ST. LOUIS — Steven Jackson left the Rams on good terms, says his old coach. Steven Jackson has fit in great with the Falcons, says his new coach. Steven Jackson still is one of the top running backs in the NFL, says former teammate Chris Long. Steven Jackson should be a Hall of Famer, says former teammate James Laurinaitis.
With so much talk about Steven Jackson this and Steven Jackson that, you’d think he would be the pivotal player in Sunday’s Rams-Falcons contest at the Georgia Dome.
But he won’t be. The key man in this game will be the same guy who is key to every Falcons game. Quarterback Matt Ryan, of course.
The Falcons almost reached the Super Bowl because of Ryan’s passing, not anyone’s rushing. Atlanta finished fifth in passing yards and 29th in rushing yards last year. While Jackson was brought in to boost Atlanta’s ground game, his arrival isn’t why the Falcons are considered a top five team.
They’re an elite team because they have an elite quarterback throwing to an elite group of receivers led by wideouts Julio Jones and Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez. White thinks so highly of his crew that during the off-season he compared the Falcons’ offense to the Greatest Show on Turf.
While that borders on ridiculous, the Falcons figure to present a stiffer challenge than what the Rams faced against Arizona. Considering Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer threw for 327 yards and almost pulled off an opening week upset in St. Louis, that can’t be comforting to the Rams.
Compounding the challenge is Jackson. The Rams know he will be trying to stick it to his old team. Understandably, they will try everything they can to make sure he doesn’t. But focus too much on stopping Jackson and Ryan becomes even more dangerous.
“We know,” cornerback Janoris Jenkins said following Thursday afternoon’s practice. “We have to play them honest.”
“They have a balanced attack,” defensive coordinator Tim Walton said. “We’re going to have to play well in the run and the pass game all game and try to make them one-dimensional.”
Against the Saints, the Falcons rushed only 14 times (11 by Jackson for 77 yards) while Ryan put up 38 passes, completing 25 for 304 yards. Both Jones and Gonzalez made touchdown receptions, leaving the Rams suitably impressed.
“Their receivers are bigger, more physical than Arizona,” Jenkins said. “Jones is the vertical threat, the home run guy.”
Laurinaitis pointed out Gonzalez’s ability to get open without having to move a lot whenever Ryan scrambles. “They are on the same page it seems like all the time,” the Rams linebacker said.
Gonzalez’s TD catch against the Saints gave him at least one in 17 consecutive seasons, which is tied for the second-longest such streak in league history. (Jerry Rice is No. 1 with 19 straight.)
“They still throw him the jump ball. For a guy playing 17 years, that’s impressive,” Laurinaitis said. “He still can go up and get it and he still can dunk on that goal post.”
Though the Falcons will be playing their home opener with the added incentive of rebounding from their opening loss at New Orleans, the Rams still have reasons to believe they’re catching the Falcons at an opportune time.
As several Rams have noted, White (foot) looked “dinged up” against New Orleans and Jones (knee) also has been slowed in practice this week. More significantly, the Falcons struggled to protect Ryan last week, which could play right into the hands of the Rams’ pass rush, the team’s strongest area.
“We’re going to have to find a way to get to Matt whenever possible, but it’s easier said than done,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “They’re going to get whatever issues they had last week fixed, I’m sure. It’s a very well-coached offense that doesn’t make any mistakes. You have to take advantage of the second-and-10s if you’re lucky to get into them to try to create third-and-longs and get off the field because they’re very, very efficient.”
Certainly more so in the passing game, no matter what anyone is saying about Steven Jackson.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.