NFL Preview - St. Louis (1-0) at Atlanta (0-1)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Sam Bradford certainly made use of his new offensive targets in Week 1.
Bradford will try to guide St. Louis to its first 2-0 start in 12 years this Sunday as the Rams visit the Atlanta Falcons and former teammate Steven Jackson at the Georgia Dome.
The Rams opened up the 2013 season with a 27-24 victory over the division- rival Arizona Cardinals, with Bradford throwing for 299 yards. Both of his touchdown passes went to tight end Jared Cook, who was making his St. Louis debut after having spent his first four NFL seasons with Tennessee.
Cook caught a 13-yard scoring pass to close the first-half scoring at 10-10 and began a 14-point fourth-quarter rally with a one-yard TD grab 2:04 into the final frame. His seven-catch, 141-yard game was capped with a 25-yard reception that helped set up Greg Zuerlein's go-ahead 48-yard field goal with 40 seconds to play, his fourth field goal of the game.
The 26-year-old Cook's big game helped make up for his fumble on a potential touchdown in the first quarter.
Rookie wide receiver Tavon Austin was the Rams' second-leading receiver with six catches for 41 yards.
"For a young team to endure some of the things we did today, I'm so proud of the guys. No one ever lost their cool," said Bradford.
St. Louis won its season opener for the first time since 2006 and has not begun a campaign with two straight wins since the franchise won its first six contests of the 2001 season.
Despite the season-opening victory over a division rival, the Rams won't change their approach against the Falcons.
"This group, we talked about the '24 hour rule' and it's good to get it over with and get on to the next opponent after a win," said St. Louis head coach Jeff Fisher, who won his 150th career game on Sunday. "But, you can't dwell on the win or the loss and I think they understand that. So, we've already moved on to Atlanta."
The Rams have also moved on from Jackson, the franchise's all-time leading rusher with 10,135 yards. He spent his first nine seasons with St. Louis after being selected 24th overall in the 2004 draft, scoring 56 rushing touchdowns while catching another eight scoring passes.
Jackson, though, made the playoffs just once with the Rams, during his rookie season, and the club allowed him to void the final season of the six-year deal he signed with St. Louis in 2008. He signed with Atlanta in March and said Wednesday that it didn't feel strange putting on a Falcons uniform until he saw himself on film.
"When you actually look at it and you see yourself in red and black instead of the blue and gold, it was quite different then," he added. "It's been a little bit different this week studying the guys, looking at them schematically, differently than I have over the years. It's separating the personal from the business."
The Falcons and Jackson hope to rebound after Sunday's disappointing 23-17 road loss to New Orleans. Atlanta managed 367 yards of offense, but was held scoreless over its final four drives, the final one ending when Matt Ryan was intercepted in the end zone on 4th-and-goal with 43 seconds left.
Ryan threw for 304 yards and found wide receiver Julio Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez for touchdown passes, while Jackson ran for 77 yards on 11 carries in his Falcons debut. He also caught five balls for 45 yards.
"This obviously was a game we had a chance to win, but we made far too many mistakes throughout the game," noted Falcons head coach Mike Smith. "Even there in the end we had a great chance but we just didn't get the outcome we wanted. With that being said, we know it's just the first game of a new year."
Though there is still a long way to go, Smith's club will still look to avoid losing its first two games of the season for the first time since an 0-3 start to the 2007 campaign.
Atlanta started last season 8-0 before a loss in New Orleans.
The Falcons have won three of their past four meetings with the Rams since a seven-game series winning streak by St. Louis that spanned from 1999-2003. Atlanta also has won the past two encounters at home since the Rams' last road win in this series on Dec. 2, 2001.
This contest will also feature the top three picks of the 2008 draft. The Dolphins took tackle Jake Long first overall and he signed with the Rams this past offseason. St. Louis then selected defensive end Chris Long before the Falcons took Ryan.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
While it won't be a return trip to St. Louis, it still figures to be an emotional game for Jackson, who faces off against the only other franchise he has been a part of.
Jackson entered the season as the league's active rushing leader having posted eight straight 1,000-yard seasons. He ripped off a 50-yard run in Sunday's loss, but was held to just 27 yards on the other 10 carries.
"I thought we were able to run the ball effectively at times and there were times when we could've done it better. I think he's a great addition to our offense and I think he shows what he's capable of doing in the scheme that we are running," Smith said of Jackson.
Both head coaches had differing opinions of their offensive lines following Week 1, with Bradford extending his streak of not getting sacked to three straight games dating back to last season.
The addition of left tackle Jake Long figured to strengthen the Rams' line and Bradford was able to complete 71.1 percent of his passes. That, despite the ground game managing just 67 yards on 24 carries. Daryl Richardson had the bulk of that yardage on 20 attempts.
"We kept the pocket clean for the most part. Sam was touched six times in the game and that was pretty good," said Fisher.
Rams running back Zac Stacy got just one carry versus the Cardinals and Isaiah Pead is set to return this weekend from his one-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. It is unknown if he will play in this game.
Ryan, meanwhile, was taken down three times by the Saints and hit several other times. Smith wants his offensive line to improve going forward.
"Well we have to protect the quarterback a lot better than we did today, but there's a lot of things we have to do better. (Ryan) was hit entirely too many times today and that's one of the things we have to correct," the coach said following the loss to the Saints.
Tackles Sam Baker and Lamar Holmes face a tough task this weekend in Rams front four, which is bookended by a pair of talented ends in Chris Long and Robert Quinn.
Quinn is coming off a huge game, having matched a career high with three sacks while also forcing two fumbles, one that was recovered by Long to set up a field goal.
"I've been saying he's is a top five -- eventually a top three pass rusher," Long said of Quinn. "He's as dangerous as anybody in the league. He's just going to continue to show it, and it's scary how good he can be."
St. Louis' secondary has plenty of Atlanta receivers to keep tabs on, including Jones, Gonzalez and Harry Douglas. Wide receiver Roddy White is usually on that list, but a high ankle sprain limited him to more of a decoy role versus the Saints and he was held to just two catches for 19 yards.
Jones is a big-play threat and had 76 yards on seven catches versus the Saints, while Douglas had a big 50-yard reception. It was his longest catch since a 69-yarder as a rookie in 2008.
Even at 37 years old, Gonzalez remains one of the top tight ends in the game and he made three catches last weekend to extend his streak of consecutive games with a reception to 196.
The Falcons certainly know how effective tight ends can be, so they'll make sure to shut down Cook, who is coming off his first multi-touchdown game. His 141 receiving yards also were the second-highest for Cook in a game.
"That's why he's here," said Fisher. "We've got an accurate passer that can find him and he can make plays with the ball. He's outstanding."
Smith certainly took notice, saying "I know Jared Cook is a very good tight end and will create match up issues for anyone they play."
With cornerback Asante Samuel inactive due to a thigh injury, rookie Robert Alford grabbed an interception in his debut, also knocking down a pair of passes for the Falcons.
The Falcons have shown great resiliency following a loss under Smith, having gone 20-3 in games following a defeat since 2008. That includes a 12-game winning streak in such scenarios.
There is no reason to think that trend won't continue in the Falcons' home opener, always a tough venue for opposing teams. Mix in a motivated Jackson and the Rams are in for a long game.
"I'd be lying to say I don't want to get the win, of course I want to get the win, but I have to come out there and just remain in the zone, in my focus and not get too up," said Jackson.
The Rams' excellent pass rush could keep this game close given Atlanta's struggles to protect Ryan last week, but it won't be enough to see the Falcons suffer consecutive losses for the first time since 2009.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 31, Rams 20
09/12 11:29:58 ET