Tha Sports Junkies 101

Week 8 Preview: Packers Face Uphill Climb Versus Atlanta Offense

Atlanta vs Green Bay - NFL Atlanta Falcons via Flickr


Packers Look to Keep Pace Versus One of NFC’s Best

After a  stretch of over a month without leaving the legendary confines of Lambeau Field, the Packers (4-2) travel to Atlanta Sunday afternoon to take on a high-powered Falcons (4-3) offense in a battle of NFC powers.

Matt Ryan, Julio Jones Lead a Historic Offense in Atlanta.

Every season for the last five years the Atlanta Falcons have ranked in the top-10 of total passing yards in the NFL, never lower than eighth, mostly hanging around the top 3-5 spots.

In 2016, the Falcons offense has proven once again to be one of the best around. At the moment they rank number one in both yards (3,035) and points scored (32.7), and are led by the familiar duo of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones.

Both Ryan and Jones have dominated the leaderboard in almost every category at their position through seven games.

When it comes to quarterbacks with more than 150 attempts, Matt Ryan currently ranks first in passing yards (2,348), QB Rating (113.6), and yards per attempt (9.62). He also comes in second in passing touchdowns (16), passing yards per game (335), and QBR (82.1). His success so far this year has meant a historic stretch for his number one target, Julio Jones.

Jones has compiled a league leading 830 receiving yards through seven games for Atlanta, and if he puts on one of his typical performances Sunday he will become the first receiver since 1961 with 1,000 yards through eight games.

There is no doubt Jones has been one of the most feared players in the league since he came out of Alabama in 2011. He has become known for his highlight-reel plays and long-distance gains, and in 2016 he has accumulated 16 plays of 20+ yards or more, the most in the NFL.

It seems in recent weeks teams have decided to stop allowing these big plays by either holding or committing pass interference on Jones. The refs have not given him the benefit of the doubt.

With an offense like Atlanta’s that relies on big plays, it is crucial to have a well prepared and thought out game-plan to counter the Falcons play-action, deep passing attack. This has to start with one simple question, who’s got Julio?

Who’s Got Julio? But No, Really, Who Has Him?

The last time Atlanta faced the Packers, in 2014, Julio Jones caught 11 passes for 259 yards in a 43-37 loss at Lambeau Field. With uncertainty still surrounding the Packers offense, the defense can’t afford to get into a shoot-out this time around. This means someone in the secondary must step up and take Jones head on.

In order to slow him down, it’s crucial to have a guy that can get up and play physical with the 6’3″ receiver. With Green Bay down their number one corner Sam Shields and their number two corner Damarious Randall, the duty may fall to LaDarius Gunter.

Gunter, a 2nd year man out of Miami, took a lot of heat after a really poor performance against the Dallas Cowboys two weeks ago. He gave up numerous big plays, including two touchdowns and two plays of over 30 yards. Though six games, Gunter has given up 18 receptions on 31 targets for two touchdowns and 254 yards.

Fortunately, Gunter was able to turn in a solid performance against the Bears last week and gain some much needed confidence back.

Per PFFGunter finished Thursday night’s game with a grade of 82.8. He gave up three receptions on nine targets for only 33 yards, 10 coming after the catch. He was able to be matched up with Alshon Jeffery on numerous plays, a good teaser for what he will experience against Jones.

However, third sting quarterback Matt Barkley is far from Matt Ryan’s league, and you can expect a few more throws on target come Sunday.

Defensive coordinator Dom Capers will make sure to give Gunter plenty of help over the top from his safeties. Whether it is Ha Ha Clinton-Dix or Morgan Burnett, they will be busy all game long locating and helping to contain Jones.

Pressure Creates Diamonds, But It Also Creates Big Plays.

In all three games that Atlanta has lost this year (SD, SEA, TB) they have surrendered three or more sacks to opposing defenses. On the year, Matt Ryan has been sacked 18 times, 10 times in the teams three losses and only eight times in the four wins.

This may feed into one of Green Bay’s greatest strengths.

The Packers defense is currently tied for 5th in total sacks with 17, only five behind the number one ranked Denver Broncos. They will need a strong dose of pass rush focused in on Ryan to make him feel uneasy in the pocket.

Bringing a steady diet of blitzes will heighten the chance of a big play for not only Green Bay, but Atlanta as well. A heavy pass rush will open up the field and leave less help against Ryan and his many weapons, so it is imperative that if they bring the heat they don’t give him the chance to fire away.

The Packers will look to emerging star Nick Perry to lead the way.

Perry has recorded 5.5 sacks so far on the season, good enough for 6th overall in the league. According to PFF, he is also the 6th highest graded 3-4 outside linebacker in pass rush productivity. He has taken advantage of the amount of players teams have put on Clay Matthews on the other side of the formation, and has won a majority of his one-on-one match-ups.

Unfortunately for Perry and the Packers, there is no guarantee right now that Matthews will be fully healthy by Sunday.

Matthews missed a majority of the 2nd half last Thursday against the Bears with a reoccurring hamstring injury that has plagued him throughout his career. He didn’t fully participate in practice all week and his full availability is still in question.

If Matthews is unable to fully go, it may open the door for rookie Kyler Fackrell to shine yet again.

In his limited opportunities this year, he has recorded two sacks, including a strip sack against Eli Manning week 5. He has shown all the signs of being a Pro-Bowl player in the future, so listen for his name Sunday because he may be a difference maker.

Slow Your Role! They Aren’t Just One Dimensional.

It’s easy to lose yourself talking about the Atlanta pass game, but they are far from one dimensional. The Falcons roll out one of the best one-two punches in the league at running back, consisting of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.

