GREEN BAY, Wis. – With a 3-0 record and the highest-scoring offense in the NFL, it’s little wonder why the Green Bay Packers are touchdown favorites to beat the Atlanta Falcons, who are 0-3 largely because they have the worst scoring defense in the NFL.
However, it seems impossible to believe Green Bay will be looking past Atlanta and to next week’s bye. That’s because a simple look at the roster will demonstrate the power of the Falcons’ offense.
Since the start of the 2016 season, when he won MVP, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan is No. 1 in the NFL with 19,390 passing yards and No. 3 with 126 touchdown passes. Since the start of the 2014 season, Julio Jones leads the NFL with 9,569 receiving yards – almost 1,400 yards more yards than anyone else. For this season, Calvin Ridley leads the NFL with 116.3 receiving yards per game.
Ryan and his receivers vs. the Green Bay defense will be the must-see battle. The Packers were built for matchups like this one. They’ve invested heavily in their pass rush, with the 2019 additions of Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Rashan Gary, and in their secondary, with early draft picks used on cornerbacks Jaire Alexander and Kevin King and the 2019 additions of safeties Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage.
“I think they’re playing with confidence, for sure,” Ryan said of Alexander and King. “They’re very aggressive. You can tell they’re very good in terms of studying film because they break on balls really well. They pattern recognize very well and I think they both have very good ball skills and play the ball very well in the air. We’ve got our work cut out for us, but that’s also an area where we’ve got some great players, too, that they have to contend with. So, I feel good about the guys that we have.”
Green Bay entered the week having allowed the third-fewest receptions to receivers in the NFL. However, the Packers dodged Detroit’s Kenny Golladay in Week 2 and New Orleans’ Michael Thomas in Week 3. Facing Jones and Ridley – who are questionable on the injury report but practiced this week and are expected to play – will be a different kettle of fish. Alexander's availability – a knee injury has him questoinable – has added yet another wrinkle.
“They’ve got two No. 1 receivers,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. “And anytime a team has two No. 1 receivers, and then you compound that with the fact that they’ve got an elite-level quarterback, they’ve got Todd Gurley there in the backfield along with a couple other guys, Hayden Hurst, I mean, there’s multiple weapons out on the field. So, the more weapons you have on the field, obviously, the tougher it is for a defense to defend. But we’ve got a lot of confidence in our guys, I feel like we’ve got a really good secondary, a lot of confidence in our corners.”
Jones is a freak who has torched the Packers in his career. On a Monday night in 2014 at Lambeau Field, he caught 11 passes for 259 yards and one touchdown. In the 2016 NFC Championship Game, he had nine receptions for 180 yards and two touchdowns. In 2018, when he met Alexander for the first time, he caught eight passes for 106 yards and two touchdowns. LaFleur, who spent the 2015 and 2016 seasons with Jones, said what makes Jones so dangerous is his intelligent and route-running ability combined with his elite physical tools.
Having Jones didn’t stop the Falcons from selecting Ridley with the 26th pick of the 2018 draft. After two solid seasons in which he averaged 64 receptions, 843 yards and 8.5 touchdowns, he has 21 receptions for 349 yards and four touchdowns to start this season.
“That first year, he was explosive for us and I thought he did a nice job last year, but I think just his level of comfort within the offense” is the difference, Ryan said. “There’s not a whole lot of thinking for him going on out on the field. When guys aren’t thinking, it allows their athleticism to really flourish. He seems to be playing free and confident, and I feel like he’s in a really good space in terms of his routine during the week of getting himself ready to go. And I think you’re just starting to see that come to fruition out on the field. He’s playing free and playing with confidence.”
Tackling the Issue
There were no excuses coming from the Packers about the litany of missed tackles last week at the Saints.
There was no panic, either. While the lack of an offseason, abbreviated training camp and absence of preseason games and scrimmages against other teams are factors, they weren’t used as a cloth to clean up the evidence from last week’s mess.
