'Back to drawing board' for depleted defense

Ryan Wood
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Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Mohamed Sanu (12) reaches for a extra yards following a second half pass during the Atlanta Falcons' 33-32 victory over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, October 30, 2016, at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, GA.

ATLANTA - There were long, blank stares inside the Georgia Dome’s visiting locker room, the kind of stunned silence that isn’t heard after every loss.

Jake Ryan packed his black suitcase without saying a word.  Blake Martinez sat in a corner, stewing in his sweat-soaked uniform. Kentrell Brice’s eyes burned a hole through the floor.

“It’s tough,” Ryan said when asked about the Green Bay Packers' 33-32 loss Sunday to the Atlanta Falcons. “That’s the NFL, though. You win some, you lose some. It came down to us, and I think a couple errors.”

This wasn’t just any loss.

Since the beginning, this Packers' defense was building. It started in their opener at Jacksonville, when a fourth-down stand led to their first win. Defense was the strength of these Packers. A new era in Green Bay.

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Through injuries and suspensions, they made no excuses. In an up-and-down season, they were steady. Always reliable.

They had a chance to take another step Sunday. For almost 60 minutes, they held the NFL’s top-scoring defense in check. In their hand, the Packers' defense had a defining win.

It was ripped away when Mohamed Sanu wiggled free in the back of the end zone, snagging quarterback Matt Ryan’s 11-yard pass with 31 seconds left. An ensuing extra point set the final score.

Sanu was open after running past Ryan, taking advantage of a free release. When asked at his locker, Ryan said Sanu wasn’t his responsibility. The second-year inside linebacker covered Sanu as if he had safety help over the top, but free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix vacated the middle of the field to provide double coverage on Julio Jones.

It was a strategy that worked all game. Jones, perhaps the NFL’s top receiver, led the league in yards entering Sunday. The Packers held him to 29 on three catches.

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With everything on the line, Jones provided the Falcons a decoy.

“Maybe just some miscommunication error,” Ryan said, “but we’ll see what happened.”

In a traditional sense, Ryan’s coverage principles were sound. Sanu was the inside receiver, which typically draws safety help.

But the Packers’ game plan on Jones — indeed, the reason they were so successful Sunday — hinged on providing constant double coverage with safeties. After the game, coach Mike McCarthy suggested Jones was supposed to be double covered with Clinton-Dix and cornerback LaDarius Gunter.

“We’ll check it out on film,” Ryan said. “I mean, we’ll see what happened, and if there was an error on me, or if it was someone else. You never know. The film doesn’t lie, but we’ll check it out and see what happened.”

Sanu’s touchdown dramatically swung how the Packers' defense felt leaving Atlanta.

They knew what to expect Sunday. Nobody this season had stopped the Falcons' offense, which entered averaging almost five touchdowns per game (32.7 points).

It wasn’t pretty. The Packers’ top-ranked run defense coughed up 90 yards on 19 carries (4.7 yards per rush) — their second most this season — and only their second rushing touchdown in seven games. Without top edge rusher Clay Matthews, the Packers allowed Matt Ryan to feel far too comfortable in the pocket.

Ryan, sacked only twice, completed 28 of 35 passes (80 percent) for 288 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.

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“We ain’t going to make no excuses,” Julius Peppers said, “about who’s playing, who’s not playing on game day. The guys suiting up have to get the job done, regardless.”

For a moment, it looked like the defense had set up a Packers victory.

Their only two sacks of the game came on consecutive plays early in the fourth quarter, forcing the Falcons into a three-and-out. The Packers answered with a 13-play drive that covered 86 yards in more than 8 minutes, giving them a 32-26 lead.

“When you put up 32 points,” defensive tackle Mike Daniels said, “you’ve got to win. That’s all there is to it. Those guys came out, played on fire, and we just didn’t do enough. We just didn’t do enough.”

With 3:58 left, the Packers' defense was charged with protecting that lead.

The Falcons took possession at the 25-yard line. Eleven plays later, Sanu was tapping both feet down in the end zone.

So a defense that had been so steady — the strength of this team all season — stared at a new reality. The Packers didn’t lose Sunday despite a strong defense. No, they lost because their defense was unable to make a stand at the end.

“It definitely hurts that much more,” Martinez said. “I mean, every loss hurts a bunch, but to go out there and not be able to make that game-winning stop, it definitely stings.”

Daniels lingered in the locker room after the cameras departed.

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A leader on this defense, he was the ideal person to describe what Sunday’s letdown meant. Was it a step back from the progress this defense has made through the first two months? Daniels pondered the question.

“No,” he finally said. “No, it just wasn’t a step forward. But we can definitely learn from it. There’s a lot to learn from this tape, and that’s just what we have to do.

“We should’ve (won). We absolutely should’ve (won). There’s no excuse why we didn’t. It’s just back to the drawing board. Get on this plane, study it, study it again tomorrow, and get ready for Indianapolis.” and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

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