When The Packers Have The Ball:
The Packers, coming off their 49 point explosion at home against the Denver Broncos, have an embarrasment of riches on the offensive side of the ball, forcing defensive coordinators to pick their poison when it comes to focusing on who to try and stop. Last week, the Broncos put a safety over the top of tight end Jermichael Finley whenever he was split out wide. While this did indeed limit Finley's offensive output, it opened up the middle of the field for Greg Jennings. Such is the life of trying to defend these Packers.
Heading into Atlanta, look for the Falcons to try and play a bit more coverage against quarterback Aaron Rodgers and make him earn everything. In last years playoff game, Falcons defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder threw a bunch of different blitzes at Rodgers and the eventual Super Bowl MVP kept making him pay.
This time around, the Falcons would like to rely on their front four to provide the pass rush and let their secondary play various coverages behind them. Unfortunately for the Falcons, defensive end John Abraham is listed as Questionable for the game tonight with a hip injury. The Falcons would love nothing more than to line him up against right tackle Marshall Newhouse, who is making his second career start for the injured Bryan Bulaga. Even if Abraham can go, he could be limited in what he is able to do.
As for the Packers receivers, the Falcons will indeed have to pick their poison. More than likely, they will keep a safety shaded to Finley's side and try to keep the other safety over Jennings - leaving Jordy Nelson and company to win their one on one matchups.
Last year, Nelson had big games against Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson - and he's only gotten better since then.
For a possible preview of what to expect, look at this Packers touchdown against the Falcons last year. Notice how the secondary is filled in the middle of the field while Nelson works one on one on the perimeter - something we should see quite often tonight.
When The Falcons Have The Ball:
When the Falcons traded up for wide reciever Julio Jones, they no doubt wanted to add a dynamic playmaker to their offense, and they have unquestionably done that. The problem so far in this still young 2011 season, is that the Falcons have come close to losing the offensive identity that served them so well in 2010. Instead of the boring, plodding - yet effective and methodical - approach that yielded such great success last year, the Falcons have tried to employ the spread formations used by the likes of the Packers and the Saints. The biggest issue has been the protection - or lack thereof - given to quarterback Matt Ryan.
Ryan has been under attack all year, taking much more punishment than he did last season. This is partly due to the unsettled nature of the offensive line, with a new starting right guard and, more importantly, injured center Todd McClure. McClure missed the first three games of the season, finally got on the field last week - and promptly re-injured himself. He will miss tonight's contest.
The Falcons tried to get back to running the ball with big back Michael Turner last week, with some success. Look for offensive coordinator Mike Mularky to continue giving the ball to Turner on early downs to try and stay ahead of the sticks and give Ryan manageable third downs.
With Tramon Williams playing hurt and Sam Shields' continued up and down play, look for Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers to limit his pressure calls and to continue to rely on a bend-but-don't-break style defense that tightens up in the red zone. The pressure calls we should see from the Packers will most likely include blitzes by cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Jarrett Bush.
The one area the Falcons will focus on attacking the Packers secondary and Morgan Burnett. Burnett can be his own worst enemy. He makes good plays by being aggressive - and gives up plays by being aggressive.
Teams have also started to notice that Burnett can be taken advantage of in man situations. The Panthers did it, the Broncos did it - and you can expect the Falcons to do it.
Enough Already, Who Wins?:
The Falcons have looked nothing like the team that stormed to a conference-best 13-3 season last year. They have struggled to protect the quarterback and to sack the quarterback - hardly a recipe for success.
That said, this is a talented, well coached team that always plays its best football at home. Matt Ryan is a good young quarterback with excellent weapons at his disposal.
That said - the Packers offense is just too much for the Falcons defense to handle.