Overview: If the Rams are to make the 2019 NFC Playoffs, they probably need to win this game. Last week's crushing loss against the San Francisco 49ers put their division title hopes on life support. A wild-card spot with the season less than half-over remains within reach, but another loss at this point will make that an uphill battle as well. The Rams still have tough games against the Chicago Bears, Baltimore Ravens, Seattle Seahawks, and the 49ers, among others. A nine-game winning streak to end up 12-4 or even going 8-1 to end at 11-5 might be theoretically possible, but the Rams team we have seen the last three weeks might be lucky to go 8-8. They need to win now!
The Atlanta Falcons, meanwhile, have been even more disappointing than the Rams this season. Many had them pegged as a playoff or even Super Bowl contender. At 1-5, that is pretty unlikely at this point,
Rams Defense vs. Falcons Offense: For all of the problems Atlanta has had this season, they remain one of the most explosive offenses in the league. They are second only to the Kansas City Chiefs in passing offense, and only by about a yard a game. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has a chance to tie Kurt Warner as the only quarterback ever to open a season with seven consecutive 300-yard passing games to open a season.
In terms of passing yardage, this offense is right there with the Chiefs Patrick Mahomes and the "Greatest Show On Turf Rams." That is a lofty company.
Falcons receiver Julio Jones is a truly elite player. Most experts would probably rate either Jones or the Houston Texans DeAndre Hopkins as the best wide receivers in the league. OK, Odell Beckham might still get a few votes, but the point is Julio Jones is excellent. The Rams, of course, acquired cornerback Jalen Ramsey in a monster trade this week. Ramsey may very well be the best cornerback in the league, and Rams head coach Sean McVay stated that Ramsey is expected to play this week, and a battle between Jones and Ramsey might be worth the price of a game ticket all by itself. Jones hobbled with a hip injury kept him out of practice this week, but he is expected to play on Sunday.
However, the injuries that have hit the Rams secondary constitute a significant concern. Troy Hill is expected to start in place of the injured Aquib Talib, who is on injured reserve. We never know about Hill, and while Talib has not been great this season, there is a reason why he is the starter, and Hill typically is not. Hill will probably see a lot of Falcons receiver Mohammed Sanu, and that could be a problem for the Rams. As good as Jones is, Sanu has been more of a Ram killer in recent years. Presumably, Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will try to get Hill some Safety help over the top or go to a zone scheme, because leaving Hill one-on-one on Sanu is not a matchup that favors the Rams defense. Speaking of safeties, the Rams are also without starter John Johnson, who suffered a shoulder injury last week against the Niners. Marquis Christian replaces him in the starting lineup at safety. As with Hill replacing Talib, that is a significant drop-off. The loss of Johnson is especially significant in this game because he probably would have drawn the primary job of shutting down Falcons tight end Austin Hooper. That job will likely fall to Christian, and it is no easy task. Hooper has 480 yards and three touchdowns this season.
We would expect Wade Phillips to scheme for some help for Christian on Hooper, whether it is from fellow safety Eric Weddle or one of the linebackers. The Rams have used rookie safety Taylor Rapp as an inside linebacker on passing downs this season. As the Falcons featuring a high=octane passing attack and only a so-so running game, Rapp may see many snaps on Sunday.
The Rams need Hill and Christian to play their best games and hope they can disrupt Matt Ryan with an intense pass rush.
Speaking of which, one of the few bright spots in last week's debacle was Rams d-lineman Aaron Donald, who notched a pair of sacks and was his usual disruptive self. Rams nose tackle Sebastion Joseph-Day has quietly been playing better in recent weeks as well, even generating some pressure on the opposing quarterback. His battle with Falcons Center Alex Mack will be one to watch.
The Rams need outside linebacker Dante Fowler to play better than he did last week when he notched multiple offsides penalties. Fowler can be a force as a pass rusher, and with Clay Matthews out with a broken jaw and Donald facing double or triple teams, it will be the time he needs to step up.
Fortunately for the Rams, the Falcon rushing attack has not been perfect this year, averaging only 73 yards a game, But Matt Ryan and company can score on anyone through the air, With the Rams secondary depleted due to injuries, they need to get in Matt Ryan's face regularly. Furthermore, let us be optimistic Hill, and Christian are at their best.
Rams Offense vs. Falcons Defense: The good news for a Rams offense, which is trying to get back on track, is that the Atlanta defense has honestly not been outstanding this season. They are 27th in yards allowed and have given up more points per game than anyone except the Miami Dolphins. They are dead last in sacks with a paltry five or 0.8 per game. That is good news for a Rams offensive line, which has been pretty bad this season. One matchup which might offer some concerns is Rams guard David Edwards in his first NFL start against Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. Jarrett may well be the Falcons best defensive player, and the overall poor play of this unit is no reflection on him. We would guess that the Rams will get Edwards some help, or this could get ugly.
The Rams are expected to have Todd Gurley back in this game, but be without running back Malcolm Brown. Whether it is due to injuries or poor offensive line play or both, Gurley has not been himself this season. If his sup-par performance continues on Sunday, the belief that he will never again be the same player he was will only increase. The Rams will probably also relay more on rookie Darrell Henderson, who showed flashes of brilliance last week before muffing a lateral, leading to a critical fumble.
The Falcons will be without defensive back Desmond Trufant, which is not good news against a Rams passing attack which had been racking up the yards before last week.
Frankly, if the Rams offense cannot rebound against the Falcons, the problems may be more profound than we would like to think.
Special Teams: The Rams special teams, like everything else with this team, have been somewhat erratic at times in 2018. However, they are better than Atlanta's, at least on paper.
Prediction: With the Rams defense hobbled by injury and the Falcons have struggled on that side of the ball all season, we would sort of expect a shootout here. As good as Jalen Ramsey is, he cannot balance the losses in the secondary all by himself. He does make this defense better than it would be without him. The Rams need to generate a pass rush and get their groove back on offense. If they can do that, they have a good chance in this game.
Its gut-check time for the Rams. The Falcons, meanwhile, will be at home and maybe playing for Head Coach Dan Quinn's job.
Rams 38, Atlanta 35