ryan is also adept at running the no-huddle, but he’s been running elements of the no-huddle since he was a rookie in 2008. It takes time, and coaching staffs have to be committed to that philosophy. I believe the Rams have Bradford on the same path as Ryan, but the process takes time.

+ On a positive note, the no-huddle keeps a defense from substituting and, thus, it forces the opposition to keep the same personnel on the field throughout a series of plays. It also keeps defenses from being as creative as they want pre-snap. As we saw on Sunday, Mike Nolan was multiple in his looks throughout the course of the first half. When the Rams went no-huddle, it put a tired Atlanta defense back on its heels and Bradford was successful. The bottom line is that there’s a time and a place for everything, and it’s up the coaching staff to have a good feel for the game. If the Rams want to go no-huddle early, that’s something that they’ll work on throughout the week. The key is to remain balanced so that defenses are on their heels at all time, regardless of whether the offense is in no-huddle or not.

+ Fans were frustrated by Jared Cook’s lack of involvement on Sunday, and rightfully so. They got a taste of how dangerous he can be against Arizona in Week 1, but give credit to Atlanta for how it defended him in Week 2. At times the Falcons had defensive end Kroy Biermann shadow him and jam him at the line, then have a linebacker or safety over the top. Other times they played him man-to-man with a linebacker, and Cook didn’t do a good enough job creating separation in coverage. And then there were the few occasions when they doubled him with a linebacker underneath and a defensive back over the top. The Falcons used a similar strategy against Jimmy Graham the week before and, while he did catch a touchdown pass, Atlanta held him to just 45 yards receiving.

+ Speaking of Cook, Bradford may have missed an opportunity for a first-down play on the pass that bounced off Daryl Richardson’s hands for an Osi Umenyiora pick-six in the second quarter. Cook got a free release off the line of scrimmage and ran a drag route to the same sideline that Richardson wound up volleying the pass to Umenyiora. On that play, Bradford saw safety Thomas DeCoud break on the drag and eventually get over the top of Cook. Had Bradford gotten the ball out quickly and accurately, there was a small window in which he could have fit a pass to Cook for a potential first down. Bradford probably feared that DeCoud would jump the route and pick the pass off, which is ironic given the result of the play.

+ All in all, the Rams did a nice job of fighting back, but there’s no moral victories for this team under Fisher. He knows they have to get better before another stiff test this weekend in Dallas. If the Rams make the same mistakes they did a week ago in Atlanta, it’s almost a guarantee they’ll head into Week 4 against San Francisco as a two-loss team.