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Falcons vs. Packers: How the game will be won or lost

Can the Falcons beat a team in even further disarray?

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NFL: Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Between 2016 and 2017, the Falcons and Packers faced each other three times. All three games were either nationally televised or had major implications. The Falcons managed to come out on top in each game, which includes their monumental win in the NFC Championship giving the Georgia Dome a proper send off. Matt Ryan was terrific in each game, throwing all over Green Bay’s secondary each time out. There were also multiple impressive defensive showings that validated the notion of Dan Quinn knowing how to limit Aaron Rodgers.

That’s about the only positive for the embattled head coach at the moment. Although there aren’t any indications he should be concerned about his job security, Quinn is enduring his most difficult stretch as a head coach. A four-game losing streak, where the team’s overall effort has been questioned, leaves the entire organization in a state of shock. How can a team known for their unity and spirit look so disinterested?

Despite being out of the playoff race, you’d expect a team to play with more intensity after getting embarrassed by their biggest rival on Thanksgiving. Instead, Quinn’s team looked lifeless against Baltimore. A strong response is needed heading into Green Bay. With Mike McCarthy finally gone, it’s fair to assume the Packers will likely play more inspired football.

Playing with energy, fight, and passion

It feels bizarre to analyze a game featuring two premier quarterbacks without any real implications. It’s even more peculiar how a battle-tested and strong-minded team has become apathetic. For all their injuries, the Falcons still have numerous active players from their successful 2016 and 2017 teams. Those players experienced all the highs and lows of playing on a great team. They played in five playoff games, including the infamous Super Bowl debacle. Instead of being haunted by their horrifying collapse on the grandest stage, they bounced back and returned to the playoffs. Winning a playoff game in Los Angeles and holding their own in a defensive slugfest against the eventual Super Bowl champions showed more than how much talent is on their roster. It revealed how much fortitude is within the entire team.

To see a team respond from numerous setbacks in 2017 and end up nearly making it back to the Super Bowl in a ridiculously-talented conference was impressive. Their success showed anything is possible under Quinn’s stewardship. Unfortunately for the Falcons, the endless possibilities have turned into the worst possible nightmare. Three of their last four losses have been one-sided. Although they technically remained competitive against Baltimore, nothing about their performance suggested they could win in the second half. Another dreadful all-around showing led to Quinn being questioned about his team’s desire once again. This was a franchise starting to become accustomed to competing for a Super Bowl. It’s now under scrutiny for not playing hard enough. This is something Quinn must address as someone who is known for commanding respect in the locker room.

This is one of the rare times where X’s and O’s aren’t the most important element in previewing a game. The Falcons simply need to show they’re capable of playing with intensity. That means not allowing the opposing team to impose their will by having possession for over 39 minutes. Handling blocking assignments and making open-field tackles are other necessities in playing like a professional team. Not committing four to five unforced careless penalties would be another step in the right direction. These are all simple tasks that should be fulfilled. It’s been some time since they’ve accomplished them. That’s how badly the Falcons have played over the last month. Thankfully for their sake, they have four games left to prove they’re not a fragmented team.

Pass protection woes remain prevalent

The Falcons haven’t scored more than 19 points in their last four games. After averaging nearly 28 points per game during the first half of the season, they have seen their point total drop to 24.7 points per game. There are many reasons behind their major decline in production. Playing two top-ten defenses in Dallas and Baltimore will limit your chances of producing explosive plays. Fumbling the ball three times in the red zone against New Orleans, who knows how to play at their pace offensively, will leave you befuddled. While each game had their own twists, there was one recurrent issue. Ryan took significant punishment in all three games.

Watching the franchise quarterback succumb to constant pressure brings back murky memories of 2013-2014. No quarterback has been hit more this season, as Ryan has been knocked down 81 times. He has also been sacked 36 times, so it’s not surprising to see Quinn openly talk about his concern. The offensive line’s demise is well-documented by now. With only Jake Matthews playing above expectations, the Falcons are struggling to protect Ryan. Deciding to replace Ben Garland with Zane Beadles only amplified their problems. It’s hard to see how things change for the better up front. What must change is how they schematically prepare for opposing defenses.

