Leaky pass defenses to be tested on Sunday
The Associated Press
The Green Bay Packers’ blueprint to slow down Atlanta in the NFC championship game focuses on turning the high-octane Falcons into a one-dimensional offense.
It sounds simple enough. But this plan could be tough to execute for the Packers with their injury issues in the secondary. It’s tough enough to contain All-Pros Matt Ryan and Julio Jones with a healthy defense.
Linebacker Clay Matthews is eager to take on the next test when the Packers visit the Georgia Dome on Sunday.
“I think that’s easier said than done. But that’s ultimately what we strive for each and every week,” Matthews said about slowing down Atlanta’s fifth-ranked rushing attack to create favorable pass-rushing situations. “It’s about stopping the run and getting after the quarterback.”
The Falcons’ own leaky pass defense will also be stressed.
Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers has been nearly unstoppable of late, with 21 touchdown passes and one interception over an eight-game winning streak that stretches back to the regular season.
“We love a challenge,” Falcons cornerback Robert Alford said when asked if he was insulted by predictions of a high-scoring game.
But the conditions do seem ripe for a shootout, just like when Atlanta beat Green Bay 33-32 in Week 8. The Packers were ranked 31st out of 32 teams in the regular season in pass defense (269.3 yards per game); the Falcons were 28th (266.7 yards) in the league.
Rush just three or four defenders against Rodgers, and he can make quick, accurate throws to keep the chains moving, or look for creases to run for a first down. Blitz Rodgers and he can extend plays outside the pocket.
This is part of what makes Rodgers elite, Atlanta cornerback Jalen Collins said.
“Just his ability to get out the pocket once a play breaks down and make plays with his feet, whether it be finding an open guy down the field or scrambling for a few yards or a first down,” Collins said.
Like the Packers, the Falcons have lost key players in the secondary.
Collins, a second-round draft pick in 2015, stepped up after top cornerback Desmond Trufant went down with a season-ending shoulder injury in early November. Safety Kemal Ishmael, a part-time starter, also had season-ending shoulder injury in December. In nickel defenses, the Falcons have had to rely heavily on undrafted rookie cornerback Brian Poole.
The Falcons could get a break if some of the receivers on the Packers’ lengthy injury report can’t go. Top wideout Jordy Nelson (ribs) was limited in practice at midweek, while coach Mike McCarthy has said second-leading receiver Davante Adams (ankle) might not practice until Saturday.
The injuries are serious enough that the Packers might have already declared Nelson and Adams out if it were the regular season, McCarthy said.
“But obviously this is a different time, and this is a different point where we are in the season,” he said Thursday. “Everybody understands what’s on the line here.”
That includes veteran safety Morgan Burnett, an important piece in the secondary for his solid work against the run and pass. Burnett didn’t practice at midweek because of a quadriceps injury suffered in last week’s win over Dallas.
Having Burnett would help Green Bay match up against Falcons running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, who combined for 85 catches and three touchdowns in the regular season.
“We know that Morgan is a very strong person and he’s going to do everything in his power to play in this game,” said rookie Kentrell Brice, who could step in if Burnett can’t play.
But the Falcons’ biggest threat in the passing game is the 6-foot-4 Jones, who had six catches for 67 yards and a score last week against Seattle. Cornerback has been one of the areas hardest hit by injuries this season.
LaDarius Gunter, who had a decent outing two weeks ago in the wild-card game against the Giants matched up against receiver Odell Beckham Jr., would likely draw the assignment against Jones. Gunter also got burned in last week’s divisional-round win against Dallas by Dez Bryant, who finished with nine catches for 132 yards and two scores.
Yet the Packers might draw some confidence from the fact they were also short-handed for their first meeting in Atlanta but lost only after Ryan connected with Mohamed Sanu for an 11-yard touchdown pass with 31 seconds left.
Matthews, along with cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, each missed the game with injuries. Randall is healthy again, though Rollins (neck/concussion) hasn’t played since getting hurt in the regular-season finale against Detroit.