Here’s our weekly Q&A with the enemy, which this week features Jason Hirschhorn of Acme Packing Company.
Jason Hirschhorn: The strength of the Packers defense lies in its defensive line. Tackles Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark have enjoyed considerable success blowing up pockets from the interior thus far in 2017. Daniels in particular had a monster performance in Week 1, finishing with 1 ½ sacks and four hits on the quarterback. If Wes Schweitzer proves to be an issue again for the Falcons' pass protection, expect another big day from Daniels.
Dave Choate: Aaron Rodgers is a wizard, but the Falcons made him look a little bit less magic in the NFC Conference Championship Game. What, in your opinion, keyed Atlanta's success in that game, and how will Green Bay ensure it doesn't happen again?
Jason Hirschhorn: The lack of healthy players significantly hindered the Packers the last time these two teams matched up. Jordy Nelson technically played in the game, but he battled through a severe rip injury that probably should have kept him on the sidelines. Davante Adams had an ankle sprain of his own to contend with, effectively removing Green Bay's top two receivers from the equation. Even the offensive line lost multiple players to injury. This time around, the Packers enter the game with only one starter -- right tackle Bryan Bulaga -- expected to miss the game.
But the personnel have changed since last season as well. Martellus Bennett offers a new dimension to the offense, especially in the red zone. Meanwhile, the defense features a reworked secondary, with Davon House, Kevin King, and the newly healthy Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins at corner. This group looks vastly different than the one Atlanta saw in January.
Dave Choate: How does the offensive line look this year? I know some things have changed on the interior, and the Falcons have upgraded at defensive tackle. Are we expecting Bryan Bulaga to play?
Jason Hirschhorn: At this point, Bulaga looks more likely to miss the game than play having missed practice this week with ankle and illness issues. If he cannot suit up, second-year man Kyle Murphy would assume his spot at right tackle for the second week. Murphy gave up quite a few pressures during his first NFL start last week, but his presence also didn't force the Packers to dramatically alter their play calling, which counts as a win of sorts. It remains to be seen whether getting his first extended NFL experience helps improve his performance or if the play he put on tape allows opposing defenses to better exploit his weaknesses.
Dave Choate: The Falcons have all been talking about looking out for Morgan Burnett. Can you tell us a little more about how the Packers use him and why he's so dangerous?
Jason Hirschhorn: Morgan Burnett's role in the defense has changed since first arriving in Green Bay in 2010. Once just a traditional deep safety, Burnett's presence on the field doesn't tip what the Packers aim to do defensively. They can line him up in the box as either a linebacker or a dropped safety; he can rotate with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix as the deep man in single-high looks; and he can move into the slot and cover tight ends.
More than that, Burnett ranks as one of the few long-tenured veterans on a defense largely composed of recent draft picks. He helps align his teammates and make adjustments on the field. Burnett doesn't tend to make the game-changing interception or force fumbles at a particularly high rate, but he plays solid football and allows defensive coordinator Dom Capers to get creative with his calls without dramatically altering personnel.
Dave Choate: Prediction time! Who wins this game, and what does the rest of the Packers season look like?
Jason Hirschhorn: Even with the Falcons' ongoing adjustment to new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, they still seem to have the offensive firepower to put up 40 on any opponent. Furthermore, their defense has built off the gains made late in 2016 to become even more formidable. The Packers look far healthier now than they did last January during the NFC Championship Game beat down, but I expect that will keep the score closer rather than changing the final outcome.
As for the Packers' season outlook, their schedule appears to become a lot lighter after the first five weeks. If they can make it through that stretch with a winning record, they stand a good chance of finishing with one of the top two records in the conference and earning a first-round bye in the playoffs.