Let's get one thing out of the way: This is not the first real challenge for the Falcons this season.
They've played the Steelers and Eagles (losses), the Saints and Bucs (wins) and the mighty Ravens (also a win). They've also squared off against unexpectedly feisty teams in the form of the Browns and Rams. The Packers do not represent the first tough game the Falcons have faced, and to insinuate otherwise is an insult to the way our Birds have played this season.
That said, this is one hell of a challenge. The Packers are a tough team that has survived the eager chomps of the injury bug and muscled their way to near the top of the NFC. The Falcons, who sport an inconsistent secondary and an even more inconsistent pass rush, are going to have trouble in this one.
As always, hope springs eternal. I do believe the Falcons can walk away from the Georgia Dome with a win. To find out what matchups I consider key in this game, join me after the jump.
Falcons Secondary vs. Aaron Rodgers
The only reason I have the secondary higher on this list than the pass rush is because Aaron Rodgers can escape from the pocket. He's picked up 194 yards on 37 carries, a 5.2 yard average, and he's scored three touchdowns. Even if the Falcons do apply pressure, he's got enough speed to get away from time to time, which places significantly more pressure on our cornerbacks.
The best thing the Falcons can do here is shut down Greg Jennings and be aggressive with everyone else on the field. I highly recommend cheating a safety over to help with Jennings, who's like Roddy White in that he's virtually impossible to cover one-on-one. The Packers have quality options across the board, but Jennings is the clear #1 target.
It'd also be nice if the Falcons could take advantage of Rodgers' tendency to gunsling and pick a couple of passes. If William Moore is on Jennings, he may be able to turn at least one tight pass into an interception. In a game that's likely to come down to the wire, that could be huge.
Falcons Pass Rush vs. Aaron Rodgers
In case you weren't aware, Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL today. That's why he gets two matchups of his own. I mean, c'mon, the dude's got a 96.9 quarterback rating for his career.
Simply put, the Falcons need John Abraham here. He can tie up Chad Clifton on his own and open things up for the rest of the defensive line. I definitely like Jonathan Babineaux's chances of getting a sack in this one, because the Green Bay offensive line is stronger on the edges than it is in the middle.
This might be a great game to get Sean Weatherspoon and Mike Peterson involved in the pass rush, too. I don't want to see a ton of seven man blitzes, but Rodgers will kill the secondary if he's given five seconds to throw, no matter how well they match up against Jennings, Donald Driver and the tight end pu pu platter. Aggressive blitzing from the front four will give the Falcons a shot at Rodgers.
Michael Turner vs. Packers Defense
The Packers have one of the best secondaries in the game, but are only 18th in yardage allowed against the run. Sounds like a prescription for a heavy dose of our own personal ogre.
Turner's got a nasty habit of disappearing against tough and even middling defenses at times, but he can't afford to do it here. If Matt Ryan is going to have success against the Pack secondary, he'll need them to have reasonable doubt that Turner is going to run into them so hard that he causes a singularity. If he's averaging three yards a carry and being dashed against the rocks of B.J. Raji, the Falcons are going to have a very hard time passing. Period.
You know how this is best accomplished? That's matchup #4.
Mike Mularkey vs. Himself
A high-scoring team that has a tough secondary and a creative blitzing package—Clay Matthews could be a matchup of his own if I wasn't desperate to avoid talking about him—requires creative offensive playcalling to combat. The Falcons aren't going to survive if Mike Mularkey is walking Turner up the middle and relying on short outs in heavy traffic.
So it's up to Mike Mularkey to shatter his Hyde and embrace his Jekyll at last. No longer can the Falcons afford to get complacent with a lead and go back to Mularkey's binky. It's runs to the outside, play action passes and no-huddle all game long to keep the Packers off-balance. Anything less is going to see the Falcons coming from behind, and I'm not really comfortable with doing that against Green Bay.