It looked like it would be Steven Jackson's day when he scored on an 8-yard catch against his former St. Louis teammates to cap the Falcons' opening drive.
Instead, the touchdown was the end of Jackson's day. The running back left with a thigh injury, the first in a long string of injuries for Atlanta that forced coach Mike Smith and his staff to recast their plans.
The depleted Falcons relied heavily on Matt Ryan's passes to Julio Jones while adding one key rushing score by backup running back Jason Snelling that was the difference in Sunday's 31-24 win over the Rams.
Atlanta overcame injuries to five starters in the first half: Jackson, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (foot), defensive end Kroy Biermann (right ankle), fullback Bradie Ewing (shoulder) and cornerback Asante Samuel (thigh). None returned. Backup defensive end Cliff Matthews (neck) came back after his first-half injury.
"We have guys who can step in and carry the load and we don't miss a beat," Jones said.
Ryan and Jones carried most of the load.
Ryan completed 33 of 43 passes for 374 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Jones caught 11 passes for 182 yards, including an 81-yard touchdown catch.
"Julio and Matt seemed to be in sync, seeing the defense the same way," Smith said. "When you have your receiver and quarterback doing that, you have a chance to be successful."
The Falcons (1-1) ran for only 36 yards, but that meager total included Snellings' 11-yard touchdown run late in the game. The run followed eight straight passes.
The Falcons led 24-3 at halftime. Defensive end Osi Umenyiora returned an interception 68 yards for a touchdown early in the second quarter.
The Rams (1-1) rallied as Sam Bradford passed for 352 yards and three touchdowns, including two to rookie Tavon Austin. Chris Givens had five catches for 105 yards. Austin Pettis had eight receptions for 78 yards and one touchdown.
"We just eliminated the mistakes," Rams offensive tackle Jake Long said. "We had some penalties and mistakes in the first half. ... It was a little too late. We have to correct those mistakes early and can't spot them that many points."
Here are five things we learned as the Falcons recovered from their opening loss at New Orleans while handing the Rams their first loss:
1. RAMMED BY MISTAKES: St. Louis drew seven penalties for 53 yards, including flags on special teams that hurt the team's field position. The Rams' biggest mistake was Bradford's only interception, which Umenyiora caught on a deflection off running back Daryl Richardson's hands. "I took my eye off it," Richardson said. "I was looking to run and I need to make sure I eye that ball and catch it."
2. FALCONS CAN WIN WITHOUT BALANCE: The Falcons hope Jackson can return from his thigh injury and provide more balance to the offense, but Ryan proved he can use screens and quick passes as substitutes for a running game. Jones, in his third season, is proving he ranks among the game's elite receivers. He had 1,198 yards receiving with 10 TDs in 2012 and could be headed for a bigger 2013. Jones should be even more dangerous when Roddy White, who has played through an ankle sprain in the first two games, returns to full speed.
3. TAVON'S TIME: Austin, the No. 8 overall pick in this year's draft, showed some rookie growing pains early in the game. On one play he turned for a pass from Bradford too late. Another incompletion came on what appeared to be a busted play. "I could have had some big plays but didn't, so I blame myself," Austin said. After having only two catches for 8 yards in the first half, Austin was a force in the final two quarters and became Bradford's favorite receiver. He drew a team-high 12 targets overall while making six catches for 47 yards, including touchdowns of 6 and 10 yards.
4. BARTU IS A ROOKIE SURPRISE: Joplo Bartu, an undrafted rookie linebacker from Texas State, made his first start for Atlanta and had six tackles, including two for losses. Bartu moved past Stephen Nicholas to make the start and appears to be far more than a one-week wonder. The linebacker is the early pick to be the bargain signing in general manager Thomas Dimitroff's rookie class.
5. FALCONS ARE RESILIENT: Yes, there are problems to overcome if the Falcons hope to make a repeat trip to the NFC championship game. The biggest issue may be an offensive line that has allowed five sacks in two games, including two against the Rams. But the Falcons, who lost their opener at New Orleans, showed impressive resiliency. Atlanta hasn't lost back-to-back games since 2009. The Falcons have won 13 straight when coming off a loss.
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