ATLANTA – Sometimes you just have to wing it a little, which is exactly what the Green Bay Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers did Sunday at the Georgia Dome, home of arguably the finest performance in Rodgers’ career six years ago.
But before they could wing it there, they had to wing it a little differently during their weekly preparation and then as the game see-sawed through four quarters of an eventual 33-32 defeat to the Atlanta Falcons.
During the week, the Packers knew there was a good chance Randall Cobb (hamstring) and/or Ty Montgomery (kidney) weren’t going to play Sunday, but they also apparently felt there was a chance because they listed them both as questionable (at least 50 percent chance of playing) on their injury report.
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Coach Mike McCarthy had a plan to get newly acquired running backs Don Jackson and Knile Davis into the mix and play less of the spread offense he had been forced into the last two games with the loss of Eddie Lacy (ankle, IR) and James Starks (knee).
“If you know on Monday, Tuesday, it helps you better with the game-planning than when you have uncertainty,” McCarthy said after the Packers fell to 4-3. “To balance the ball (without Cobb and Montgomery) you might think you need to have more two-back plays in the game.”
As a result, McCarthy started Jackson and ran the ball three times on the Packers’ six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on their first possession.
But much more satisfied with Rodgers’ 14 completions on 16 attempts for 142 yards and two touchdowns on the Packers’ first two series, he quickly abandoned any thought of pairing those halfbacks with fullback Aaron Ripkowski and went to his four- and five-receiver game.
“We kind of stayed the same,” tackle Bryan Bulaga said of the weekly game plan. “It didn’t seem to change because you don’t know who’s up and who’s down. You don’t know until you see who’s down. As an offensive line it’s whatever we’re going with.”
With Rodgers playing as well as he had all season, the Packers scored touchdowns on three of their first four possessions. Most importantly, they were spreading the ball around and taking advantage of Atlanta’s press-bail technique that allowed the receivers to find some openings within the zone coverages.
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Rodgers connected for touchdowns with Jordy Nelson from 5 yards, Geronimo Allison from 4 yards and Trevor Davis from 9 yards. Allison scored a touchdown on his very first NFL catch and Davis scored his first touchdown on his third career reception.
“I’m so proud of those guys and the way they battled,” Rodgers said.
Leading 24-19 at halftime, McCarthy wanted to get back to the run game again, in part to get back to the original game plan and in part to keep Atlanta’s defense honest. But he couldn’t square the 24 yards on six carries the running backs had gained with the need to keep the ball moving.
“We went to more of a spread game and I wanted to mix the run in more,” McCarthy said. “I thought Aaron Rodgers was outstanding and I thought particularly our offensive line played very well and we did get a lot of production from our receiver group.”
Tired of seeing Rodgers tear up their zone coverage, the Falcons changed their defensive plan in the second half and began pressing the Packers’ receivers more at the line of scrimmage and changing the direction they were trying to push the receivers.
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They also changed the way they rushed the passer in an attempt to keep Rodgers from staying in rhythm.
“When we came in we knew we had to have some ways to try and affect the quarterback better,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “Early on, we had tried three-man, four-man and five-man rushes, and he hurt us on all of them.
“When we came back we knew we’d have to change up some leverage.”
Rodgers took a sack from defensive tackle Adrian Clayborn on what appeared to be a line twist on third and 6 at the Atlanta 47 on the first drive of the second half and that doomed drive was followed by another ended by a Clayborn sack.
In the meantime, the Falcons had pulled ahead, 26-24.
“They had more man coverage,” Rodgers said. “They’re a big zone team and after we hit them a few times in the first half they went to some more man coverages. I was running the ball pretty efficiently tonight so they tried to spy us at times, but we did a good job of being efficient in the passing game.
“We just needed a little more there in the third quarter to put us in a better position to help our defense out.”
McCarthy had wanted to play more no-huddle offense against the Falcons, especially when in the spread package so that he could keep the defense on the field and wear it out the way Atlanta’s no-huddle was wearing out the Packers defense.
But playing with youngsters Davis, Allison and Janis during a week in which Cobb and Montgomery were part of the plan very early on, he decided to huddle.
“I think it would have definitely helped us,” McCarthy said. “It’s the NFL. You have to move through your offense (when injuries hit). We are playing as many people as we can. I prefer playing this way with a standard huddle and using a no-huddle as a mix.
“It would be nice to have the no-huddle back.”
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Rodgers took advantage of the man coverage the Falcons were playing with his legs. As the corners turned and ran and the linebackers dropped deep, Rodgers frequently took off running, finishing the game with 60 yards rushing on six carries.
On the touchdown drive that put the Packers ahead, 32-26, he scrambled for gains of 11, 2 and 13 yards, and completed a 2-point conversion with an option-read run into the end zone.
From there, it was in the defense’s hands. When it couldn’t hang in there, Rodgers had 31 seconds to drive about 40 yards to get kicker Mason Crosby in range for a game-winning field goal attempt.
He couldn’t do it.
“It’s about making plays and making plays at key times and we didn’t make enough plays to win the game,” McCarthy said.