Opposition Research: Atlanta Falcons (Divisional Playoff)

The Atlanta Falcons are sick and tired of hearing about how the Packers are going to waltz into Atlanta and win handily. They'd like to remind you that they're the #1 seed, they won the FIRST time, and they're going to do it again.

Welcome to the first-ever divisional round playoff edition of Opposition Research, where I’ll be taking a look at the Packers second-round opponent, the NFC South Champion and #1 NFC seed Atlanta Falcons (13-3).  Seven weeks ago, these teams met in what was billed as a “duel between NFC heavyweights.” Despite an excellent gameplan and some brilliant throws by Aaron Rodgers, the Falcons came away with a 20-17 victory.  The Falcons went on to win all but one of their remaining games, earning the #1 seed, a bye, and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.

As with last week’s game with Philadelphia, I don’t have to introduce you to this week’s opponent – we know who they are.  Instead, I’m going to dive right into the meat of this match-up.  Now that they’ve had more than a week to gameplan for the Packers, it’s time to step into the shoes of Atlanta’s coaching staff.

If I’m OC Mike Mularkey:

I would run a number of plays out of double-tight or other heavy (1-2 RB, 1-2 TE) formations.  Both TE Tony Gonzalez and TE Justin Peele are capable receivers, and WR Roddy White can run any route you can dream up.  When you add in RB Michael Turner’s ability to run and block, and third down back Jason Snelling’s added receiving talent, you can run the no-huddle without worrying about changing up your personnel.

This would be a distinct advantage against a Dom Capers defense that relies on heavy substitution and subpackages based on scheme and situation. Keep the Packers’ base 3-4 defense on the field (to stop the run), and you’ll find matchups down the field with White or Gonzalez on a safety.  Charlie Peprah has played at a high level this year, but he would be at a disadvantage against either the physical White or the savvy Gonzo.  Alternatively, if you are able to catch the Packers in a nickel defense and Michael Turner can get to the second level, it will be awfully difficult for rookie CB Sam Shields (as opposed to maybe LB Matt Wilhelm, who might be in in another subpackage) to bring him down.

Not only that, but if the Falcons can keep the Packers DL heavies (like Howard Green, Ryan Pickett, and BJ Raji) on the field for a high number of snaps, fatigue may open running lanes late in the game.  Mularkey will know that he has the energy advantage over a Packers defense that spent much of Sunday chasing after Vick and his speedy weapons.  If Matt Ryan can keep the Falcons offense at a high tempo, there will be big plays to be made downfield with receivers Roddy White and Michael Jenkins.

Mularkey is a brilliant coordinator – heck, he was voted SportingNews’s top coordinator for 2010.  He has a great chance to be a head coach in 2011. Even Saints DC Gregg Williams has praise for the guy:

He does a very, very good job in making you defend the whole field. He does an excellent job with his personnel packages. He does an excellent job with the tempo that he coaches. And the thing Mike does is make average players good. He makes good players great. And there are some strategic things, too, on how he does that. So I have a lot of respect for him.

What does he do that’s unique? Well, I’m not going to tell you because I don’t want him to know what I know. I’m not looking to help him.

Williams used whatever it is he knows about Mularkey to win at the Georgia Dome during the regular season.  Packer fans better hope that Dom Capers knows those same things…if not more.

If I’m DC Brian VanGorder:

I wouldn’t be so stupid as to think that I could blitz my way to victory.  Instead, I would preach that my defense should bend (16th in yards allowed) but not break (5th in points allowed).  Even if Rodgers only threw 11 interceptions, I would bet that his offense is bound to make a mistake (or at least get tired) if they have to drive the length of the field.  What’s more, the Packers offensive line struggled against Atlanta last time, both in run-blocking and pass protection.  This is an advantage that fans expect DT Jonathan Babineaux and DT Corey Peters to exploit on Saturday:

If the Falcons take in the same gameplan as they did last time around, we could be one and done. Our defensive front got moved to the outside on countless plays, which gave Rodgers a scrambling lane up the middle. We rarely kept anybody out of coverage to stop Rodgers going outside. We need to key in on Rodgers, and a win up front gives us the edge there. If our DTs can get through the O-line, it also allows us to generate pressure against both the run and the pass, something we struggled with last time (generating only one sack and allowing numerous middle scrambles).

The reality that the Packers may also run the ball is fairly daunting when you realize that the Falcons secondary couldn’t stop a voluntarily-one-dimensional Packers offense in November (not that anyone expects Starks to put up the same yardage against a better run D):

Aaron Rodgers dominated us through the air last time, even when it was evident that they were going to pass; 46 out of 58 plays were designed through the air (assuming the QB runs were intentional pass plays, with the exception of the QB draw). Can you imagine how difficult it will be to protect the airspace of the Dome if we have to defend against a running threat?

