I doubt any of us thought the Falcons would be heading into an all-important Monday Night Football matchup with the Packers at 0-3. Similarly, I doubt anyone pegged Green Bay as arguably the NFL’s best offense through the first three weeks of the season and Atlanta as one of the most disappointing teams. But here we are, staring down the barrel of a lost season with a must-win primetime game on tap.
Things look grim, and there’s no sugar-coating how difficult a matchup this will be for the Falcons. 0-4 is an absolute playoff death sentence that could very well end the Dan Quinn era. With all that in mind, here are some of the players I’ll be watching closely when the Falcons face the Packers on Monday Night Football.
Kendall Sheffield, Jordan Miller, & Blidi Wreh-Wilson
The Falcons were actually turning in a solid defensive performance against the Bears in Week 3, but things went downhill quickly after losing CB Darqueze Dennard in the fourth quarter. Dennard had been having his best game of the season and was arguably the best player on defense for Atlanta against Chicago, and the team promptly surrendered a 16-point lead after his exit.
Fortuitously, it seems that Kendall Sheffield will be returning from his preseason foot injury for Monday Night Football. Jordan Miller also returns from his suspension, bolstering the depth at a key moment. While Wreh-Wilson can be counted out to be a solid contributor, how Sheffield performs in relief of Dennard will be one of the stories of the game. It appears that Packers WR Davante Adams could be back in action too, so the Falcons will need all the help they can get in the secondary.
After starting the year on fire, Matt Ryan had a disappointing week against Chicago. Much of that had to do with being down 2 of his top 3 WRs early in the game and facing a ton of pressure in the second half, but Ryan was not as sharp as he had been to start the season. The Falcons are facing a Packers defense that is currently allowing 8.4 YPA through the air, which could present an opportunity for Ryan and the passing game to get back on track. Plus, it seems like there is hope for both Julio Jones (hamstring) and Russell Gage (concussion) to return in time for kickoff on Monday.
Todd Gurley & Brian Hill
The Falcons invested significant money is bringing Todd Gurley to Atlanta, but thus far he’s been outplayed by former fifth-round pick Brian Hill in what has been a largely mediocre rushing attack. Atlanta had a real opportunity to pound the rock and take advantage of a below-average Bears run defense in Week 3, but offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter inexplicably went away from the ground game with a 16-point lead in the 4th quarter.
Perhaps Koetter can make amends this week against the Packers, who have an even worse run defense. Green Bay is currently allowing an incredible 5.5 yards per carry—29th in the league. There doesn’t seem like much hope for the Falcons to pull out a win on Monday Night Football, but one path might be stringing together long drives and limiting Aaron Rodgers’ opportunities. Both Gurley and Hill have been good at times this season—Atlanta may need to lean on them in a big way in Week 4.
Falcons kicker and onside kick specialist Younghoe Koo sustained a groin strain in pre-game warmups before Week 3 against the Bears. This unfortunately resulted in a missed XP and FG during the game, where Atlanta ended up losing by exactly 4 points. In case Koo is unable to go on Monday, the Falcons signed Elliott Fry—formerly of the Bears, Ravens, Panthers, and Bucs—to the practice squad. The team plans to elevate him to the active roster over the weekend if he’s needed. Fry has never actually attempted a FG during a regular season NFL game, so he’s likely to make his professional debut against Green Bay. We’ll hope he can have success, because the Falcons’ hopes likely depend on it.
The run defense
We all know that Aaron Rodgers and the Packers have been deadly through the air, but they’ve been even better on the ground. Aaron Jones has been having a tremendous season, with the team averaging a terrific 5.5 yards per carry and 171.7 rushing yards per game—good for 3rd and 2nd, respectively. If the Falcons are going to have any hope of slowing down a Green Bay offense that also scores the most points per game in the NFL (40.7), they’ll need their solid run defense to step up and limit the damage Jones can do on the ground. If Atlanta can somehow get out to a lead and force the Packers to become one-dimensional, there might be a slim hope for them to eke out a close win a shootout.
Who are some players or matchups you’ll be watching closely when the Falcons face the Packers on Monday Night Football?