However, like MatthewsColeman has been limited at practice all week with a hamstring strain. Unlike Matthews, it is expected that he will not be available Sunday.

This is good news for the Packers because Coleman has become a touchdown machine this year. Despite having 50 less carries than Freeman, he has managed five scores to Freeman’s one.

He has also been a threat through the air, catching 19 balls for 330 yards (17.4 per catch). Atlanta has signed free-agent Stevan Ridley for a short term solution at back-up, but Devonta Freeman is still the man.

Freeman is currently 8th among all running backs in yards with 508 on 105 carries, good enough for almost five yards per rush. Like his teammate Julio Jones, he is also found of big plays. Freeman has broken off three runs of 20+ yards this year, tied for 5th among all backs.

The Packers number one ranked rush defense will undoubtedly be tested in Atlanta.

Coming into Sunday, the Packers defense has only faced one offense averaging more than 100 yards rushing per game. They have also only played one offense ranking in the top-20 rushing attacks in the league, both Dallas (1st – 161.2).

In fact, Green Bay has faced the bottom three rushing offenses in the NFL, New York (70.3 per game), Minnesota (74.3), and Jacksonville (76.7) in 2016. It’s fair to say the 71. 8 rushing yards per game the Packers are giving up may be an illusion.

The Falcons average well over 100 yards per game at 114.6, and just as Dallas did, Freeman has the capability to force the Packers into deciding whether they want to die more by the pass or by the rush.

Jekyll or Hyde, Which Offense Will Atlanta Bring Out of Green Bay?

There aren’t many mysteries in the world right now as confounding as the Packers offense. You’re never quite sure which version is going to show up.

Every Packer fan on earth can only hope they stick to what works, and what works is getting the ball out early and often to the many play-makers available to Aaron Rodgers.

The Falcons high-scoring offense will force the Packers and Rodgers to keep pace with Atlanta, and their struggling defense should provide ample chance for them to do so.

In 2016, the Falcons defense has already allowed four games of 30+ points, and there has been only one game where their opponent didn’t reach 20.

Green Bay should look to attack the young Atlanta defense in a similar fashion as they attacked the Bears. The Falcons have one of the most inconsistent linebacker groups in the league, but they are also one of the most athletic.

Dan Quinn, Falcons Head Coach, comes from the Seahawks school of thought on defense, and prefers hybrid linebackers with speed and agility over traditional linebackers with high IQ’s and great instincts.

Example number one is Deion Jones.

Jones, a second round pick, has shown that he in fact does have above-average speed and agility for his position, and sometimes even appears to be more of a safety than linebacker. Jones can make big plays, as he has recorded two interceptions (one for a touchdown, but is also prone to a blown coverage from time to time.

He, and his entire linebacker group have proven their inexperience on many occasions this year, and missed assignments may open up opportunities for the Packers brand new weapon, receiver turned running back Ty Montgomery.

Montgomery has gone from almost no snaps at wide-out in the first few weeks of the season to being the man in the backfield after injuries to running backs James Starks and Eddie Lacy. He has shown glimpses of brilliance in his short time as the starting back, and with his receiving instincts he may find holes in both the flats and the middle of the field against the young group of Atlanta linebackers.

The Falcons inexperience and propensity for giving up big plays doesn’t stop with their linebackers.

Corners Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant, like Jones have made numerous game-changing plays this season, both positively and negatively.

For instance, Alford has had immense trouble playing man-to-man coverage when he has had no help. He’s already been penalized 10 times in 2016 with either a holding or pass interference call, two of those have been declined.

It can be expected that Rodgers will look for Alford before every play and attempt to victimize him the way he did DeVante Bausby last week. This could mean another big week for Davante Adams, or possibly Jordy Nelson depending on the match-ups.

One of the bright spots on the Atlanta defense has been the play of Vic Beasley Jr. at outside linebacker. Beasley is primarily a pass rusher, and has made a name for himself doing just that.

Teams have struggled to keep him out of the backfield all year. In his first seven games he has recorded 6.5 sacks, that ranks third among all players.

Beasley will be another big time test for the outstanding Packers offensive line that most recently only allowed two sacks of Rodgers against Chicago, a game in which he dropped back 57 times. On the year he has only been taken down 11 times.

Aside from Beasley’s 6.5, the rest of the defense has only recorded 8.5 sacks. This seems to indicate that they are Beasley or bust in terms of pass rush. Especially considering three of those 8.5 sacks have come from part-time pass rusher Dwight Freeney.

Freeney has taken on a role similar to Green Bay’s Julius Peppers, in his 15th season he is primarily used in passing situations to get to the quarterback. He’s a player that no matter how old he gets, he seems to make plays. Despite his possible impact, Freeney is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game, and his availability is uncertain at this time.

Final Thoughts

Atlanta possess one of the most dangerous offenses in league history, but as has been the case all season, if the Green Bay front 7 is able to force Matt Ryan into bad throws or put him on the ground a few times, this could be anyone’s game.

This game may also be decided by the Packers ability to put points on the board, because no amount of pressure on Ryan can save Green Bay without some level of input on offense. This may be aided by some new faces.

Recent running back acquisitions Knile Davis and Don Jackson should see increased snaps this week and possibly bring a new wrinkle to the offense. Davis especially, who only had one full day to prepare for last week’s game should be active often. He is the kind of back that can be explosive much the same way Montgomery can, through both the pass and run game.

With the Seahawks, Vikings, and Cowboys all sitting atop the conference with only one loss, neither Atlanta or Green Bay can afford to fall Sunday. Expect everything and anything from both teams.