More than anything, I would try to get DE John Abraham matched one-on-one with rookie RT Bryan Bulaga. Abraham went nowhere against Clifton in W12, and Clifton was equally stout against Eagles DE Trent Cole last week (so much so that some Falcons fans thought he wasn't playing). So, if the Falcons pass rush wants to get home (which they weren’t able to do often in the first game), they’ll either have to go through Bulaga or – perhaps – LG Daryn Colledge.  With Abraham an edge rusher, expect Bulaga to see a lot of #55.

[Sidebar: As an aside, I like reading stories like this one, which talks about how DE Kroy Biermann rescued Abraham after his car drove into a ditch in the snow on the way to practice on Monday. Abraham talked about it on NFL.com as well. Call me a sucker, but I love seeing guys help each other out.  Add in this story about Abraham’s mom, who’s battling lymphoma, and it’s hard not to like the guy.]

If the defensive line can get pressure on Rodgers, that will free up Curtis Lofton and the linebacking corps to deal with the rest of Rodgers’ weapons. When the Packers run, expect the Falcons LBs to deliver some wicked hits.

While the secondary has improved down the stretch, there is a potential concern at nickel cornerback, after Brian Williams injured his knee in the season finale against Carolina.  If Williams can’t go, the Falcons will lose a solid slot blitzer (Williams had 1 sack, 3 TFL, 1 FF, and 3 QB hits). Second-year man Christopher Owens lost the nickel job earlier this year, and has found a niche on special teams.

Both starting corners (Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes) are excellent players. When the Packers spread out the Falcons – and yes, they will run five-wide – they’ll try to get Greg Jennings lined up in the slot against Owens.  VanGorder will have to either give Owens safety help or get pressure before Rodgers can make a huge play.

That Old ‘Blind Squirrel Finds A Nut’ Saying:

A few weeks ago on CheeseheadRadio, I argued that the Packers don’t need a top-flight running game to be successful in the league:

You need the threat of a running game.  Sure, it’d be nice to have Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn rumbling for 150 yards each week.  That would be a bonus, sure. But it’s not necessary.

All the Packers need – and Rodgers has talked about this in the locker room – is for the defense to believe that a run is possible.  All the Packers need is for a safety to bite up just a little bit, like Antrel Rolle did on Sunday, just enough for Jordy Nelson to get behind the coverage for that 80-yd score.

Now, if you go five-wide from kickoff to kneeldown, you’re going to put a lot of stress on your pass protection.  However, a few well-placed runs at the beginning --- and an offensive line that’s disciplined enough in their stances to disguise what kind of play is coming --- can set up an offense for success through the air.

In Week 12, the Packers didn’t even have the threat of a running game. But after Starks exploded for 123 yards last week and gave Rodgers room to use play-action, the Falcons are going to at least pretend to take the Packers’ rungame seriously.  Atlanta’s opponents rarely run the ball (since they’re often playing from behind), but that doesn’t mean that Atlanta’s run defense is impenetrable.  If Starks in the backfield gets even one safety to creep into the box, Rodgers should be able to take advantage.  I’d love to see McCarthy dial up the run early to wear down aging DE John Abraham.

Matchups the Packers must win:

Clay Matthews v. RT Tyson Clabo.  One thing I love about playoffs is that it gives writers a chance to dig deeper into players’ lives. Take Tyson Clabo, whose brother’s parenting suffered because of drug problems. Clabo acted by adopting his niece and nephew and marrying his girlfriend to give them a stable home life. Great story. But, back to football. Clabo clearly won the first matchup, keeping Matthews from registering a quarterback sack or pressure without much help from extra blockers.  Matthews' lingering shin injury may have contributed to his poor performance, but he must find ways to create pressure on Saturday. Clabo is the 4th best RT according to ProFootballFocus, but is by no means the best CM3’s faced this year (both NYJ’s Damien Woody and NYG’s Kareem McKenzie are rated higher).  If Matthews can beat Clabo and force Atlanta to dedicate more bodies to pass protection, that will pay dividends in coverage.

Tim Masthay v. Eric Weems. Masthay has improved significantly over the course of the season, but he had a slight hiccup last week when, trying to protect a lead at the end of the game, his punt found its way into the hands of speedster DeSean Jackson.  The dome will help cut down on the wind, but Pro Bowl returner Eric Weems is nearly as dangerous as Jackson – he is 3rd in the league on kickoffs (27.5) and fourth on punts (12.8).  Field position is likely to play a critical role in Saturday’s outcome, and Masthay will be counted on to pin Atlanta as deep as possible.

Linebackers v. Michael Turner. This guy is a freight train.  A shoestring tackle may have worked for Shady McCoy and DeSean Jackson last week, but anyone who tries that against Turner will find themselves bouncing off thighs that are bigger than a normal person’s torso.  You can’t push him down; you can’t just trip him up. You must glom on to him like a magnet and drag him down to the ground as soon as possible.  It will be up to Desmond Bishop, AJ Hawk, Erik Walden, and Clay Matthews to keep Turner from getting loose, either in the secondary or along the sidelines.  They failed in Week 12, and Turner rumbled for 110 yards and a touchdown. The Packers can’t afford to give up that kind of production and expect to move on.

