The highly-anticipated home opener is finally here. Under the bright lights of Sunday Night Football, the Mercedes-Benz Stadium will be on display for the NFC Championship rematch. It’s an excellent test for the Falcons following a flat showing against Chicago. The defense had some shining moments, but shoddy tackling caused them to nearly capitulate again. There were even fewer memorable moments for the offense. Without an efficient running game, every drive felt like a grind for Matt Ryan.
Green Bay should present a terrific early-season test to see if this team can maintain their spot in the NFC’s upper class. The timing of this matchup makes it even more compelling. It’s hard enough to beat a great team once, let alone twice in the same season. This will be the third time these teams meet in the same calendar year. While both groups made some personnel changes, a third win would be a huge statement for Dan Quinn. To win three consecutive games against a NFC powerhouse like Green Bay during a short time frame would show how well this franchise has progressed.
Feeding Julio Jones
Jones will have some games, where he doesn’t receive enough targets for a player of his caliber. There had to be some frustration following Atlanta’s narrow victory over Chicago. To only receive five targets in a close game against a mediocre secondary is going to raise some questions. Jones still managed to influence the game. His ability to command attention caused a game-altering coverage bust, which allowed Austin Hooper to be wide open downfield. In the regular season matchup against Green Bay, Jones was held to three receptions for 29 yards. The offense scored 33 points in a thrilling victory that included a game-winning touchdown catch from Mohamed Sanu. It proved to be another big play that Jones affected by being double teamed.
After re-aggravating a toe injury against Seattle, nobody knew how effective Jones was going to be in the NFC Championship Game. He produced a legendary performance by catching nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns. From embarrassing LaDarius Gunter to stiff arming Damarious Randall in Hooperesque fashion, the superstar wide receiver left his mark on the final game inside the Georgia Dome. Green Bay didn’t have an answer for much in one of the most lopsided conference championship games in NFL history. Not being able to limit Jones was one of the more surprising aspects of the Packers’ demise.
Most analysts are anticipating a big game from Jones. Quinn was vocal about missing out on a few opportunities to get him more involved. It was surprising to see Steve Sarkisian insert him as a decoy in multiple third down situations. Using Jones to create space for Taylor Gabriel on a corner route in the red zone was a puzzling decision. This is a golden opportunity to feature Jones against a defense lacking playmakers in the secondary. He usually plays well following a pedestrian game. In the six games that he failed to eclipse 66 yards last season, Jones gained over 100 yards in the next game except in the season finale against New Orleans. He was held to a meager stat line of seven receptions for 96 yards and one touchdown. You can’t keep an elite wide receiver down for long. Expect to see a huge game from Jones with double-digit targets and possibly some usage in the red zone.
Big spot for Desmond Trufant
Even though the Falcons went to the Super Bowl without Trufant, his loss was still felt within the organization. It eventually affected them on the field, as Tom Brady relentlessly picked on Jalen Collins during New England’s comeback in the Super Bowl. Many were left wondering what if Trufant was on the field covering Julian Edelman or Chris Hogan? The star cornerback received a well-deserved contract extension last April. Not only does that allow more long-term flexibility for Quinn’s defense. He has a true number one corner that can shadow top wide receivers.
Trufant’s return should be viewed as significant news. If it wasn’t for Chicago’s limited wide receiving corps, he would have been featured in last week’s preview. This is an excellent matchup for him to show everyone that he is fully back. Green Bay’s high octane aerial attack will test every cornerback on the roster. As the pass rush steadily improves, Trufant shouldn’t be asked to cover for five to seven seconds like he did in previous matchups against Aaron Rodgers. Facing the likes of Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb is challenging enough. To do it for an extended period of time on certain plays sounds like pure torture.
Although he wasn’t targeted often against Chicago, the former first round pick looked stiff at times. Trufant wasn’t his usual aggressive self on running plays. Chicago found success running at him. The coaching staff can only hope more reps will help Trufant feel more comfortable in game action. It’s rare to see him look hesitant, especially as one of the more reliable tacklers on the team. He’ll need to be on his game against Green Bay’s crafty wide receivers. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him shadow Nelson. Quinn started putting each cornerback on a specific wide receiver against Carolina in late December. That continued against New Orleans followed by the entire playoff run. We could see him emulate a similar game plan against one of the most efficient offenses in the league.
Stopping Aaron Rodgers is virtually impossible. Unless they are capable of generating constant pressure, defenses can only force turnovers and get stops on third down as a way to possibly rattle him. It also helps when your offense scores on nearly every drive. That is what the Falcons did in the NFC Championship game. Forcing turnovers at opportune times and utilizing Brian Poole on corner blitzes proved to be a winning combination. There is also one other factor behind the Falcons’ defensive “success” against Rodgers. It came from creating inside pressure.
Besides having the best quarterback in the league, Green Bay’s excellence is built off an offensive line filled with stout pass protectors. There isn’t a more dependable tackle duo than David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga. T.J. Lang’s development into a top-tier guard elevated them into a premier unit. It was going to be difficult for an inconsistent pass rush to cause havoc. That didn’t prevent the defensive line from making huge plays in crucial moments. Adrian Clayborn had his finest game as a Falcon in the first meeting. The versatile defensive lineman produced two drive-killing sacks in the third quarter. Whether it was lining up as a three-tech or shade over the center, he overpowered Green Bay’s interior line. Ra’Shede Hageman had a similar performance in the rematch. His remarkable sack led to Rodgers throwing an interception on the next play.
If there is a similarity between both offenses, it consists of having a new starting right guard. The Packers made a surprising move signing Jahri Evans. They usually prefer drafting future starters rather than signing declining veterans. Replacing Lang with Evans is bound to cause a significant drop-off. Corey Linsley is also known for struggling in pass protection as well. These are favorable matchups for the Falcons’ interior line. Dontari Poe and Jack Crawford are coming off solid opening games. While using more nickel and dime packages means fewer snaps for Poe, he showed flashes as a pass rusher. Pro Football Focus credited him with a team-high four pressures against Chicago. With Clayborn healthy and Grady Jarrett looking to bounce back from a quiet game, the interior pass rush is well equipped to disrupt Rodgers.
Maintaining a steady balance
The lack of success on the ground against Chicago was concerning. As much as Wes Schweitzer struggled in pass protection, he was equally as bad as a run blocker. The former sixth round pick was fortunate not to be responsible for two mistakes on third and short situations. Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder had some forgettable moments on stretch plays. It also didn’t help that Austin Hooper whiffed on several blocks. Chicago’s front seven deserves praise for flying to the ball and destroying potential running lanes. It was still a disappointing performance from the offensive line, especially coming off their shortcomings in the Super Bowl.
For all the criticism about Sarkisian’s play calling, it was encouraging to see him not get away from running the ball. Kyle Shanahan had a tendency of abandoning the run in close games. Look no further than the Falcons’ loss to Philadelphia last season. A ratio of 35 pass attempts and 13 rushing attempts is absurd in a highly competitive game. Sarkisian stuck with a balanced game plan by calling 32 pass plays and 20 running plays. That Is a reasonable balance that should be implemented on a weekly basis.
Sarkisian shouldn’t be criticized for staying committed to the run. How can you get away from a prolific running back duo in a close game? Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman can change a game in an instant flash. What Sarkisian will need to revise is his philosophy for the passing game. It was far too conservative and unimaginative last Sunday. This offense is known for producing big plays and creating magic off play action. Neither of those things came to fruition. Only converting one out of three red zone opportunities didn’t help his cause either. He appears to have the balance down for this offense to remain efficient. Now it’s time to loosen up the playbook and get more creative with an abundance of playmakers.