ATLANTA - Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith could have focused on the injuries. They almost certainly made Sunday's 31-24 victory over St. Louis closer than it would have been.
But Smith hasn't produced the second best record in the NFL over the past five seasons by complaining about who's unavailable to help him. So he downplayed question after question about the future playing status of running back Steven Jackson, defensive end Kroy Biermann, fullback Bradie Ewing, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and others, instead making the following statement:
"The Next-Man-Up mentality is what the NFL is all about."
Which is where reserve running back Jason Snelling comes in. Always. For seven years now, ever since the Falcons made the former Virginia Cavalier the 244th overall pick of the 2007 NFL Draft by selecting him in the seventh round.
"The game is forever changing," said Snelling a few minutes after his lone touchdown with 6:12 to go in the game put the Falcons ahead 31-17, all but guaranteeing their first victory of the season in their second game.
"You hate to see any of our guys go out, but you have to keep moving."
Moving is what Snelling does best. Fullback. Tailback. Water boy. If Smith needs it, Snelling delivers.
Against St. Louis -- the Falcons' once cushy 24-3 lead shrunk to 24-17 with 12 minutes to go -- Atlanta needed points. It also needed to score them as slowly as possible to keep the Rams' fast-twitch offense on the sideline.
"Jason Snelling's been that guy, that jack-of-all-trade player, as long as I've been here," said quarterback Matt Ryan. "He's just such a dependable player, the consummate professional."
The touchdown surely got the most attention on television sports shows Sunday evening. Rushing off right guard on a 1st and 10 from the St. Louis 11, Snelling raced into the end zone with great ease, his ninth career professional touchdown arriving in his seventh NFL season.
And that score was absolutely crucial -- along with the 16 yards in receptions Snelling accumulated earlier in that 80-yard drive -- but it was the catch he made some four minutes and 14 seconds later that guaranteed the win.
On 3rd and 1 from the Atlanta 29 and 1:58 still to play, Snelling caught a short ball from Ryan in the right flat and turned it into a 22-yard gain.
First down Falcons at the St. Louis 49. With the Rams out of timeouts, game over.
"Jason has done that many times for us," said Smith. "He does whatever we ask him to do, whether on special teams or in certain packages. He made a couple of big plays for us today. The touchdown run was a very big play and he also had the third down conversion."
Added Ryan as he discussed the 41 yards in receptions Snelling collected to go with his 19 rushing yards: "That's just Jason. Whether he plays 20 to 30 snaps or five or six snaps he's always ready. And he's one of the toughest players I've ever seen. Against the Giants in the playoffs a couple of years ago, he basically played the whole game with a broken jaw. I've never seen anybody else play through that."
Smith said the public won't know how broken Snelling's fallen teammates are until Atlanta releases its injury report Wednesday afternoon. But Biermann was driven to the locker room late in the second quarter, Jackon's leg injury is a big concern for a running back in his 10th NFL season, and none of the rest were singled out by Smith as having an insignificant bump or bruise.
"Obviously, there were a number of players who did not finish the game," was as detailed as the coach got.
But Snelling did play. And defensive end Osi Umenyiora turned the first interception of his life into a 68-yard touchdown. And Ryan found Julio Jones for an 81-yard strike that showed once again why the Falcons remain one of the scariest offensive teams in the league, no matter who's at running back.
Or as Jones said afterward, "This offense is full of playmakers. We have guys who can step up and carry the load and we won't miss a beat. That's what Coach tells us. Everybody is one play away."
Now it's almost assuredly Snelling's turn to carry the load until Jackson returns.
"Jason is one of those guys who understands his role," said Smith, "but also understands his role can change just like that."
Because in the NFL there will always be a number of players who don't finish the game.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.