Packers receivers v. themselves.  Mistake-free football will be required to come out of Saturday’s game with a win, and the Packers receivers have developed an annoying habit of fumbling and dropping passes at the worst possible moment (5 lost fumbles in the last 5 games). No one is immune to this, except perhaps Brett Swain, though he’s perhaps not had the opportunities to drop a sure-fire touchdown like James Jones (v. PHI, NYG) or Greg Jennings (v. DET, CHI). Normally sure-handed Driver fumbled against the Bears, and Jordy Nelson – who might be my favorite of the bunch – has three fumbles this year, and seven in the last two seasons.  I don’t know if some sort of meditation, yoga, or voodoo will help get the receivers to catch the ball and hold on to it…but whatever they need…I hope they figure it out before Saturday.

Who Wins and Who Goes Home:

An obvious angle for this game is that it pits Aaron Rodgers against Matt Ryan in what may be the first of many playoff showdowns. Yawn.

Bob McGinn talks in his scouting report about how the Falcons are greater as a team than the sum of their parts, and I agree – the team is stocked with good solid football players that work together to make plays.  (Funny, Pete Dougherty makes the same argument in his preview. Maybe we’re on to something.)  In a lot of ways, there is no glaring weak spot on this team for Green Bay to exploit.  LT Sam Baker will never be a Pro Bowler, but the Falcons offensive line as a whole has given up the third-fewest sacks.  As a whole team, they’re great where it counts – 3rd in both 3rd down conversions (47%) and turnover differential (+14).

This is not an easy game, but it is winnable…more winnable, perhaps, than the W12 game where the Packers conceded the ground game from the start.  I’m not as worried about the hype getting to the players as I was last week, but it still may be a factor – coming off a week’s rest where all they’ve heard about is how the Packers are the “hot team who is coming to invade Atlanta,” the Falcons are plenty riled up.  It’ll be up to the Packers to set a physical tone early and not let up.

As was the case in the first match-up, the best preview article from the Georgia side of things comes from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Now the tagline is that the Green Bay Packers are not only red-hot, but they’re the team that no one wants to play, and they’re even throwing in the fact that they are completely balanced and have one of the best running games in the NFL. Their defense is stuff of legend with having Jack Tatum, Mean Joe Green, and Mike Singletary lining up on that side of the ball.

Should the Falcons just forfeit? Fans should just sell their tickets because the Packers will win this one in the 1st quarter, right?

Before Week 12, I said this would be a game that would determine whether Dom Capers has fixed the holes in his secondary against top-flight quarterbacks, but that didn’t turn out to be the problem.  Instead, the biggest obstacle the Packers faced in W12 is the same they’ve faced in every loss in 2010 – themselves.

For the Packers to win on Saturday, they must take responsibility for their own play and do the little things right – the tackling, the ball security, the blocking.  If they play as unselfish and motivated as they have in the last few weeks, we’ll have a lot more football to look forward to.

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Comments (4)

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PackersRS's picture

January 13, 2011 at 04:03 pm

I'm sick and tired of this Falcons talk like they're the underdogs and that the media consistantly overlooks them.

Boohoo. Grow a pair. You know the Packers are more talented. We know. The media knows. Everybody knows we are more talented, but that they're playing better.

Now we have to go to their house and crush them, so that they know who they are dealing with and stop whining.

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Bearmeat's picture

January 13, 2011 at 01:44 pm

Great work as always Holly.
I hadn't thought about ATL's no huddle offense and what that could do to GB's extensive defensive substitution packages. I don't like the thought of the nickel D against a turner off tackle run 10 times in the game, nor do I like thinking of Peprah on a Gonzalez seam...
I think you are right on in your conclusions. If GB plays to their ability, they win. If they make stupid mistakes, they'll lose because ATL is one of the most consistently good teams I've ever seen. Not great, but always good. They'll take advantage of mistakes.

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Wiscokid's picture

January 14, 2011 at 09:09 pm

Holly, does ever bother you that you're helping the enemy? Maybe you should consider a misinformation campaign. :)

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Cuphound's picture

January 14, 2011 at 07:45 pm

I love your work, Holly! Yours is the piece I most look forward to reading every week while in season.

Your conclusion is particularly poignant. Our problem could never be talent. The Pack has amazing depth. The problem is acquiring the mindset that creates <I>consistency</I>. McCarthy has such faith in technique. For all that, I don't think he's much of a <I>psychologist</I>.

A good teacher is a <I>motivator</I>. I feel that's his Achilles' heel. He expects his players to be as dispassionate as he is. I just don't think football can work that way.

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