Falcons' respect for Rodgers backfires
Stubbornly, they planted their feet 12 yards behind the line of scrimmage most of the night.
Atlanta Falcons safeties Dwight Lowery and Kemal Ishmael never budged, never adapted, never crept closer to the box until the very end. Want to gauge how much respect Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers earned from opposing defenses in his first 100 starts?
Check the game film from No. 100, a 43-37 win for the Packers on Monday Night Football.
Running backs Eddie Lacy and James Starks ran roughshod against the Falcons defense in the first half. The duo scored Green Bay's first three touchdowns – two on the ground, one through the air. They combined for 133 yards from scrimmage in the opening 30 minutes, and Green Bay took a 31-7 lead to the locker room.
It would be only natural to adjust at halftime, drop one safety into the box. Not with Rodgers behind center. When they came out for the second half, Lowery and Ishmael once again planted their feet 12 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Again, they didn't budge, right up until Green Bay went into four-minute offense mode.
At that point, the Falcons knew the Packers would run the football and milk clock.
Randall Cobb hadn't seen the snap-by-snap count when he spoke with reporters after the game, but the Packers receiver correctly assumed his offense hadn't faced that many two-high safety looks this season.
"They did play a lot of two-high, but with that our running game came into effect," Cobb said. "It was huge for us tonight."
Atlanta's relentless respect for Rodgers was foreshadowed last week. When Falcons coach Mike Smith spoke with local media, he gushed over the MVP frontrunner. No quarterback, he said, has had a stretch like his in NFL history. Smith called Rodgers' play "off the charts."
He was right, of course. On Monday, Rodgers completed 24-of-36 passes for 327 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He ran for another 28 yards on five carries. It was his eighth game this season with at least three touchdown passes and no interceptions, tying the NFL record Tom Brady set in 2007. Rodgers has three games to pass Brady.
That's not the only record Rodgers set – or extended – Monday. He's now thrown 396 consecutive passes and 34 straight touchdowns at home without an interception, a streak that spans two years.
Then, there's the big picture.
Excellence may be best compared in increments. Rodgers' 100 starts offer a nice, round sample size. He has more touchdown passes (222), passing yards (27,520) and 100-plus passer rating games (60) than any quarterback through their first 100 NFL starts. He also has fewer interceptions (54), the best passer rating (107.3) and best touchdown-to-interception ratio (4.11).
That's a whole lot of blue ribbons.
"It's been a great 100 games started," Rodgers said, looking back. "When you're a young player, you can only dream about these kind of opportunities, and then you get into it and you think, 'I'd love to do 100 more.' It's fun to be able to be healthy after 13 weeks, and to be able to play the way I want to play."
His performance was no surprise.
Entering Monday, the Falcons were ranked dead last in the NFL in total defense. They were the only team in the league allowing more than 400 yards per game. Green Bay posted 502 yards, mostly against Atlanta's two-high safeties.
It wasn't a flawless performance. The Packers only scored 3 points in the third quarter, an uncommonly low amount for a 15-minute span at home. They finished with 12 points in the second half, leaving the door ever so slightly ajar.
Coupled with a putrid defensive performance, it was enough for the Falcons to make Monday night's game closer than most expected.
"You're not going to beat every team by 30 or 40 points," right guard T.J. Lang said. "The Falcons definitely showed a lot of heart there in the second half."
So did the Packers' offensive line.
Yes, Green Bay was expected to roll over Atlanta, which dropped to 5-8 but continues to lead the alarmingly subpar NFC South. Still, the Packers' running game hadn't experienced much success in recent meetings with the Falcons. Green Bay rushed for fewer than 3.5 yards per carry in each of their past four meetings since 2010. As a team, they'd only exceeded 100 rushing yards in one of those games.
With two-high safeties, Atlanta dared Green Bay to run the football Monday. The Packers responded with 179 rushing yards on 30 carries, an average of 6 yards per rush.
"The last couple times we played the Falcons, they shut our running game down," Lang said. "We kind of had a chip on our shoulder about that. It was good to see us run the ball, especially like we did in the first half."
Green Bay attacked Atlanta's two-high safeties with more than running plays. The Packers passing game settled for what the Falcons' defense gave them, with Rodgers checking down to both running backs. Lacy finished with five catches for 33 yards and a touchdown. Starks didn't have a touchdown catch, but his 26 receiving yards on two grabs were his second-highest total this season.
The Packers stayed with their check downs through the first three quarters, patiently waiting. They finally took their shot with a little more than 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter. Rodgers found Nelson deep over the middle for a 60-yard touchdown catch that gave Green Bay a 40-24 lead, essentially breaking Atlanta's back.
As the temperatures continue to drop and the stages get bigger, this will be the formula. Green Bay knows it can expect mostly two-high safeties in the playoffs. One hundred starts into his career, Rodgers has demanded that kind of respect.
With balance, the Packers continue to show they're up to the challenge.
"When you look at our offense, I think it's kind of pick your poison," Lang said. "If you're going to single up on the receivers we have, it can be dangerous. If you're going to sit back, we've been running the ball well enough lately that I think we're going to take advantage of that too.
"Obviously, we know when they play two-high, we're going to have to be able to run the ball a lot. I think we did a good enough job of that tonight to make them respect the run a little bit more than they had planned."
-- firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood