ATLANTA – Here was the nightmare scenario, only green turf between Aaron Rodgers and Atlanta Falcons defensive end Vic Beasley Jr., an invitation to smash the Green Bay Packers quarterback.
This impending possibility hung over Rodgers through Sunday night’s first half. Each snap flirted with disaster, no matter how quickly Rodgers released his passes, or how many running backs and tight ends chip blocked. Without their starting tackles, the Packers tried to piece together a semblance of an offense, something that could keep pace in the town they were blown out of nine months prior.
Early in the third quarter, the levee broke.
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Beasley took that invitation, smashing Rodgers hard enough to put a fright into all of Wisconsin. As the two-time MVP crashed on his right arm, his pass sailed behind the line of scrimmage. Cornerback Desmond Trufant returned the fumble 15 yards for a touchdown that lowlighted the Packers' 34-23 loss.
Trufant’s scoop and score gave the Falcons a 31-7 lead early in the third quarter, blowout territory much like the two team’s NFC championship game matchup in January. The Packers cut their deficit to 34-23 in the fourth quarter, but were never able to make the game competitive again.
If these two teams meet again this postseason, Sunday’s game will bear little indication of the outcome. The Packers were without left tackle David Bakhtiari, deciding not to risk further injuring his hamstring. He was inactive Sunday for the first time since late in 2015.
Right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who was not at the team facility Wednesday and Thursday because of the flu, also missed his second game to open the season because of an ankle injury.
In their place, the Packers moved second-year tackle Kyle Murphy from the right side to the left, and started Justin McCray at right tackle. McCray, listed as a guard on the Packers roster, allowed at least one sack and had a key false start on third-and-1.
Rodgers returned after his fumble and played through the rest of the game. That he survived without injury was the best thing that happened to the Packers on Sunday night. He took a second hard shot inside the game’s final minute from Falcons defensive end Adrian Clayborn.
BOX SCORE: Falcons 34, Packers 23
CHAT: Ryan Wood, 3 p.m. Monday
REPLAY: Packers-Falcons game blog
Often running from pressure, Rodgers’ rhythm and timing were thrown off much of the game. He was sacked three times, and finished with 33 completions in 50 attempts for 343 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
Even if it didn’t cost an injury to their quarterback, the Packers’ lack of starting tackles made their offense predictable. Unable to protect long enough to throw downfield, almost all of Rodgers’ passes were underneath, allowing the Falcons to sit on short and intermediate routes.
Initially, the Packers' offense showed life. After winning the opening coin toss and choosing to defer, Rodgers first saw the field after the Packers defense allowed a 9-play, 86-yard opening touchdown drive. The Packers answered with an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that included a trio of third-down conversions, and looked to have momentum after their defense forced an ensuing three-and-out.
Instead, the Packers’ disfigured offensive line began to buckle. Without two key starters, the Packers pass game was disjointed. The Falcons seized control with 24 unanswered points, equaling the first-half onslaught from January.
Similar to the NFC championship game, turnovers from the Packers offense did not help its defense. If Rodgers’ fumble pushed the score out of reach, his interception was the turning point. It came from the Packers’ 5-yard line in a 17-7 game and gave the Falcons possession and a short field 40 seconds before halftime.
Four plays later, the Falcons scored on running back Tevin Coleman’s 3-yard run 19 seconds before halftime. The touchdown gave them a 24-7 lead, pushing the Packers’ two-possession deficit to three.
After releasing LaDarius Gunter earlier in the week, the Packers needed a new cornerback to cover Falcons receiver Julio Jones. Damarious Randall got the first crack at it, and Davon House, Quinten Rollins and Kevin King would get their turns, but nothing worked. Jones had four catches for 95 yards in the first half alone, including 15 yards on third-and-12 that extended a touchdown drive.
Davante Adams led the Packers in receiving with eight catches for 99 yards, including a 33-yard touchdown on one of the rare plays Rodgers passed downfield.
The Packers return to Lambeau Field next week when they play the winless Cincinnati Bengals.