Welcome to another edition of Opposition Research, where I’ll be taking a look at the next Packers opponent, the NFC South-leading Atlanta Falcons (8-2). In contrast to the last two games, the Falcons are not “a man down.” In fact, this team is the first major test to see whether Dom Capers has figured out how to beat good quarterbacks. Oh, goody.
Coming into this game, the Falcons are… are still looking to put together a “complete game.” In the same way that the Packers have looked for 60 straight minutes of good football, the Falcons savored their 34-17 victory over the St. Louis Rams, but realize that late-game heroics won’t work against good opponents. Against the Rams, Matt Ryan led his team on seven scoring drives…three of which stalled at the 11-, 6-, and 3- yard lines. Still, field goals were enough to beat St. Louis and keep the Falcons atop the NFC South.
The fans at home are… pretty concerned about this game (the biggest test yet!). On Tuesday’s CheeseheadRadio, Adam Schultz of The Falcoholic (bar none, best Falcons fan blog) said that fans are shell-shocked over the Falcons’ success through 11 weeks and are waiting for someone to pull the rug out from under them. Against a team like the Packers – where mistakes may prove very costly – Adam stressed that the Falcons need to improve their red zone offense, which has seemed to stall inside the 15 yard line. And it’s true – the Falcons have made more field goals than anyone but Oakland. And while that may seem like a lot – they’re also the 5th highest scoring offense, which means they’re scoring a lot of touchdowns, too.
Just like Packer fans, Falcons fans view this as an opportunity for their team to “prove it” to the rest of the league that they can beat a good team in a big game:
Of their three losses, two were in overtime and the other was by a single point. Other than that they’ve been flattening teams, shutting out the New York Jets in New York, ending Wade Phillips’ career as Dallas Cowboys coach, and then doing the same for Minnesota Vikings coach Brad Childress. Win this game, and the Falcons are hands-down one of the NFC’s two best teams and the favorite to win home field advantage. Lose it, and the rest of the NFC South is right back in the division race.
Perhaps the best article I’ve seen about this game from the perspective of the Falcons has come from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (really, it’s well worth a read):
Can Roddy White continue his dominance this year against one of the league’s best cornerbacks in Charles Woodson?….Can Sean Weatherspoon get back up to speed in this game and relay a needed impact?….Will this be the game where we see some plays made by Thomas DeCoud or Christopher Owens?….Will Aaron Rodgers pick on Brent Grimes or Dunta Robinson?….Will this be the week that Harry Douglas reminds of his fantastic rookie year?….Will the Falcons special teams have another gaffe?
Something to chew on… In 2008, rookie quarterback Matt Ryan and tailback Michael Turner led the 11-5 Atlanta Falcons to the playoffs under new head coach Mike Smith. During that season, they won big against division champs around the league: the 10-6 Vikings, the 8-8 Chargers, and the 12-4 Panthers. They seemed ready to start a dynasty. In 2009, injuries plagued Ryan, Turner, backup runner Jerious Norwood, starting corner Brian Williams, and many others (9 starters missed a total of 45 games – that’s a chunk). They were still a good team, finishing 9-7, but it was pretty clear — the Falcons simply could not absorb their injuries.
Now, in 2010, the Falcons are all healthy. I was a little boggled by this nugget in Bob McGinn’s excellent scouting report (sub req’d):
This year, it has been a far different story. Atlanta’s injured-reserve list includes four players, but only third-down RB Jerious Norwood was much of a loss. When the Falcons take the field, they will have all 22 of their preferred starters and possibly everyone on their 53-man roster ready to go.
We’re all familiar with the 2010 Packers injury situation – losing 11 players and 6 starters. By my calculations, the starters on IR alone have already missed 29 games (and will miss 36 more by the end of the season). The Packers have thus far been able to remain standing in the face of the injury onslaught. What if, on top of that, the 2011 Packers have a post-injury resurgence similar to the 2010 Falcons?
When looking at the Packers on film… the Falcons believe they can keep the Packers pass rush in check, after pitching a sack shutout against the Rams, who had led the league entering week 11. In order to give Matt Ryan time, they may use similar tactics against the Packers – a no-huddle offense, multiple offensive packages, and max-protect schemes that bring tight ends in to help the tackles.
WR Roddy White believes that he can do what Brandon Marshall did against the Packers in W6 – carve them up.
