The Atlanta Falcons are back on the national stage. Due to their previous success, the NFL decided to flex their matchup against the Green Bay Packers. Who would have expected Arizona versus Carolina to be demoted for Atlanta versus Green Bay last month? It has been a wild season, which the Falcons will try to get a better grip of on Sunday. They've lost their last two games by a combined five points. Late game mistakes and poor officiating have resulted in cruel defeats.
Green Bay is clearly not the same team from past years. A once perennial contender looks vulnerable on both sides of the ball. Although the Falcons are dealing with key players missing, this could be a prime opportunity for them to bounce back against a potential playoff team. Dan Quinn recognizes the pressure headed into this upcoming week with a short week against Tampa Bay is looming, but they need to regain their home success.
Here are five things to watch for on Sunday.
Offensive line faces fearsome front seven
From 2009 to 2015, Green Bay's success was driven by a terrifying offense. A superstar quarterback threw precise passes to a plethora of wide receivers, all of whom could stretch the field and make contested catches. With the receiving options becoming older, it has limited their passing game. Their once-unstoppable aerial assault is no longer an asset.
The biggest strength comes inside the trenches. Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, and Nick Perry form a ferocious pass rushing trio. Mike Daniels' relentless motor and ability to penetrate is a major reason behind their top-ranked run defense.
After being pushed around by San Diego, it doesn't get any easier for the offensive line. They were being pegged as a top five unit, but following the previous two performances, that label isn't warranted. Jake Matthews arguably played his worst game since 2014. Six penalties were committed between Andy Levitre, Chris Chester, and Ryan Schraeder. Alex Mack had some rough patches as well. Nobody is obviously perfect, but the offensive line has been largely underwhelming against above-average opposition.
Green Bay's secondary is decimated, which should present favorable matchups for Matt Ryan, if given enough time in the pocket. Matthews is dealing with a hamstring issue and could miss Sunday's game. That won't erase the Packers' dangerous pass rush. Peppers and Perry are imposing threats off the edge. According to Pro Football Focus, Perry already has 27 total pressures (sacks, hits, hurries) on the season, which is already nearing his career high. His breakout season combined with Peppers' athleticism and Daniels' presence will provide a stern test.
Other receiving options stepping up
One of the biggest concerns from last week's collapse was the one-dimensional passing game. Julio Jones produced 174 of the 273 receiving yards. That is a worrying sign based on what occurred last season. Jones was a one-man wrecking machine, yet the Falcons continuously lost games. Ryan started forcing him the ball, which eventually translated into interceptions. Not having other capable receiving options doomed them. Those concerns were erased following Ryan's productive start to the season. Eight or nine players were catching passes and making some type of contribution on a weekly basis.
The offense desperately needs to regain their balance. Besides the offensive line providing better pass protection, the other receivers have to become more involved. Mohamed Sanu isn't an ideal number two wide receiver. That shouldn't make him completely anonymous, which was the case against San Diego. Utilizing him strictly as a possession receiver could be the best option going forward. Taylor Gabriel should return on Sunday. The sharp route-runner made several clutch plays during Atlanta's four game winning streak.
Kyle Shanahan hasn't used Aldrick Robinson effectively. The explosive deep threat isn't being utilized on vertical routes. Green Bay's inexperienced (and likely overwhelmed) cornerbacks could bite on a double move or immediately lose a step. Jacob Tamme will always be a dependable security blanket, but counting on him to be anything further is a mistake. None of these wide receivers are likely going to develop into weekly difference makers. If they can make two to three plays a game, as they did during the first six weeks, this offense shouldn't decline like it did last season.
Can emerging pass rush find consistency?
After four weeks of minimal production, the defensive line exploded against Denver. Vic Beasley gets credited for that memorable performance, but Dwight Freeney and Adrian Clayborn played key roles in a statement win. Seattle's conservative play-calling hindered them from creating much pressure. With San Diego's high octane offense, opportunities were going to be there. They responded with four sacks and forced Philip Rivers into numerous difficult throws. It can't be denied that some mismatches were exploited. That won't be the case against a stout Green Bay offensive line.
Aaron Rodgers has only been sacked eleven times this season. Due to Green Bay's below average wide receiving corps, the stellar quarterback is forced into taking coverage sacks. They haven't missed a beat without Pro Bowl left guard Josh Sitton. David Bakhtiari has ascended into a top-tier left tackle. T.J. Lang and Bryan Bulaga form one of the strongest right sides in the league. Rodgers constantly finds himself with a clean pocket. That allows him to make countless unconventional plays.
With Freeney potentially sidelined with a quadricep injury, Beasley and Clayborn will have to shoulder the pass-rushing load. There has been discussion about blitzing more, but Quinn's blitz designs aren't very creative. Dropping more players in coverage and forcing Rodgers to thread the needle could be their best option. If Beasley and Clayborn continue playing at a high level, they'll eventually generate pressure at some point.
LIfe without Tevin Coleman
The second-year running back was starting to come into his own. Coleman's big play ability made a huge difference against Denver and San Diego. When he strained his hamstring in the third quarter last week, the offense was clearly affected. Kyle Shanahan should be prepared not to have one of his favorite weapons for the upcoming two games. The front office made that clear by promoting Terron Ward and signing Steven Ridley. It's highly unlikely that either running back receives many opportunities. Depth is essential for such a demanding position.
Devonta Freeman is capable of handing the load, but he will need to primarily handle pass-catching responsibilities. Losing Coleman in the passing game is a massive blow. There aren't many running backs, who can break opposing defenses open with pure speed lining up as a receiver. Freeman has excellent hands, runs crisp routes, and makes defenders miss in the open field. The explosive element doesn't exist without Coleman though.
Regardless if the running game is working or not, Shanahan can't abandon it. Allowing Ward or Ridley to spell Freeman in red-zone or short-yardage situations could be effective as well. This is a huge spot for Freeman in a workhorse role. The dynamic running back still needs support, especially with no other pass-catching options out of the backfield.
Coping with Green Bay's dink-and-dunk offense
Rodgers is averaging a career low 6.3 yards per pass attempt. Quick three-step drops have become a staple in Green Bay's offense. That makes them extremely predictable. It may not matter against Atlanta's young defense. My recent piece highlighted San Diego running several shallow crosses and gaining a first down on nearly every occasion. Every coach knows that signature play is San Diego's bread-and-butter. That didn't matter, which makes Green Bay's predictable offense somewhat irrelevant.
Rookie linebackers Deion Jones and DeVondre Campbell were caught out of position on numerous occasions. From being caught flat-footed to missing assignments, they were struggling to cope with San Diego's quick hitting passing game. An intelligent quarterback like Rodgers will test them. Ty Montgomery moving into a dual role caused Chicago problems. They will look to use him out of the backfield, especially given Atlanta's problems covering running backs. The coaching staff was outcoached last week. They'll need to make serious adjustments against another dink-and-dunk offense.
Playing Keanu Neal closer to the line of scrimmage and shadowing Montgomery could be a potential solution. With Brian Poole busy covering Randall Cobb in the slot, they'll need someone athletic enough to cover Montgomery. The rookie strong safety appears to be the best option coming off another strong performance.