Falcons keep heat on Bulger, RBs

ATLANTA -- He's a cool guy, a borderline lunatic, someone who can jam the hell out of a Strat. He's got a temper that's quicker than Michael Vick and spent some time last week talking football and music with Peyton Manning; doing anything but preparing for Atlanta as he protects the bad back that might force him to retire.

He's never made a Pro Bowl at offensive tackle, but right now Kyle Turley might be the most missed player in St. Louis.

Because they rushed for only 30 yards against the Falcons on Sunday.

Because quarterback Marc Bulger was sacked five times.

Because Falcons defensive linemen talked about how they manhandled St. Louis' offensive line.

Because the 1:54 that changed the game might not have started if Turley were playing.

The Atlanta Vicks … er, Falcons had just taken a 24-17 lead to start the fourth quarter, but this game wasn't over. No way. For one thing, Bulger was hot, helping the Rams score 10 third-quarter points. For another, receiver Isaac Bruce -- who has played as well as any receiver league wide so far in this young season -- couldn't be covered. The Rams had finally given up on their juiceless running game and gone strictly to passing, which had to have made Mike Martz, deep down somewhere, very happy.

The Falcons kicked off, got a touchback, and then things started falling apart. Rams rookie tailback Steven Jackson got a taunting penalty. Not only did he cost the Rams 10 yards, but he also gave the Atlanta crowd of 70,822 reason to start screaming again.

Backed up to the 10-yard line, Bulger dropped back to pass. From his right came Falcons defensive end Patrick Kerney. He didn't come clean, but he was moving so fast, eyes so big, arms batting away any chance to stop him, that it didn't matter. Kerney raced past Turley's struggling replacement at right tackle, Grant Williams, and closed in on Bulger. He dropped him at the 1. One play later, left defensive end Brady Smith hit Bulger's arm as he was throwing, caught the ball mid-bounce, and had a touchdown to open the lead to 31-14.

Two plays later, Bulger again dropped to throw and Kerney again beat Williams and took Bulger down for a seven-yard sack. This one felt good. Bulger angered every Falcon last year when he remarked that playing against the Falcons at times didn't feel like NFL football. Kerney didn't forget. When he was pulled himself off Bulger, he screamed, "I know that one (expletive) hurt!"

Said Bulger: "It did."

It hurt so much that on the next play when Bulger faded to pass, felt Kerney, who was charging again after beating -- guess who? -- Williams, and threw his worst pass of the year, a floating airball off his back foot that was 10 feet over the head of Dane Looker but perfect for Falcons corner Aaron Beasley, who made a sliding catch. The game didn't technically end then, but in everyone's head it did.

"We got to him," Kerney said. "No quarterback likes to be hit. [Bulger] probably has got some ice on him right now."

After the game, Kerney sat at his locker, topless, stinky and giddy. Someone came by and yelled, "Thirty yards rushing!" which prompted Kerney to lean back in his chair and howl, "Whoo-hoo!"

It wasn't so easy last year, not for Kerney, not playing against Turley.

Last year, in whipping Atlanta 36-0, Bulger passed for 352 yards and wasn't sacked. Kerney, who lined up against Turley, only had one tackle.

"He's a good player, an aggressive player," Kerney said.

But things are different now. Turley is gone; so is the 3-4 front that the Falcons played last year. The Rams are not the same this year, not with a soft and slow Orlando Pace on one side, an in-over-his head Williams on the other, and an offense that jumped offside at least five times Sunday. Guess what the Falcons' defensive line's assignment was against the Rams? Punish the offensive line.

Turley isn't a perfect player, but he's never punished physically. Last year's Rams didn't prove to be a great team, but for the first time in years opponents didn't talk about St. Louis being soft. The Rams were tougher last year, and Turley helped a lot with that. After Sunday's game, it was like being around a Rams opponents' locker room circa 2001.

"When their receivers fall to the ground, we want to punish them," Kerney said. "Make them hurt. No team likes to be hit, and they are no different."

Of course, the Rams are different. On Sunday, Atlanta looked like the old Rams as they Mad-Martzed Martz. An onside kick early in the game. Reverses. Misdirection. Drawing up plays so the fullback -- in this case Justin Griffith -- could catch four passes for 78 yards and one touchdown. And finally, late in the game, when even the "soft" Rams of '99-'01 could run the ball on anyone, it was the Falcons' T.J. Duckett pounding the smaller St. Louisans. Said Martz, "We got out-played and out-coached."

If this year's Rams are going to look anything like last year's 12-win team, they'll have to get their toughness back on the offensive line. And it's not coming from Turley, who's contemplating a second back operation this year. It can't be too fun being a Ram right now.

But a Falcon?


Seth Wickersham covers the NFL for ESPN The Magazine.