Senior writer jclombardi–Packers vs Falcons preview, keys & game plan.
Preview: Teams: Packers (11-6) vs. Falcons (13-3). Time: Saturday 7 p.m. CST. Place: Georgia Dome, Atlanta. TV coverage: FOX. The injury report: Packers – LB Frank Zombo (knee) is out. C/G Jason Spitz (calf), FB Korey Hall (knee) and S Atari Bigby (groin) are questionable. LB Diyral Briggs (ankle), RT Bryan Bulaga (shoulder), LT Chad Clifton (knees), WR Donald Driver (knee), DE Cullen Jenkins (calf), LB Clay Matthews (shin) DE Ryan Pickett (ankle) and CB Charles Woodson (toe) are probable. Line: Falcons are favored by 2 ½ points.
BREAKDOWN: THINGS TO WATCH–Stark reality: Rookie James Starks was the talk of the town after his 123-yard performance in Sunday’s NFC Wild Card victory over Philadelphia. The Packers’ offense could certainly use the help. The last time they played in Atlanta, in a 20-17 loss to the Falcons on Nov. 28, RB Jackson ran 10 times for only 26 yards. While the abandonment of the run was because of the matchups, the Packers felt they could exploit in the secondary with their Big Five five-receiver set, the lack of productivity on the ground was an issue.
Running for cover: The Falcons’ ability to run the ball, meanwhile, was vital to their success in the first meeting, with Michael Turner bowling over the Packers defense for 110 yards in what several players termed the unit’s worst tackling performance of the season. According to DC Capers, some of the blame was on player execution, but other plays were the result of his poor defensive calls. Another problem for the Packers in the first meeting was when Falcons OC Mularkey would bring an extra offensive lineman onto the field as a blocking tight end, the way the Packers once did with Kevin Barry in their U-71 package in the mid-2000s. How the Packers counter that this time, with a four-man defensive line, or using big Howard Green more frequently – will also be key. The Falcons were 7-0 in games in which Turner eclipsed the 100-yard mark. As challenging as it may be to tackle him, the Packers must do a better job in order to win.
Getting after it: Turner’s positive runs on early downs were key in the first meeting for another reason, too: They made life easier for quarterback Matt Ryan, who had just four incompletions and was sacked only twice. On the game-winning drive, Ryan was able to get the ball out quickly when Capers went after him with aggressive blitzes, setting up the Matt Bryan’s field goal to win it. The challenge for Capers against the smart and decisive Ryan is to get pressure in him despite his ability to go through his progressions quickly and get the ball out. Because Ryan seldom makes a mistake (eight interceptions), the Falcons finished third in the NFL in 10-plus play drives, meaning they are capable of methodically moving down the field and playing keep-away from opposing offenses. A well-timed pressure that forces a third-down incompletion or interception would be a game-turner. Getting the Falcons to commit turnovers is difficult. They finished third in the NFL in turnover differential (plus-14), largely because they only gave the ball away 17 times – the Packers finished fourth in differential, at plus-10, after turning it over 22 times – and lost only nine fumbles.
In the zone: The Packers loss on Nov. 28, if you ask their offensive players, came down to two failed trips inside the Falcons’ 20-yard line. The red-zone issues were particularly troublesome, but the coaches didn’t need to harp on the importance with the players this week. THE PREDICTION–The post-game locker room from the Packers’ loss to the Falcons on Nov. 28 was one of the more surprising I’ve been in. I went in expecting an angry, irritated team that had led a chance at barging into the NFC’s competition for the No. 1 seed slip away. This team a) is completely convinced it is better than Atlanta and would have won that game if not for two crucial errors; and the Packers, especially Rodgers, prefer to play in the climate-controlled confines of a dome over the chill of Lambeau Field. We’ll see if it works out for them, but the guess here is Packers 27. Falcons 20.
Things to watch: THE PASS GAME–Finish red zone drives. In the Nov. 28 game, the Packers wide receivers gained 138 of their 290 yards after the catch. The Falcons sat in soft zones and Green Bay couldn’t finish drives. BALANCED ATTACK: In the first game, coach Mike McCarthy got so sick of his impotent run game that he junked it and used shotgun formation on 66% of the plays. “Starks would hurt Atlanta,” an opposing coach said. “If you get Atlanta in regular personnel, you got Mike Peterson in the lineup and he’s getting older and isn’t as effective (in coverage). The Falcons take John Abraham off the field in two-back. It may change for the playoffs, but Abraham is by far the best player on their defense.” Added another scout: “Abraham can be a (expletive). He’s not a power guy. He’s got the speed, then he counters and spins back inside. I think you want to run at Atlanta.”
DEFENSIVE MATCHUPS–CB Woodson must be solid: Because Atlanta has a strong running game, the Packers probably will play more of their 3-4 defense than normal. By doing so, Charles Woodson would be playing outside rather than from the slot. ON TARGET–blitz pressure and tight coverage: On Nov. 28, Matt Ryan completed 24 of 28 passes (85.7%) and had a passer rating of 108. The Packers sacked him twice. TURNER THE BURNER–limit Falcons running game: The common denominator in the Falcons’ three defeats was the inability of Michael Turner to break free on the ground. Turner averaged 94.3 yards in Atlanta’s 13 victories; he gained 110 against Green Bay.
Keys to the game–With RB James Starks coming off a franchise postseason rookie record 123 rushing yards at Philadelphia, McCarthy can devise a more balanced attack to keep Atlanta off-balance, control the ball more and set up vertical shots. The Falcons put on a clinic in Week 12, with RB Michael Turner rushing for 110 yards and a touchdown to set up a highly efficient passing attack. The Packers’ defensive strength lies in their pass rush and ball-hawking secondary. The Falcons will again attempt to establish Turner out of the gate, sustain drives and control the tempo. Ryan spread the ball to nine different receivers while focusing on the intermediate passing game.
Game plan–The Packers could go one of two ways with their diversified offense. They made liberal use of the pass with only 11 rushing attempts by running backs in the narrow loss to the Falcons in Week 12. A preponderance of spread formations, including 18 plays out of empty sets, had the Atlanta defense on its heels. Yet, the Falcons surely have a better handle on that for the rematch. That might mean a heavy dose of running the football with James Starks a second straight week. The Falcons will provide a stiffer challenge up front, so if Starks isn’t producing right away, head coach/play caller Mike McCarthy won’t be averse to quickly fall into one-dimensional mode and take his chances. The charge for the Green Bay defense is to keep Atlanta from generating methodical drives of five-plus minutes that were the rage in the first meeting. To do so, the Packers will need to speed up the tempo by getting after quarterback Matt Ryan with steady pressure packages and try to rattle him into a rare mistake. Ryan, who was sacked only twice, completed all but four of his 28 passes in the teams’ first encounter. Pro Bowl back Michael Turner was a difference maker in that game with 23 carries for 110 yards. To make sure they hem Turner in with enough bodies, the Packers may load the box and trust one-on-one pass coverage on the outside from Tramon Williams and Sam Shields against the explosive Roddy White and Michael Jenkins.