What We’re Up Against: The Falcons don’t mind flying under the radar, but their statistics speak for themselves. They’re the least-penalized team in the league, and they’re the second-best in the league in turnover differential and converting third downs. At 8-2, with the best record in the conference, they won’t be sneaking up on the Packers.
QB Matt Ryan doesn’t make many mistakes and is looking like one of the best quarterbacks in the league this year. According to Pro Football Focus, he was the best quarterback entering week 11 (this article is outstanding):
Atlanta, first and foremost, needed 10 yards to convert on third down and keep the chains moving. But with 55 seconds remaining and half a field to cover to get into field goal range, they really needed much more to stay ahead of the clock, and maintain a realistic chance of winning the game. They gained 34 yards on a pin-point accurate throw by Ryan to the sideline that not only required accuracy and timing, but a not-insignificant amount of arm strength to deliver.
This play wasn’t an isolated event, a fluke play he hasn’t replicated in other games this season. We have more than a dozen more plays graded so far this season with the same positive grade that play earned him, half a dozen of which have come on third down.
Ryan’s clearly on the ascent after a rocky sophomore season, and a big part of his success has been the incredible play of WR Roddy White, who sits behind only Denver’s Brandon Lloyd in total yards (and FO’s rating system). 51 of White’s league-best 79 receptions have gone for a first down or touchdown. White is a Fitzgerald-esque player that demands attention no matter where he lines up.
Unfortunately, White – while the biggest threat to the Packers secondary – is not the only weapon in Atlanta’s aerial arsenal. #2 receiver Michael Jenkins lacks consistency, but he takes long strides and can get behind the defense if coverage isn’t sound. Meanwhile, Tony Gonzalez is to tight ends what Charles Woodson is to cornerbacks — he’s just getting better with age. Gonzo now has 1,044 career receptions, and even in his 14th year, he’s still averaging 10.0 yards per reception, and hasn’t lost a fumble since 2006. In Atlanta, he’s mostly used as Ryan’s safety valve, with dump-offs and short passes over the middle.
Atlanta’s playbook is massive, with those run/pass option plays that show up in the Packers gameplan. He threw to 10 receivers against the Rams, and spreads the ball around the field. Don’t be fooled, though – of Ryan’s 2,518 passing yards, nearly 60% have gone to White and Gonzo.
On the ground, RB Michael Turner is the league’s 7th best back by yards, averaging 86.4 ypg and 4.3 ypc (he averages 101.3 at the Georgia Dome). He’s earned his “Turner the Burner” nickname for his ability to burst through creases and tackles, but some fans have another name for this back:
Our Touchdown Vampire wasn’t super effective for much of the contest, but then he was all like “I vant to get to the end zone!” and the end zone was all like seduced and stuff, so he totally hit that to the tune of 39 yards. Hot damn.
Scouts Inc. is betting that the matchup of Turner and AJ Hawk will be a critical one-on-one battle. (Now, you may hear a lot about how he ran over the Packers in their 2008 meeting — take that with a grain of salt. Please. The staid Packers 2008 defense under Bob Sanders is not even REMOTELY similar to the carefully-contained bedlam that Dom Capers installed in 2009.)
Atlanta’s offensive line may not have big names, but they’re stout in blocking and protection. While Turner frequently bounces runs outside to the right (Will Svitek is the blocking TE), Atlanta’s best runs come up the gut, with the help of C Todd McClure and RG Harvey Dahl. The line has allowed only 6 sacks in 5 home games, with much of the credit going to RT Tyson Clabo. If the line has a weakness, it’s LT Sam Baker, but even he plays measurably better at home.
The underlying key to the Falcons’ success has been ball control and time of possession. Atlanta is extremely balanced on offense, which allows them to churn out 10- and 12-play drives (in no-huddle) that grind down the clock and the will of an opposing defense. What’s worth noting, however, is that the Packers are the highest-rated team in what CHFF calls “bendability” — basically, it means that the Packers D makes opposing offenses work the hardest for each point that it surrenders. So, even if the Packers lose the possession and yardage battles, there’s no guarantee that they’re losing the points battle.
