Green Bay — Barring a playoff rematch, Sunday will mark the fifth and final game for the Green Bay Packers against the Atlanta Falcons in the 25-year-old Georgia Dome.
At the start of this decade the two teams played three important games there in less than 11 months. The Packers (4-2), who won two of the three, are a three-point underdog in a game with postseason ramifications.
“It will be an interesting, entertaining matchup,” an executive in personnel said Tuesday. “The decisive factor to me is the Packers’ secondary vs. Julio Jones. That secondary is beat up. They don’t have anybody who can match up. (Matt) Ryan will exploit that.”
The personnel man called it for Atlanta, 31-28. Two others also forecast victory for the Falcons, 31-21 and 27-24. A defensive assistant coach for a recent Falcons’ opponent tabbed Atlanta, 31-24.
In some ways, the divisional playoff game on a Saturday night at the Georgia Dome in January 2011 was the coming-out party for quarterback Aaron Rodgers. In one of his most spectacular performances, Rodgers posted a passer rating of 136.8 as the sixth-seeded Packers buried the top-seeded Falcons, 48-21.
Three weeks later, Green Bay won the Super Bowl.
“But I’ve watched Rodgers and he’s definitely not like he used to be,” the assistant said. “They can say whatever they want. The tape and the stats are what they are. He’s off.
“Atlanta’s defense isn’t anything great but the (offense) has been able to score a lot of points. And it’ll be a challenge playing in Atlanta.”
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The Falcons (4-3) have lost two straight following a four-game winning streak but still lead the NFC South Division.
“I like Atlanta to stop their bleeding at home in the dome,” an AFC personnel man said. “Matt Ryan, Julio and the passing game get back on track against Green Bay’s backup cornerbacks.”
Another AFC scout said the Falcons’ 14th-ranked running attack and second-ranked passing game will be too much for the Packers’ seventh-ranked defense.
Next year, the Falcons will move into $1.4-billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium, a retractable dome nearing completion just south of the current facility that will be razed in mid-2017.
“Julio Jones is playing at the top of his game,” one scout said. “He’s dominant right now. He just overpowers DBs. The quarterback will force it into him and push it downfield. The result is a prolific offense.”
Kyle Shanahan, the second-year coordinator, had the same post in Houston, Washington and Cleveland. His downfield passing game (14.2 yards per reception) is based off play-action and, at times, from two-back sets. The Falcons mix in misdirection plays with pulling linemen but their run game is predominately zone. Their run rate is 41.1%. The Falcons rank first in yards (433.6) and points (32.7), and tied for seventh in giveaways (six).
WR Julio Jones (6-2½, 220), the sixth pick in 2011, is in the prime of his career at 27 and might be the best in the business. His combine numbers bear repeating: 4.39-second 40, 38½-inch vertical jump, 11-3 broad jump, 17 reps on the bench press and Wonderlic score of 15. He’s big, fast, tough and a sharp route runner. He’s working from tighter splits than earlier in his career, giving him more two-way-go opportunities. Mohamed Sanu (6-1½, 210) left Cincinnati in March for $14 million guaranteed to replace departed Roddy White. Sanu, a 48-game starter, is a solid possession man with long arms, sure hands and modest speed (4.58). He’s a one-speed strider who needs schematic help to get open. Three other WRs don’t have much to offer. TE Jacob Tamme (6-3½, 230), a Peyton Manning favorite in Indianapolis and Denver, has 277 catches in nine seasons and is trusted now by Matt Ryan. He’s undersized, smart (Wonderlic of 34), runs pretty well and sells his routes. However, he can’t block a lick. Levine Toilolo (6-8, 265), a fourth-round pick in ’13, has 40 career starts and 61 catches. He’s a huge target but runs just 4.82. Blocking is his strongest suit. Rookie Austin Hooper (6-3½, 254), a third-round pick, isn’t a physical blocker but will sneak deep.
Former Brown Alex Mack (6-4, 311), who received $28.5 million guaranteed in March, easily rates as a top-10 center. He looks rejuvenated after years of losing. He’s tough, smart and competitive. As a run blocker, he’s like the entire unit: better on combination blocks than straight-ahead. His pass protection is good, not great. He has some balance issues and ends up on the ground too much. LT Jake Matthews (6-5½, 309), the sixth pick in ’14, is a middle-of-the-pack starter looking to elevate his play. He’s a good athlete, technically sound and fast to the second level. Shorter arms (33 7/8 inches) hamper him in protection, and he doesn’t play heavy in the run game. RT Ryan Schraeder (6-7, 315), a former free agent and three-year starter, offers more size and physicality than the other starters and has been at least OK against edge rushers. Undersized LG Andy Levitre (6-2½, 303) has started 119 straight games for the Bills, Titans and Falcons. His play has improved to a level of adequacy. He compensates for short arms (32½) by setting quick and punching hard. Neither Levitre (Wonderlic of 36) nor RG Chris Chester (6-3½, 303), a 134-year game starter in 11 years, is reliable against stunts. Chester, 33, is the poorest of the five but still moves well.