“It’s difficult but every defense in the league is in the same boat,” defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said on Friday. “And I thought up until the Saints game we had tackled pretty well from just how we chart the number of misses. Given the circumstances, I thought we had been solid. The number was up there against the Saints but, I want to say, six or seven of them came on, half of them, came on the one play. It’s not a reason for complete concern, just knowing that 41 from New Orleans is going to make a lot of people miss. As long as we’re not playing him every week, we’ll be OK.
“But, definitely, there were some good coaching points to it as far as when you’re going against a guy like that making sure you take that extra step, making sure you’re grabbing cloth and whatever it takes to get him on the ground and the angles that we’re taking. It was a good reminder and some good examples of kind of what to do and what not to do.”
That “one play” against “41,” of course, was the long touchdown catch-and-run by Saints running back Alvin Kamara in which he broke several tackles. As coaches like to say, the best teaching tape comes in victory. Ultimately, the Packers made enough plays to win the game – including Chandon Sullivan’s key third-down stop of Kamara that set up Green Bay’s clinching touchdown.
Through three weeks, the Packers had missed 23 tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. That was the 14th-most in the league, which lends credence to all the surrounding factors playing a role in the missed tackles. It’s also worth noting the Packers missed 32 tackles in the first three games of last season, then missed a total of 12 in their next three games. In 2018, which was Pettine’s first season as defensive coordinator, his team missed 35 tackles in the first three games but 16 in the next three.
With that history, it’s little wonder why Pettine wasn’t hitting the panic button. So, the team will continue to go about its business. The Packers, like every team, have some sort of tackling element at every practice. However, there’s no substitute for the real thing, and the real thing happens only on gamedays.
“Anything I say to that would be an excuse,” safety Adrian Amos said. “I look at any plays that I had, plays that I would want back, how I can work on it in practice, how I can take more game-like angles in practice and do my own personal responsibility each week. …
“The standards are the same standards every week. We’ve got to go out there, we’ve got to focus and dial in, and make our plays when it comes to it. It may be a little of that, it may be a little of just locking in. But moving forward, that’s what we’ve got to do. We have to lock in. We’ve got to make our plays when we have them.”
The best offensive lines are the ones that play and practice together.
That’s the theory, anyway, and it’s one that the Packers have turned on its head to start the season.
Green Bay has lined up with a different offensive line combination in each of its first three games. That figures to change on Monday, as Green Bay figures to line up for a second consecutive week with Lucas Patrick at right guard and Billy Turner at right tackle.
Green Bay has allowed two sacks in three games, its sack rate of 1.89 percent being the second-best in the NFL. Of 33 quarterbacks, Rodgers has thrown from a “clean pocket” on 78.4 percent of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s the fourth-highest rate in the NFL. Moreover, the Packers’ 5.54-yard rushing average is the second-best in the league.
“He’s one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time so, of course, you don’t ever want to let him get a hit,” Turner said. “Aside from that, honestly, our mentality as an offensive line is to go out there and to give it everything that we’ve got every single play. It’s not necessarily that we’re out there just consciously, ‘Oh, we can’t give up a sack.’ You don’t want to play tight; you want to play loose and you want to be able to adapt to whatever’s thrown at you. If we are playing a team that has a great front seven that is built to rush the passer play in and play out, we rely on our coaching staff to put us in great positions to kind of dumb down that rush. We’ve got one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. We want to keep him upright as much as possible.”
Given ample time, Rodgers has shot opposing secondaries full of holes. His clean-pocket passer rating of 133.7 is second in the league on the strength of eight touchdowns vs. zero interceptions.
He should have time on Monday, too. Defensively, the Falcons enter the game 25th in sack percentage (4.44 percent). Of their 23 quarterback hits, a team-high seven belong to defensive end Takk McKinley, who is inactive.
If there’s time, can Rodgers’ receivers get open? Davante Adams (hamstring) is questionable and said he won’t play and Allen Lazard (core muscle) is on injured reserve. The Falcons will be without two of their top cornerbacks, with Darqueze Dennard and A.J. Terrell on reserve lists.
“Sacks are an interesting stat, because there’s so much that goes into it,” Rodgers said. “There’s obviously winning your one-on-one matchup or your slide matchup. There’s protection elements to it and then, from me, getting the ball out. There’s a fine line between scrambling and trying to keep the play alive and dealing the ball. I think overall, it’s been a great balance of all that. Not having to throw to move outside the pocket a bunch, because protection is solid, and then also the guys are open on the right timing. We’ve been getting guys open on time, so there’s no need to hold the ball.”
