Senior writer jclombardi: Eagles scouting report & Packers improved running game.
Eagles scouting report: Rushing Offense–Coordinator Mularkey calls plays for an offense that ranked No. 16 in total yards, No. 10 in rushing and No. 5 in points. It’s a balanced attack with a pass-to-run ratio of 54.7-to-45.3 in the regular season. Halfback Turner is a key piece in the offense and ranked No. 3 in the NFL in rushing (1,371 yards). He helps the Falcons control the ball and the clock. The offensive line isn’t overly talented, but the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and is well schooled. The right side of the line sets the tough tone and is especially nasty with guard Harvey Dahl (6-5, 305) and tackle Tyson Clabo (6-6, 331). Ovie Mughelli is a Pro Bowl fullback. Passing Offense–Though Matt Ryan’s statistics are only OK, he’s become a premier quarterback in only his third NFL season. His most impressive number is his record at the Georgia Dome, where he’s 20-2 as a starter. His passer rating this season was 91.0 points, which is OK but fails to reflect his standing in the league as a deserving Pro Bowler. They shorten games with ball control but put up points when they get the chance. He has two excellent weapons in the passing game, receiver White and tight end Gonzalez, Pro Bowlers both. Rushing Defense–Just like on offense, coach Mike Smith’s defense is as tough and sound as they come, though it lacks the top playmakers on the other side of the ball. Also like on offense, the Falcons ranked No. 16 in yards allowed but No. 5 in points allowed, which reflects the toughness and smarts to avoid back-breaking mistakes. Passing Defense–Defensive end John Abraham (6-4, 263) still is a force as an outside rusher and is going to his fourth Pro Bowl. His 13 sacks were fifth-most in the league and increase his total to 102½ in his 11-year NFL career. The next-leading sacker is Babineaux with four for a defense that ranks only No. 25 in sacks percentage. The Falcons’ secondary is average and the most vulnerable part of the team. But like the rest of the team, the defensive backs are smart and tough enough to compensate for any physical shortcomings, and the Falcons’ 22 interceptions were fourth-most in the league this season. Special Teams–Eric Weems is the NFC’s Pro Bowl return man. He ranked No. 3 in the league in average per kickoff return. Punter Koenen is a directional, fair-catch punter who had bad numbers, but had only 28 of 74 punts returned. He’s stronger legged on kickoffs and tied for No. 3 in touchbacks. Kicker Bryant is having his best season.
Packers bring stronger running game vs Falcons: Six weeks ago, coach McCarthy went to Atlanta armed with a game plan so heavy on pass plays that the Packers’ running backs carried the ball just 11 times. McCarthy’s mantra was to spread out the Falcons and let his QB Rodgers distribute the ball to his receivers and tight ends. The game marked the return of the Big Five–five-receiver set and a heavy dose of three and four-receiver sets. Rodgers had his second-most productive game of the season with 344 yards while completing all but nine of his 36 passes. He spread the ball around to nine different pass catchers, seven of which had two or more receptions. But the lack of a running game, Rodgers was the leading rusher with 51 yards on 12 attempts, made the Packers easier to defend when it came time to put the ball in the end zone. They converted just half of their four red-zone drives and came away 20-17 losers. Less than two months later, the Packers will return to Atlanta for Saturday night’s NFC divisional playoff game against the top-seeded Falcons with a more well-rounded offense. McCarthy attacked the Falcons the way he did the last time around because he correctly saw a weakness in their pass defense, which finished the regular season ranked 22nd in yards allowed. What’s strikingly different is the Packers’ running back. He’s rookie James Starks. He’s coming off the best playoff performance by a rookie running back in team history. He rushed for 123 yards on 23 carries in Sunday’s wild-card playoff victory at Philadelphia. “He’ll run the ball against Atlanta, if that’s what you’re asking me,” McCarthy said. “He’s earned that.” The Packers might have beaten the Falcons the first time around had they had a running game like the one Starks provided against the Eagles. McCarthy and his coaching staff no doubt took all of that into account when they spent most of Monday game planning for the Falcons. Likewise, Falcons coach Mike Smith and his staff will have the luxury of studying Starks’ performance and how the Packers used him before they decide how to attack Rodgers and the offense.