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Falcons defense has the formula to beat the Packers

Ryan Nielsen’s D should be ready for Green Bay, and the players have to be ready to execute.

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NFL: Atlanta Falcons Minicamp Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

An old football adage is that coaches coach and players play. Interpreting the meaning of that statement leads to the conclusion that coaches are meant to put players in a position to succeed, but in the end, those players have to execute in order to achieve that success.

That idea will form the core battle between the Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers when they square off in Week 2. In that matchup, the duel between Falcons defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen and Packers head coach and play-caller Matt LaFeur could be a more intriguing matchup than any of the ones featuring the players actually on the field.

The Falcons defense under Nielsen is coming off an impressive Week 1 performance against the Carolina Panthers, where Jessie Bates’ numerous turnovers were the biggest reason behind the team’s first season-opening win since 2017. It’s worth noting that six years ago, they followed that win by beating the Packers in Week 2 in the inaugural game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The team is hoping the history repeats itself this Sunday.

Yet, the Falcons aren’t alone in terms of impressing in the season opener, as the Packers were also emphatic in their 38-20 beatdown of the Chicago Bears to begin the Jordan Love Era with a bang. Love’s Week 1 stats look remarkable, with a league-leading 123.2 passer rating thanks to 245 yards passing and three touchdowns. But Green Bay’s success is probably more a reflection of LaFleur’s scheming versus Love’s ability.

Packers running back Aaron Jones had 86 yards on two catches, with 85 of those yards coming after the catch. LaFleur also dialed up a wide-open 37-yard play to rookie tight end Luke Musgrave on a leak/throwback play. Love’s numbers would look much more pedestrian without those three plays buoying his production.

But don’t interpret that to mean that Love isn’t capable. He executed LaFleur’s offense superbly, evidenced by his ability to carve up the Bears' defense on third downs. Love put up a perfect passer rating (158.3) on third and fourth down, helping Green Bay convert a league-high 70 percent of their late-down passes.

Nielsen and the Falcons’ defense will be tasked with preventing a repeat performance this weekend, indicating why that matchup is so intriguing. It gives the Falcons defense another golden opportunity to further cement themselves as an ascending unit.

Nielsen’s strategy will likely borrow from his former team, the New Orleans Saints, who thwarted LaFleur and then Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in a 38-3 blowout back in their 2021 season-opener. The Saints’ formula was fairly basic on defense: play a lot of man coverage and pressure the quarterback effectively with selective blitzing. The Saints' coverage worked well by keeping then-Packers wideout Davante Adams contained to 56 yards after averaging a league-leading 98 yards the previous season. New Orleans only blitzed Rodgers three times in that game according to PFF, but it proved effective, as it helped generate an interception early in the second half. Overall, Rodgers struggled against the Saints that day, as his passer rating while under pressure was an abysmally low 5.1.

The Saints’ rushing attack was very effective in controlling the clock, knowing that they lacked the firepower to get into a shootout with Jameis Winston under center without top wideout Michael Thomas. New Orleans’ 140 first-half rushing yards helped build a 17-0 lead at halftime while also possessing the ball for 22 of the game’s first 30 minutes.

Offensively, the Falcons have no qualms following that blueprint, thanks to their core identity being centered on their ground game. The Falcons have the second-longest active streak of games with over 100 yards rushing at 16 behind only the Baltimore Ravens’ 17.

The Falcons’ passing attack hopefully possesses a bit more firepower than the Thomas-less Saints due to the presence of receivers Drake London and Kyle Pitts. But they too likely would prefer not to get into a shootout thanks to questions up front. The Falcons gave up the league’s second-highest percentage of sacks per dropback against the Panthers, and are facing an arguably more formidable Packers pass rush this week. Green Bay was able to terrorize a weak Bears offensive line to the tune of 26 pressures, the second-most in the NFL last week.

If the Falcons offense can control the clock while also scoring points (that’s the most important thing!), then Nielsen’s defense will need to create stops between those extended possessions, creating a snowball effect as the Saints did back in 2021. The Falcons have more than enough talent in their secondary to lock down the Packers’ receivers, who no longer have Adams, and may also be without Christian Watson for the second week in a row. Expect Nielsen to dial up the aggressive, attacking defense with a heavy dose of blitzes on third downs to confuse Love and frustrate LaFleur’s careful schemes.

Nielsen can only draw it up, so inevitably, the players have to execute. If they do, the cyclical nature of history should manifest nicely, with the Falcons starting 2023 with a 2-0 record after another impressive home win against the Packers.