Two Days to Kickoff: 2 Falcons at Packers X-Factors

Looking beyond the teams' best players, here are two potential X-factors for Monday night's game.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers will host the Atlanta Falcons on Monday night. You know the big names: Aaron Rodgers, Aaron Jones and Davante Adams (maybe) for the undefeated Packers; Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley for the winless Falcons.

Going just a bit off the beaten path, here are two X-factors that could play a key role in this rematch of 2010 and 2016 playoff battles.

Green Bay: TE Robert Tonyan

Depending on the availability of Adams, Green Bay’s offense could be so severely short-handed that Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Darrius Shepherd and Malik Taylor are the primary receivers. No doubt Green Bay will want to run the football to take advantage of Jones and Jamaal Williams and to keep Ryan and Co. off the field; no doubt the Falcons will be aware of that plan.

Tight end Robert Tonyan could be the best bet on offense. He’s coming off the best game of his young career with five catches for 50 yards and one touchdown at New Orleans. The Saints’ defense followed Jones everywhere, which gave Tonyan plenty of room to operate.

Atlanta’s defense, which has given up the most points in the league, has not done well against tight ends. The Falcons have allowed 27 receptions for 238 yards and four touchdowns. That’s the second-most catches, third-most yards and tied for the most touchdowns.

“He was a little banged up last year and I think he came in real healthy this year and really excited,” offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. “Changed his body a little bit. Always going into that Year 2 system, I think you have some more confidence. I think that he’s definitely attacked it with more confidence this offseason along with the training camp and into the season, and he’s a guy that I think Aaron looks to and knows that he can trust, and I think that’s something that’s been real positive for him.”

Atlanta: RB Todd Gurley

OK, Gurley is one of the big-name running backs in the NFL. But that’s based more on Gurley’s distant past than his recent past.

In 2017 with the Rams – that was Packers coach Matt LaFleur’s one season as offensive coordinator – Gurley rushed for 1,305 yards and 13 touchdowns, caught 64 passes for 788 yards and six touchdowns, and led the NFL with 2,093 scrimmage yards and 19 total touchdowns. In 2018, Gurley rushed for 1,251 yards and 17 touchdowns, caught 59 passes for 580 yards and four touchdowns, and had 1,831 scrimmage yards and a league-leading 21 total touchdowns.

In the midst of all of that, the Rams gave Gurley a big contract. However, due to a chronic knee problem, his production plunged. Last season, he had only 1,064 yards from scrimmage and his yards per carry plunged from 4.9 in 2018 to 3.8 in 2019. The Rams dumped him in a cost-cutting move.

In three games with Atlanta, he’s rushed for 197 yards (4.0 average) and two touchdowns and caught three passes for 3 yards.

Atlanta’s passing game is loaded with Ryan throwing to Jones, Ridley, receiver Russell Gage and tight end Hayden Hurst. However, Green Bay is 29th with 5.48 yards allowed per carry and in the bottom four in receptions (24), yards (234) and touchdowns (two) allowed to running backs in the passing game.

“Man, I still see a big, explosive back that is good in all three phases,” LaFleur said on Saturday. “Certainly, he did a lot for us in the passing game, as well, not only as a receiver but as a blocker. I think Todd’s a complete back. I’ve got a lot of respect for him. He’s a guy that this game means a lot to. He puts a ton of time in and he would come to work each and every day ready to go. So, glad to see that he’s still doing well and I hope to contain him on Monday night.”

Countdown to Kickoff

Five Days: Five Keys to the Game

Four Days: Four Items from Inside the Falcons

Three Days: Three Reasons to Worry

Two Days: Two X-Factors

Rodgers and LaFleur: Go with the Flow

Shepherd: Second Chance

Tackling: Taking Deeper Look

Sportsbooks: ‘Shocked’ by Packers