The Packers find themselves traveling to Atlanta for a Sunday Night Football showdown against the team that blew them out and sent them packing in last year’s NFC Championship game. From early on, it was a game to mostly forget for the Packers; fumbles, sacks, dropped passes and a defense that looked out-matched from the moment the game started. Can the Packers turn the table on the fast and explosive Falcons? Yes they can! Here’s how…
CONTAIN JULIO JONES BUT DON’T SLEEP ON MOHAMED SANU
Julio Jones is a human specimen. He’s fast, he’s strong, he’s huge and he’s had his way with the Packers secondary on more than one occasion. In the NFC Championship game last year, he caught just about everything thrown his way, and stiff-armed his way to a 73 yard touchdown that put the game completely out of reach early in the third quarter.
He will always be a match-up nightmare. He’s coming off a below-average game against the Bears last week and if history tells us anything, it’s that he will bounce back this week in a big way. Last season, coming off games where he has fewer than 70 yards receiving, Jones averaged 144 yards receiving and nearly a touchdown. In addition to that, Jones averages 6 catches for 121 yards and 1 touchdown against the Packers alone. Yikes. But don’t sleep on Mohamed Sanu. In his two games against the Packers last season, Sanu went for 14 catches, 136 yards and 2 touchdowns on 17 targets.
Both Jones and Sanu like to work the middle of the field. With the new “Nitro” defense – where the Packers spent the majority of their snaps last week – there is added speed in pass coverage without sacrificing the run defense. This should help limit the overall opportunities and the yards after catch available in the middle of the field.
Earlier this week, the Packers released LaDarius Gunther. He was our #1 cornerback in the NFCC game. Julio chewed him up and spit him out. It really wasn’t fair for anyone. The Packers were over-matched all over the secondary and it showed. Matt Ryan was able to make throw after throw, and even when the coverage was good, the Packers just couldn’t get their hands on the ball. It should be a different story this week. Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins are healthy and the introduction of the Nitro package means increased team speed all over the field.
FALCONS PASS RUSH
During the offseason, the already speedy Falcons defense got younger and faster. However, they didn’t look the part last week on the notoriously slow and sloppy Soldier Field, where their front four had a difficult time getting to Chicago quarterback Mike Glennon and the Bears were able to see all sorts of success running the ball with their speedy new rookie Tarik Cohen. The Falcons don’t blitz often, instead relying on their front four to provide pass rush. That pass rush is led by Vic Beasley who was the best in the league last year with 15.5 sacks. The Falcons do, however, love to blitz Aaron Rodgers.
Once again the Packers look thin on the offensive line. Bryan Bulaga missed practice time this week due to illness, David Bahktiari is nursing a sore hamstring and Jason Spriggs is out for a “couple of weeks” with a own hamstring injury of his own. The fast and aggressive Atlanta defensive front will provide another big challenge for the Packers offensive line. The Packers struggled last week against a similar opponent, allowing Seattle to record four sacks. Expect something similar this week against the Falcons. In order to neutralize the Falcons at the line of scrimmage, the Packers must be able to run the ball, execute some quick-hitting pass plays and pick up blitzes. Ty Montgomery showed he is much improved in pass-blocking this season, which is a very good sign. Also look for Trevor Davis to make a play or two; in theory the only way to beat speed is to match it, and he’s the fastest guy we’ve got. Look at his wheels once he gets outside on this punt return against the Falcons last year:
Let’s talk about the first half offensive possessions for the Packers last year in the NFC Championship game.
First possession. The Packers are able to move the ball pretty swiftly down the field. The series stalls near the red zone as pressure gets to Aaron Rodgers on third down and in comes Mason Crosby, who misses a 41 yard field goal.
Second possession. Again, the Packers are able to move the ball well. Randall Cobb and Jared Cook have nice receptions and Aaron Ripkowski is rumbling along for nice gains. That is until he rumbles right into the red zone and coughs up the ball inside the 10. Instead of getting the score back to a one possession game, the Packers will soon be down 17-0.
Third possession. Rodgers makes not one but two errant throws. Three and out.
Fourth Possession. Rodgers gets clobbered in the pocket, Jordy Nelson drops an easy first down and then Rodgers takes one of the lamest sacks I’ve ever seen for another three and out. Remember?
Yes Atlanta is good on defense, but these are self-inflicted mistakes by the Packers. No team can win any game – let alone the NFCC game on the road – when this is how you are executing on offense. The mistakes continued into the second half, but by then the game was well out of reach.
The Falcons are good. Many argue that they should have won the Super Bowl last year. (And many Packers fans are grateful that they didn’t, as the Falcons’ epic collapse against the Patriots in the second half somehow seemed to ease the pain of the Packers own second half collapse in the NFCC game against Seattle in 2014.)
Sorry, I digress. In week 8, the Packers played a much cleaner contest against the Falcons – without Cobb, Cook, Montgomery, Lacy and Starks – and were still able to play with the lead for the majority of the game. In fact, it seemed they had the game won, but once again the secondary couldn’t keep Matt Ryan and company out of the end zone. The Falcons scored the go-ahead touchdown with less than a minute left in regulation.
The Packers have all of their weapons back on offense but Rodgers did not look sharp last week and will have to play better to keep pace with multi-faceted Atlanta offense. With all of the offensive playmakers healthy, the Packers should have plenty of mismatches and options all over the field to score enough points to win this game. Maybe we will get to see this two tight-end set we’ve been hearing about all off-season. However, if they turn the ball over – whether it’s Rip working for extra yards or Rodgers not seeing an enormous defensive end in his throwing lane – it could make for another long night for Packer fans in Atlanta.
Rodgers loves to play on fast tracks. He also loves revenge. After a magical run to the NFCC game last season, the Falcons flat out destroyed the Packers and their dreams of returning to the Super Bowl and running the table. Atlanta’s defense is good, but they give up plenty of points. If Rodgers can stay upright and the Packers defense stays stout and contains Jones and Sanu, I like our chances.