Matt Ryan (6-4½, 217) is off to a great start with a 113.6 passer rating that lifted his career mark to 92.0. He’s charismatic, tough and poised. At 31, he appears to have lost a little off his fastball but his deep-ball accuracy is superb. He isn’t much of a runner and is much less effective throwing on the move. That’s where many of his terrible interceptions emanate. His Wonderlic is 28. Backup Matt Schaub (6-5½, 245) has a career rating of 89.1 and record of 47-45. He’s 35.
The loss of Tevin Coleman (hamstring) will force Devonta Freeman (5-8, 206) to increase his workload. Freeman has wiggle, toughness, stop-start quickness and creativity in his runs. He catches the ball well but is marginal in protection. Coleman, with sizzling speed, had 132 receiving yards against Denver. On Tuesday, the Falcons promoted Terron Ward (5-6, 201) from the practice squad and signed veteran Stevan Ridley (5-11½, 225). Ward, undersized but hard-nosed, played 114 snaps in ’15. Ridley, a 1,000-yard rusher in ’12, blew out a knee in ’14. FB Patrick DiMarco (6-0½, 234), a 34-game starter, is OK.
Second-year coordinator Richard Smith is implementing the Seahawks’ defense for coach Dan Quinn. It’s a 4-3 “under” look with three-deep zone as its primary coverage. In base, the SLB plays on the line. The Falcons jacked up a tepid pass rush in Games 5-7 with extensive stunting; at times, they’re looping two blockers. They rank tied for 17th in takeaways (eight), 26th in yards (386.1) and 27th in points (28.4).
It’s unlikely any team surpasses the average age (28.9) of this nine-man rotation. Nobody stands out. The oldest, 36-year-old Dwight Freeney (6-1, 268), might be the best. He’s way past his prime but that all-time spin move and unselfish work on twists still pay dividends. Former Buc Adrian Clayborn (6-2½, 280) joins Freeney in sub, rushes inside and outside and provides a hustling, brawling presence. NT Grady Jarrett (6-0½, 305), a fifth-round pick in ’15, is just too small and gets displaced. He’s an effort player who can be disruptive on the move. Base DT Tyson Jackson (6-4, 305), the third pick in ’09, is exactly what he was in Kansas City: no rush, hard to budge. Former Texan OLB Brooks Reed (6-2½, 254) is a gung-ho bull rusher with minimal production. DT Jonathan Babineaux (6-2, 300), a 12th-year Falcon, still is a threat because of initial quickness and savvy. DT Ra’Shede Hageman (6-6, 318), a second-round pick in ’14, is a physical specimen but plays without passion and is a nonfactor. Courtney Upshaw (6-1½, 272), the Ravens’ second-round pick as an OLB in ’12, now plays with his hand down inside and outside. Rugged against the run, he generates little rush.
Trying to inject speed, the Falcons benched three-year starter and productive tackler Paul Worrilow (6-2, 230) to start rookies Deion Jones (6-1, 222) at MLB and De’Vondre Campbell (6-3½, 234) at WLB. Jones, a second-round pick, has tremendous speed (4.45), a Wonderlic of 28 and intriguing run-hit style. He flows fast but also can be inconsistent reading his keys. Campbell, a fourth-round pick, also has terrific speed (4.56) that is evident in coverage. He’s athletic, has long arms (33 5/8) and shows promise. Both rookies, however, are prone to mistakes and could use the steadying influence of a veteran. SLB Vic Beasley (6-3, 246) starts in base but his major role is at LE in sub. With 4.53 speed and a 41-inch vertical jump, he’s probably the team’s No. 1 rusher. For now, he’s a one-trick pony: all speed, no moves or power. Well-traveled WLB Philip Wheeler (6-2, 245), 31, is big and tough but remains a liability in coverage.
