This preview is a little different for me. With a whole season of stats, and having watched the Green Bay Packers over their last seventeen games, I know a lot more about what they can and cannot do. So unfortunately this column is more about how to beat the Packers and less about the Falcons.
But that doesn't mean I'm nervous about this game. I'm very confident the Packers are going to win. It could be another close game, like last week in Philadelphia, because the Falcons haven't allowed many points this season. Hopefully Mike McCarthy doesn't get overly enamored with the running game like he did last week (he only called two pass plays in the entire fourth quarter). Instead I'm expecting a better performance from the offense in weather neutral conditions. Packers 31, Falcons 17.
Can The Packers Beat The Falcons Run Defense?
The Falcons have a good defensive line led by DE John Abraham (who's not exactly a run defender) and they did a great job at shutting down RB Brandon Jackson when they played the Packers in November. But they've given up some big running plays, and big rushing performances, in their final five games to the Buccaneers and the anemic Panthers. The Packers might have more success with a healthy dose of RB James Starks, but they might run better anyway if the Falcons are worried about QB Aaron Rodgers torching them downfield on play-action.
Can The Packers Beat The Falcons Pass Defense?
Based on their performance last November, when Rodgers threw for 344 yards (9.8 yards per pass attempt), the Packers should be able to move downfield through the air. And while the Falcons are about as healthy as any team in the NFL, their nickel CB Brian Williams is still injured even after two weeks of rest. In their previous meeting, Rodgers didn't rely heavily on WR Greg Jennings (his 119 yards receiving is padded by a last second desperation play), and he spread the ball out instead. Seven different receivers had two or more receptions. There was even a sighting of No. 5 WR Brett Swain. However, the Falcons have been outstanding against the pass over their past five games.
Packers Run Defense
The Packers have had trouble stopping running backs who can bounce it outside. With their outside cornerbacks (Shields and Williams) in man coverage, they are often out of position to come up in run support along the sidelines, especially if the receiver he's covering clears out downfield. It's up to the outside linebacker to hold the edge, and if they are blocked, and can't get outside, a running back can find an open field. RB Michael Turner did this same thing to the Packers when he ran for 110 yards against them. Recently, RB Matt Forte had a big game when he bounced it outside for a couple big runs. But RB LeSean McCoy spent most of the Wild Card game trying to run between the tackles with little success.
Packers Pass Defense
The Packers have the number one ranked pass defense according to Football Outsiders, but it has some weaknesses too. In their last meeting, TE Tony Gonzalez had a big game, and that's typical for the Packers as they ranked only 22nd overall against tight ends this season according to Football Outsiders. Last week, the Eagles had success to WR Jason Avant in the middle of the field (CB Jarrett Bush didn't drop deep enough on Avant's touchdown pass between four defenders on a route down the hashmarks). The Falcons should consider asking more of TE Justin Peelle, who's only caught 10 passes (and one touchdown earlier this season against the Packers). His advanced stats on Football Outsiders show he's been successful, when he's give an opportunity. While it seems unlikely they'll feature Peelle, I didn't expect anything from Cardinals WR Early Doucet before he torched the Packers secondary in last season's Wild Card loss.
The Packers also gave up big gains to the Eagles on deep crossing routes to WR DeSean Jackson and WR Jeremy Maclin. The problem with those deep crossing routes is that the offensive line has to hold their blocks longer, and in their last meeting, the Falcons had QB Matt Ryan throw short passes for a high completion percentage. And now LB Clay Matthews is playing much better because his shin injury seems almost healed.
Packers Special Teams
This has been a sore spot all season (and for the past three seasons) but they won the battle on special teams last week against the Eagles. They had little control over the two missed field goals by K David Akers, but they held DeSean Jackson to only one punt return (on four punts by Tim Masthay) for 14 yards. Mike McCarthy has spoken this week about how they've had more consistency in the personnel on kick and punt coverages due to better health, and that has shown up on the field. Atlanta still has the edge with a great special teams unit led by Pro Bowl KR Eric Weems (who had a big return against the Packers back in November, and has scored two special teams touchdowns in December), but the Packers special teams showed last week that they can take away the big play.