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PREVIEW: Falcons banged up heading into home opener vs. Rams

Julio Jones

Julio Jones

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Roddy White

Wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White were among a half dozen Atlanta Falcons listed as questionable for today’s game against the visiting St. Louis Rams.

Jones (knee) and White (ankle) were limited in Friday’s practice and will be game-day decisions.

Also listed as questionable are offensive tackle Sam Baker (knee), defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux (knees), cornerback Asante Samuel (thigh), and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (knee).

Steven Jackson didn’t have to wait long to receive a visit from his former team. Signed to a three-year, $12 million deal in the offseason, the bruising running back looks to lead the Falcons into the win column today when he faces a familiar foe in the St. Louis Rams. Jackson, who set a franchise record by rushing for 10,135 yards in nine seasons with St. Louis, collected 122 all-purpose yards in Atlanta’s 23-17 loss to New Orleans last week.

While the Falcons fell to a division opponent, the Rams rallied to upend an NFC West foe with a 27-24 triumph over Arizona. Jared Cook certainly paid early dividends after signing a lucrative five-year deal in the offseason. Cook scored a career-high two touchdowns after reeling in seven receptions for a franchise-best 141 yards at the tight end position.

One big concern for the Falcons heading into today’s game is the protection for quarterback Matt Ryan.

The Falcons paid Ryan the big bucks this offseason, but now, it doesn’t appear that they can protect him.

Ryan was put on duress on 24 of 38 pass attempts in the season opener. But the team appears married to the personnel that it has amassed along it’s revamped offensive line.

“I’m absolutely confident that we’ve got the right guys,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “We’ll see a large improvement from Week 1 to Week 2, in terms of not only our offensive line, but our football team. …We were playing a lot of younger guys who have not played as much and it was a great learning experience for them.”

The pounding the Saints issued Ryan, who recently signed a $103.75 million contract extension, was similar to the season-opening shellacking the Chicago Bears inflicted to start the 2011 campaign. In that 30-12 defeat to the Bears, Ryan was sacked five times and hit 11 times on 47 drop backs. He was under duress on 34 percent of the snaps.

Against the Saints, Ryan was sacked three times and harassed on almost a quarter of his 38 pass attempts. He had to also hurry passes 16 other times, according to analytics website profootballfocus.com

Back in 2011, the line, then under the direction of Paul Boudreau, improved as the season progressed. That team also had to move away from five- and seven-step dropbacks in order to keep Ryan safe.

These Falcons will have to correct their pass-blocking issues fast. They are set to face a St. Louis Rams team which tied for the league lead in sacks last season with 52.

The Saints were getting pressure on Ryan without resorting to many blitzes or stunts.

Few were blameless. Left tackle Sam Baker made some bad plays. Right guard Garrett Reynolds appeared stymied on some bull rushes. Right tackle Lamar Holmes started out strong, but then appeared to fade. Center Peter Konz was steamrolled on one play.

Smith said game film was heavily scrutinized as the coaches looked for causes as well as ways other players might help the line. They resorted to several methods against the Saints, including using Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez and wide receiver Julio Jones to chip block on defenders before running their routes.

But no matter what the Falcons tried, nothing seemed to slow the Saints, who even appeared ready for the Falcons’ screen plays, where are designed to slow down the pass rush.

“We had too much (pressure) on our quarterback throughout the entire game, whether if it was five-man pressures, six-man pressures, four-man rushes or three-man rushes,” Smith said. “We’ve got to do a better job of protecting our quarterback.”

The Falcons appear prepared to let the line develop. If they are panicking, they are doing a good job of hiding it.

The 2011 Falcons that were punished by the Bears in the opener went on to finish 10-6 and make the playoffs. But the offensive line was later brutalized in the wild card round of the playoffs by the New York Giants, who were on their way to a Super Bowl title.