Perhaps the best player on defense is CB Desmond Trufant (5-11½, 190), the 22nd pick in ’13. A four-year starter, he’s a top-25 cornerback with 4.43 speed, good discipline and competitive spirit. In that same draft, GM Thomas Dimitroff selected CB Robert Alford (5-10, 186) in the second round. Alford is even faster (4.36) than Trufant, probably a better athlete and has fine ball skills. However, Alford can’t keep his hands off receivers and already has been penalized 10 times (two declined). He is scrappy but needs to tighten up fast. Nickel back Brian Poole (5-9½, 213), a rookie free agent, played for Quinn at Florida. He lacks top speed (4.50) but has held up OK. Rookie SS Keanu Neal (6-0½, 211), the 17th pick, delivers wicked shots on a weekly basis in his role as a box enforcer. He can be exposed in deep-field situations or on play-action. FS Ricardo Allen (5-9, 186), a fifth-round pick in ’14 as a CB, is a ballhawk but lacks range off the hash and is an iffy tackler. CB Jalen Collins (6-1½, 203), a second-round pick in ’15, is back from a four-game drug suspension but can’t be trusted enough to play.
K Matt Bryant, 41, counts a miss from 58 off the upright as the only blemish in 16 attempts. His career mark is 85.4%. P Matt Bosher, a six-year starter, ranks sixth in net average (43.2) and also kicks off well. Reliable WR Eric Weems, 31, is off to a solid start as dual returner for coach Keith Armstrong.
One year after leading the NFL in receiving yards (1,874) and tying for the top spot in receptions (136) with Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown, Julio Jones ranks first in yards (830) and is tied for sixth in receptions (40). He’s averaging a career-best 20.8 yards per catch. In the last of his two career games against the Packers, Jones caught 11 passes for an opponent-record 259 yards in December 2014. He beat Sam Shields on a slant-and-go for 79, within a zone for 25 and on another pass for 22. When Casey Hayward blew coverage, the gain was 30. In his past four games this season Jones’ yardage totals have been 300, 16, 139 and 174.
Lack of pass rush has killed the Falcons for more than a decade. Their last single-digit finish (second) in sacks per pass attempt was 2004. From 2009-’15 they ranked 27th, 25th, 25th, 27th, 25th, 31st and 32nd. After posting just four sacks in the first four games this year, their successful stunting has led to 11 sacks in the last three games. The problem on defense, however, has been the big play. Neither safety covers well, CB Robert Alford has been penalty-ridden, rookie free agent Brian Poole is inconsistent as the nickel back and the youthful linebacking corps has made its share of mental mistakes.
Dan Quinn has attempted to replicate the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive scheme in Atlanta since owner Arthur Blank hired him to replace coach Mike Smith in January 2015.
His biggest problem is he gave up the helm of the defense on game days.
Quinn, 46, handed the play-calling to coordinator Kyle Shanahan on offense and coordinator Richard Smith on defense. He probably should have handled the defensive calls Sunday, as Mike Zimmer has done in Minnesota, and allowed Smith to coordinate during the week.
Quinn came to Atlanta after coordinating the Seahawks from 2013-’14, winning one Super Bowl and losing another on the final play. His defenses ranked first in yards and points allowed in back-to-back seasons. The last NFL team to accomplish that feat was the Chicago Bears in 1985-’86.
Smith, 61, has been an NFL assistant for 29 years, including six as a coordinator. He coordinated in Miami under Nick Saban in 2005, in Houston under Gary Kubiak from 2006-’08 and under Quinn last year in Atlanta.
Smith’s defenses ranked 18th, 24th, 24th, 22nd and 16th in yards allowed, and 15th, tied for 25th, tied for 22nd, 27th and 14th in points allowed. Atlanta ranks 26th and 27th this season.
Quinn was coming off a five-year stint coaching the defensive line at Hofstra when 49ers coach Steve Mariucci hired him as quality control coach in 2001. At the time, Smith was coaching the 49ers’ linebackers. Smith probably played a role in bringing Quinn to the Dolphins as D-line coach in ’05.
In Atlanta, Quinn has worked to implement the same 4-3 “under” defense that he learned under coach Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley during his two seasons (2009-’10) coaching the Seahawks’ D-line. The pieces aren’t all in place, and with a five-year contract Quinn still has time to put it all together.
Two years ago, the defensive coaches didn’t want to draft cornerback Jalen Collins but GM Thomas Dimitroff and assistant GM Scott Pioli selected him anyway. If the Falcons slip after a fast start, Dimitroff and Pioli could take the fall and Quinn might be able to hire his own personnel man.
Regardless of what moves are made in the front office, it’s not too late for Quinn to become his own coordinator on defense. That’s a move he should have made two years ago.