Bair Mail: On Arnold Ebiketie, Mykal Walker, Marcus Mariota and how to fuel an upset vs. Rams

You questions get answers in the final mailbag before Falcons face Rams at SoFi Stadium

The Falcons are getting ready to leave on a jet plane and won't be back to the ATL again for a while. They're starting a two-game road trip, playing the L.A. Rams on Sunday before going to Seattle for a week in advance of playing the Seahawks.

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The only way to go 2-0 on this important swing is to start off with an upset win. We'll discuss key players in that effort, areas where the team must perform well and more in this Friday mailbag:

Alfred M from Atlanta

It was great to see Arnold Ebiketie get his first NFL sack in his first NFL game! Was that a surprise to you, and how do you think he played overall?

Bair: The rookie second-round pick got off to a strong start with his first sack. That was a big moment for him and a big moment in the game. Per PFF, he totaled a sack and a quarterback hurry over 26 defensive snaps. That's not a huge stat count, even with the sack, but it's a good start.

Defensive coordinator Dean Pees was asked about Ebiketie's performance and made some excellent points about it and rookies learning how to play at this level:

"I thought he played okay for his first game out there and that kind of stuff," Pees said. "Here's one thing that the young guys have to learn -- they have to learn about the guys that they're going across from – how to rush them – not just rush.

"You can line up at Penn State and just come off the edge and beat a guy from Northwestern or Indiana or Michigan State or wherever it might be. It's not going to be the same tackle in this league. Whoever the best tackle was in college is now playing against you in this league. So, some guys you can beat on the edge. Some guys, you can't beat on the edge. It's got to be based more on how to attack that guy than it is about what your repertoire is – especially as a young guy, he's got to learn that stuff.

"If you watch the great rushers like Von Miller, he may take you one time on the edge. That next time, he's going to take you right down the middle and run you back, so the tackle's always guessing what it is. When I had [Terrell] Suggs and [Elvis] Dumerville, same thing. Those guys are young guys and they'll learn that. That doesn't just come overnight. They're not all of a sudden just going to walk in here as rookies and go, 'Jeez, I've got all this expertise on how to rush all of these offensive tackles in this league.' That's being a pro. They need to learn those guys because they're probably going to face them throughout their career."

Jimmy Foster from Sugar Hill, Ga.

Give me someone who isn't a star player who will have to play really well to help us beat the Rams?

Bair: Great question, Jimmy. It's one I had to ponder before coming up with an answer. I'm going with inside linebacker Mykal Walker. We saw his effectiveness as a blister last week, and he forced a fumble that the Falcons recovered. Those are big plays the Falcons will need more of against the Rams. They'll also need a steady presence in run defense, someone who can make tackles near the line of scrimmage when guys up front are getting double teamed.

Walker has a lot to do, including pass coverage in the middle of the field, on third down especially. All that sounds like key components to stopping the Rams. If he's active, effective and involved, that will significantly help the Falcons upset bid.

Daniel Weaver from Chatsworth, Ga.

Hi Scott, I really enjoy your articles every week. I've been and still am a loyal Falcons fan since the days of Steve Bartkowski. I think if they can keep Mariota healthy, they will be closer to the playoffs than the top of the draft order comes year end. They ran the ball well and except for a great performance from Winston would have won the game on my opinion. from what I saw I don't think many in the league would have stopped him. Back to Marcus, he seems like he's trying to get himself hurt not avoiding the hits better. Am I just a hopeful fan wishing for the impossible?

Bair: I don't think so, Daniel. And, you're right. The Falcons would LOVE it if Marcus Mariota slid more and took fewer hits. He's also a hard charger who fights for extra yards. You can't fault that impulse, even if you might hold your breath when he pushes the envelope a bit.

Here's what he had to say on the matter Wednesday afternoon:

"I'm a competitor," Mariota said. "I'm going to continue to play like I've always played since I was a kid. I think there's certain situations where I would love to have slid, especially on the turnover but at the end of the day, it's the nature of the beast. You learn, you live, and you grow and that's what I plan on doing."

Chris Atlas from Marietta, Ga.

Hey Bair, given how badly the Rams played last week and how well Atlanta played for the most part. Do you chalk it up to the craziness and unexpectedness that is week 1 of the NFL or do we have a legitimate chance of winning? We know they intend to come out with a vengeance. However, their defense doesn't seem as scary outside of Aaron Donald and their offensive line has issues. What are our keys to an upset victory on Sunday?

Bair: I'm sure, Chris, that the Rams will be extremely motivated after losing to the Bills in the season kickoff game last week. And, yes, they're massive favorites in this one, with a superior roster on paper. While an upset won't be easy, it's certainly possible.

The Falcons have some exploitable matchups, and one key is getting quarterback pressure on Matt Stafford against a beat-up Rams offensive line. Another is continuing to rush well even with Aaron Donald in the middle. Expecting another 200-yard showing is unrealistic, but maintaining possession, staying on schedule and sustaining long drives is a baseline expectation. And the third key: play excellent situational football. That means being effective in the red zone and the end of halves. That means playing good defense on third-and-medium and third-and-long. The Rams will make plays. Don't give them any free ones and be sound and efficient with opportunities. I know that's a lot, but the Falcons need to come correct against an opponent like this.

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