Still, even if they don’t score, if the Falcons (2nd in TOP) can keep Aaron Rodgers off the field, it will get harder for the Packers to run their offense, and they’ll be forced to play “catch-up” — a change that would undoubtedly make pass-rushing DE John Abraham smile. While the Falcons have amassed only 18 sacks thus far, they’ve been very successful in collapsing the pocket and getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks – they’re above-average at forcing negative pass plays. Abraham has 8 of the team’s sacks, and you have to think he’ll want to make a statement in his first game back after a groin injury.
The strength of the Falcons defense is concentrated in its front four, although MLB Curtis Lofton is always active on plays. On the back end, the Falcons play a lot of Cover-2, with CBs Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes challenging receivers. Robinson is the better player (he’s picked off Rodgers before, when the Texans came to Lambeau in 2008), but gambles. Grimes, meanwhile, has gotten a thick skin, knowing he’s the guy that opposing quarterbacks are targeting.
And finally, just like every team the Packers face, the Falcons have a special teams returner in WR Eric Weems, who runs with abandon and gives his team excellent field position. With injuries to Anthony Smith and Atary Bigby, the Packers coverage units will face another stiff challenge.
Given the importance of this game (and its juiciness when considering the playoff picture), there will be a number of previews and articles written about Sunday’s game. I’m sure that some will be worth reading, but I’m going to be that broken record — if you want to know what’s going down on Sunday, stick with McGinn and Dougherty. No one does it better (although, if Mike Silver writes something…you may consider reading).
If you don’t watch any other tape of the Falcons, take a few minutes and watch the Falcons-Ravens highlights from two weeks ago. I know it’s only one game, but I think there are several useful tidbits to be gleaned:
- It’s a home game for the Falcons. You can hear the difference when Atlanta’s on offense than when they’re not. The crowd will be a factor on Sunday until the Packers can take them out of it. (Coach Smith has appealed directly to fans to be on time and to bring their A game.)
- Matt Ryan has an incredibly quick release. If Dom Capers brings pressure, the key for the Packers defense will be closing speed. Just beating your one-on-one will not suffice against a guy like Ryan.
- Roddy White reminds me of Jermichael Finley – even when he’s not open, he’s open. Not only that, but he got away with a few questionable push-offs (see game-winner at 5:50). The Packers will have to be extremely disciplined in coverage.
- Michael Jenkins reminds me of James Jones – if he’s on, he’s a huge threat (see catch at 5:15). I expect that Ryan will attack Sam Shields whenever he gets a one-on-one with Jenkins (or, heaven forbid, Roddy White). In fact, Matt Ryan spent a good bit of time talking about Jenkins this week, so I expect to see a lot of him on Sunday.
- For a non-mobile quarterback, Joe Flacco was able to make plays with his feet. The Falcons were able to get to him after a while, but if even Flacco can dance his way out of pressure, Rodgers should have a greater advantage going into Sunday’s match-up.
So many of the articles I’ve read to day have a familiar trend: “The Packers are good, they’re 85-10 in their last 3 games, they’re shoring up their weaknesses, but the Falcons are 8-2 and playing at home.” I know that Matt Ryan is 18-1 at home. I get that the Georgia Dome is a tough place to play.
Know where else is a tough place to play? The Humpty Dump…and the Packers did alright last week, right? I just don’t believe that the noise in the Dome will affect the Packers like many of the experts think it will. Perhaps, yes, it will mean that the Falcons play better. Great. I want to get their best shot. But, after having ZERO pre-snap penalties against Minnesota with a rookie right tackle, I’m less daunted by the thought of a raucous crowd in Atlanta.
My gut tells me that this is not a game that will be won in the trenches. Rather, I see this battle being won on the perimeter, where Matt Ryan will challenge Charles Woodson (or, more likely, Sam Shields), and where Aaron Rodgers will attack Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes. While I can fear Atlanta’s running game will be effective, I do expect that, by the third quarter, both offenses will have taken to the air in an all-out aerial assault.
Given the inaccuracies of my gut of late (a loss to the Jets, a close game against the Vikes), I may very well be completely wrong, and Ryan Pickett could be the most important player on the field on Sunday. Somehow, I just don’t see it. I think that this battle between two very good quarterbacks will be just that — a display of two field generals directing their troops down the field, completion by completion. If Dom Capers wants to earn all the accolades he’s been getting as coordinator of the Packers top-rated pass defense, he can start here. Have you fixed those gaping holes in your secondary when teams spread you out, Dom?