Breaking down the schemes and matchups we’ll likely see in the NFC Championship Game
Packers’ O vs. Falcons’ D
When these teams met in Week 8, the Packers came out aggressively through the air. They showed the Falcons a variety of different spread formations early, many of them featuring four or even five wide receivers. This despite the offense missing its three most flexible weapons that day: Jared Cook, Ty Montgomery and Randall Cobb. From the spread multi-receiver sets, Green Bay went after Atlanta’s weak spots in Cover 3 and created favorable matchups for Jordy Nelson inside. The game changed when the Falcons went to more man coverage. They won individual matchups against Green Bay’s backup receivers. They also crowded the middle of the field by playing just one deep safety, which freed up another defender (often linebacker De’Vondre Campbell) to be a lurker in the shallow middle of the field. That took away Green Bay’s patented in-breaking routes and also created as a soft spy on Aaron Rodgers.
When the Falcons kept two safeties back, Vic Beasley spied Rodgers behind just a three-man rush. That tells you how important Dan Quinn felt it was to counter Rodgers’s mobility. The Cowboys learned the hard way how dangerous the white-hot QB can be when he gets outside the pocket. Don’t be surprised if we see more spying and three-man rushes in the Falcons’ man coverages. They aren’t a big blitzing defense. They’ll bring the occasional pressure off the edge, though when the Cowboys did this last week, Rodgers was mostly excellent. Deep down Quinn probably knows his four-man rush won’t get home in this game (it’s an improved but still inconsistent rush). And this season, and especially lately, D-lines have not penetrated Green Bay’s offensive line.
And so the plan becomes this: you sit back in coverage and hope you can get just enough stops to keep the Packers to fewer than 30 points. It won’t be easy. Not only is Rodgers playing out of his mind, but with Cook, Montgomery and Cobb back, it’s also a much more diverse passing game. (It’s another reason to play man coverage; if you go zone, Green Bay can use its its formations to create mismatches.) The good news for the Falcons is they have a much better defense now than when the Packers last saw them.
Falcons’ O vs. Packers’ D
Even with the way Rodgers is playing, no offense is clicking on more cylinders than Atlanta’s. Green Bay’s approach in Week 8 turned out to be their vintage approach for this season. They played “big nickel” much of the game, with safety Micah Hyde in the slot and a 4-2 front that asked for a lot from its linemen and linebackers against the run. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers will stay in this package regardless of who’s in on offense. Last week they went big nickel even when the Cowboys buttressed their dominant ground game by playing an extra tight end or fullback. Tactically, Atlanta’s zone-based ground game is the same as Dallas’s. There’s no reason to think the Packers will do anything differently. They can afford to give up some rushing yards (against Dallas they allowed 138); with the way Rodgers is playing, preventing big plays over the top is what’s most important. Notably, the Packers this season allowed the second most 30-plus-yard plays in the NFL, while the Falcons; offense recorded the second most 30-plus-yard plays
Preventing big plays against Atlanta starts with handling Julio Jones. Capers was very deliberate in his approach here last time. Whenever possible, he played “2 man” against Jones, with LaDarius Gunter trailing him underneath and a safety rolling over the top. This is what the Packers did against Dez Bryant last week and, even more so, against Odell Beckham Jr. the week before. The Giants tried to punish them by moving Beckham all over, which can complicate your double-teams and leave you vulnerable elsewhere. The Packers survived that, but schematically, comparing the Giants’ passing attack to the Falcons’ is like comparing a high school physics class to a 400-level aerospace engineering course. It’s not Jones who should scare the Packers; it’s Matt Ryan and what he can do with his myriad weapons. The Jones double-teams will make the rest of the coverage more decipherable.
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