As Baltimore continued to relentlessly blitz, Ryan was left in hopeless situations. Steve Sarkisian decided to continue using five wide sets in an effort to create mismatches on the outside. It’s extremely difficult to exploit potential mismatches on the outside when you’re being outnumbered in the trenches, however.

There weren’t many instances where a running back or tight end chipped an edge rusher or picked up a blitzing defender. When a running back was used to pass protect, they opted for Ito Smith instead of Tevin Coleman, who blew several blitz pickups. The offensive line is clearly overmatched, but they shouldn’t be held solely responsible for the staggering amount of hits and sacks being allowed. They’ll need extra support against a Green Bay defense, which is ranked sixth in pressure percentage per ESPN’s NFL Matchup. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine won’t hesitate to dial up some exotic blitzes.

Testing Deion Jones

The sight of seeing a great player make his long-awaited return is one of the best feelings in sports. No matter what the circumstances are surrounding the team, everyone gets the luxury to watch an exceptional defender get back to doing what he does best. Seeing Jones accelerate across the field and cover acres of space unlike any other linebacker is a joy to watch. Although the Falcons’ defensive center piece was out of position on a few plays last week, he made his presence felt in nullifying potential big runs. Without his intelligence and speed, Baltimore would have turned five-yard gains into ten yards or more.

This season certified Jones’ status as an irreplaceable player. There wasn’t any doubt about his all-around ability. It was more of a question about how much will the defense regress without their outstanding three-down linebacker (and leader). Close home losses to Cincinnati and New Orleans quickly showed how damaging the loss of Jones was. According to Pro Football Focus, the Falcons have allowed six yards per play with Jones on the field since he entered the league in 2016. The yardage total increases to 7.3 yards per play without him. To go from ranking seventh with their star linebacker to last in the league without him signifies his importance.

It’ll be fascinating to see how much the defense can improve with four games remaining. Jones was integral in giving Rodgers fits during their last two meetings. His range will make Rodgers think twice about making certain decisions. That’s about the only thing to be expected going into an unpredictable game like this. Nobody can predict how much interim coach Joe Philbin will change the offense. On a team lacking talent, they may opt for a more conservative approach by getting the ball quickly out of Rodgers’ hands. That would make for an even busier afternoon for Jones. He was the second-most targeted linebacker in the league last season per Pro Football Focus. For him to handle such a demanding role in Quinn’s defense and be able to flourish is a testament to how good he is. How much he elevates a porous defense will be something to watch as the Falcons build for next year.

Austin Hooper’s steady improvement

In a season filled with disappointment, Hooper’s progression should be considered as a major positive. There were questions about his outlook following a wildly inconsistent second season. After starting to find his niche in the offense, he became an afterthought during Atlanta’s playoff push. A brutal drop turned into an interception against New Orleans forced Ryan to look elsewhere. It was the last of several costly drops, as Hooper finished sixth in drops amongst tight ends. There was internal discussion about the possibility of bringing in competition to challenge him.

The front office ultimately stayed committed to Hooper, which is now proving to be a wise decision. His tendency to drop passes across the middle is no longer a factor. Hooper ranks second in catch rate over the last eight games. It puts him right below stud tight end Zach Ertz. By improving on making contested catches and becoming more physical, the promising tight end has thrived in a more featured role. From working with Ryan during the off-season to being praised by Quinn for his work ethic, it became evident that Hooper wasn’t content on being a secondary option in the offense. Developing into one of Ryan’s most reliable weapons was his main objective. It’s safe to say he achieved that.

Hooper is seven yards away from surpassing his receiving yards total from last year. His yards per catch total is down, but that’s more of a result of how Sarkisian uses him. Between quick outs to hitches, there are instances where Ryan will hit Hooper for a six-yard gain to put the offense in a more favorable position. Hooper is also the main receipt on Sarkisian’s signature bootleg designs, which has become a staple in the offense. These play calls are going to diminish a player’s yards per catch average purely based on the design. One of Hooper’s best attributes is what he does after the catch, where he can make defenders miss with his impressive shiftiness or tremendous hurdle. One stat shouldn’t diminish how well Hooper has played this season. Facing a Packers’ defense that allowed six plays of 20 yards or more to the Cardinals, who have produced the fewest amount of explosive plays this season, should give Hooper more big-play opportunities.