In the past, hearing that the Green Bay Packers were coming into town elicited the night terrors of many Falcons fans. Images of Aaron Rodgers slicing and dicing our secondary pop into mind, while Clay Matthews repeatedly spent time in our backfield giving Ryan no time to throw.
Yet, this isn’t the same Packers team. Kyle will cover the Packers offense on Friday, but it’s clear that the defense isn’t the dominating unit it once was either. That’s not to say it’s a poor unit, but this looks like a match-up that the Falcons may benefit from.
*Note: these assessments are based partly on PFF player grades and their predicted alignments.
In the trenches
The Falcons offensive line has taken a step back over the past few games. Against the Seahawks, they were overwhelmed early and often, giving Ryan little time in the pocket and completely shutting down the running game. Against the Chargers, they fared only slightly better, watching Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram generate considerable pressure throughout the game. Alex Mack and Andy Levitre have been very good in the middle, but Chris Chester is beginning to look like a liability. One has to wonder how much longer he’ll play before the team tries Ben Garland or Wes Schweitzer at right guard. Jake Matthews has had a decent season, but has been beat a good bit over the past couple of weeks. Ryan Schraeder is having another solid year as well, but is prone to the occasional lapse in pass and run blocking. Overall, it’s still an improved line from 2015, but the past two weeks have brought the cumulative performance back down to “average.”
Unfortunately, the Falcons OL is going to face off against a pretty good defensive front. Julius Peppers is on the back-end of his career, but is still playing at a high level. Mike Daniels is a quality player that can generate pressure on the inside, while nose tackle Letroy Guion is playing decently. Nick Perry is also having a very nice year so far, with 5.5 sacks in 2016. Clay Matthews is not having the impact he normally does, with just 3 sacks so far, but I’d be hesitant to ever look past him. First round pick Kenny Clark is doing ok so far, but is not much more than an average player at this point. While this isn’t as dominant a defensive interior as what we’ve seen from the Seahawks, this is not a unit that can be taken lightly. Perry, Daniels and Matthews are all capable of generating pressure.
If the Falcons are going to have success on Sunday, the offensive line will need to bounce back from two sub-par performances. This is going to be a good match-up, and probably too close to call.
The skill positions
Coming off his worst performance of the year, Falcons QB Matt Ryan will look to bounce back to his MVP form against the Packers. He’s still one of the highest ranked QBs in the league and I wouldn’t expect two consecutive poor performances from him. He’s joined by All-World receiver Julio Jones, who is on-pace to break his own yardage record from 2015. Mohamed Sanu has been a below average player in this offense so far, but he will have a favorable match-up this weekend. With Tevin Coleman likely out, the running game burden will fall on the capable shoulders of Devonta Freeman, who has looked good, but isn’t quite at his 2015 Pro-Bowl form. Jacob Tamme is having a good year, while role-players like Taylor Gabriel and Aldrick Robinson have also made contributions in this high-scoring offense. Despite the offensive slump the last couple of weeks, this is still a very good unit that will be hungry to bounce back on Sunday.
The Packers have two inside linebackers that don’t inspire a ton of confidence. Jake Ryan has been pretty poor in his first two years in the league, while rookie Blake Martinez has looked better, being particularly good against the run while struggling in the passing game. Free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is a good player, who is good in run defense but only average in pass defense. Strong safety Morgan Burnett is a similarly good player whose strong suit is run defense as well. Cornerback, however, is where the Packers defensive unit takes a considerable nosedive, due to the number of injuries they’ve suffered. The unit will depend on Ladarius Gunter and Demetri Goodson to take on trying to cover the Falcons receivers. Goodson has been pretty bad this year, while Gunter has actually shown to be an average player overall. Micah Hyde will join them in nickel sets, and he is also playing average overall.
Despite what some are saying the Packers secondary is not a complete disaster. They have two good safeties and linebackers who can help in the run game. However, their inexperience (and relatively poor play) at corner is a definite concern. If Ryan is given any kind of time on Sunday, the Falcons passing game should win this match-up.
The key to this game will be what it always has been: the trenches. If the offensive line can bounce back against another top-10 defense, this is a very winnable match-up for the Falcons. This Packers secondary can be exploited, but time in the pocket for Matt Ryan is an absolute must. This is probably a closer match-up than people realize, but the slight advantage goes to the Falcons.