Playing with Action
Not surprisingly considering the offenses share the same roots, both teams run the football to set up their play-action passing game. And they’ve both been wildly effective. Through three weeks, according to PFF, Ryan’s play-action passer rating of 137.8 ranked second in the NFL. Rodgers’ play-action passer rating of 134.0 ranked fourth.
Rodgers destroyed the Saints, who were so focused on Aaron Jones that they turned a blind eye to a series of bootlegs. According to Zebra Sports, Rodgers completed 13-of-17 passes for 160 yards and three touchdowns on play action last week.
“That’s one of the things that helped open up the play action and those deep shots down the field,” Jones said. “Their safeties were already biting on the run. They were already stepping up and, some of the plays I didn’t have the ball, they were stepping up, which allows Lazard or MVS to get behind the defense and go make big plays. So, that’s fine with me. Let ‘12’ do it and the receivers. As long as we’re putting points up on the board and we come out with that W, that’s all that matters to me.”
Adams’ announcement on Twitter had an immediate impact on the line. At BetMGM, the Packers went from seven-point favorites to six-point favorites. The over/under – the highest of the week – dipped slightly from 57 to 56.5.
At FanDuel as of Sunday morning, the overwhelming percentage of the money had gone on the Packers.
Stats That Aren’t for Losers
– According to the Elias Sports Bureau via the Packers’ Dope Sheet preview, Green Bay is the first team in NFL history with 35-plus points and zero turnovers in each of its first three games of a season. Moreover, the Packers and the 2013 Denver Broncos are the only teams to have 120-plus points and 1,375-plus yards through the first three games.
– While Atlanta is last in the NFL in points allowed, it’s worth noting the defense forced five turnovers the past two weeks and entered Week 4 with the ninth-best third-down percentage. Not only does Green Bay have zero giveaways, but it’s sixth on third down with a 50.0 percent conversion rate.
– Since 2014, Green Bay is 6-1 on “Monday Night Football” while Atlanta is 5-1.
– Of all coaches in NFL history with at least 19 games on his resume, LaFleur’s 16-3 record is tied with Elgie Tobin (also 16-3) for the best in league history. Tobin accomplished that one century ago with the Akron Pros. With a win on Monday, LaFleur’s 17-3 would be an .850 winning percentage. The best for any coach with at least 20 games in the Super Bowl era belongs to John Madden, who finished his career 103-32-7 for .759.
– Offensively, Green Bay has only one fumble. It will have to be wary of Falcons linebacker Foye Oluokun, who forced three fumbles in the first quarter against the Cowboys last week. He became the second player since 1991 to force three fumbles in one quarter. The other? Green Bay’s Vonnie Holliday against Buffalo on Dec. 22, 2002.
– Both quarterbacks like to go deep. Through three weeks, Rodgers was 10-of-24 for 400 yards and two touchdowns on passes thrown 20-plus yards downfield, according to PFF. That was by far the most deep attempts in the NFL. Ryan was third on deep attempts, going 8-of-18 for 267 yards and two touchdowns. Ridley was tied for the league lead with five receptions on deep passes.
“You can see that’s a big part of their plan in their opening script is to get you loosened up,” Pettine said. “Just look at the first play of the game against Chicago. To have guys that can – Matt Ryan throws a heck of a deep ball and they’ve got guys that can get deep in a hurry. So, certainly it’s nothing that’s going to surprise us. There’s plenty of examples off it on tape.”
The Last Word Goes to …
Ryan, on playing with no fans at Lambeau Field: “It’ll be different for sure, but it’s one of the best places to play. Playing without fans in the buildings – it was a little different in Dallas – but it will probably be unique, a ‘Monday Night Football’ game up there without the crowd, but there’s an aura up there. There’s a vibe. There’s like ghosts in the building that I’m sure will be there Monday night. It will still be a lot of fun and I always enjoy going up there and playing in that stadium.”