GREEN BAY — The Green Bay Packers caught a break 12 weeks ago when Atlanta Falcons running back Tevin Coleman sat out their regular-season game with a hamstring injury.
Atlanta scored 33 points in the one-point victory but gained just 367 yards, their fifth-lowest total in 17 games. Diminutive Terron Ward, fresh off the practice squad, spotted starter Devonta Freeman on 17 snaps.
Coleman and Freeman have been on a torrid pace for a month, averaging a combined 221 yards rushing and receiving. It’s a pair the Packers must deal with in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
“Kind of a thunder and lightning kind of deal,” an executive in personnel said Tuesday. “I like Atlanta, 35-31, because of their weapons and the diversity. I think Green Bay’s secondary will struggle to stop them.”
Freeman, 5 feet 8 inches and 206 pounds, gained 545 yards from scrimmage in Games 14-17. He has rushed 59 times for 333 yards (5.6 average) and caught 19 passes for 212 (11.2).
“He has really played well,” the scout said. “They spread it around to so many people. He’s a dynamic guy in space. He’s been decisive. He’s quick downhill.”
Freeman probably is more capable of running a full route tree than Coleman, said another scout. In October, however, Coleman proved his skill by catching four passes for 132 yards against Denver.
“He roasted our linebackers,” one Broncos assistant coach said. “He runs 4.39.”
Over the last four games Coleman (5-11½, 210) has carried 42 times for 249 (5.9) to go with 11 catches for 90 (8.2). The two backs have combined for eight touchdowns.
“Freeman is more of a stop-start, change of direction guy,” another scout said. “Coleman is a fast, north-south, one-cut runner. Very talented. Lot of open-field speed. Hits the hole hard. They complement each other well.”
Coleman is better in blitz pickup than Freeman but doesn’t have nearly the elusiveness.
“Freeman’s still kind of a speed bump in pass pro,” said one personnel man. “Coleman can pick up the blitz but he just doesn’t have much wiggle or pick-and-slide. He’s not consistent but he pops runs.”
The Falcons, a 5-point favorite, led the NFL in scoring (33.8) and were second in yards (415.8). Atlanta’s regular-season turnover differential of plus-11 tied for fourth; the Falcons and New England Patriots shared the lead in fewest giveaways with 11.
Major loss: Two personnel men and an assistant coach on offense for a recent Falcons opponent all said defensive end Adrian Clayborn ranked as the team’s second-best pass rusher behind Vic Beasley.
“He had some mismatches inside,” said one scout. “He had rush feel and could play very physically. He gave them nasty toughness. I read things out of there where they were trying to get tougher, and I’m sure he was a big part of changing that.”
He spoke in the past tense because Clayborn suffered a season-ending torn biceps Saturday in his third play of the 36-20 victory over Seattle in an NFC divisional game.
“That hurts them,” the scout said. “He set the tone. Won’t wow you athletically. But he brought it.”
In the Oct. 30 meeting, Clayborn had four of the Falcons’ 12 pressures. He beat guard Lane Taylor for an up-field sack in 2.9 seconds and center JC Tretter for a sack in 3.5.
According to Sportradar, Beasley led Atlanta in the regular season with 37 pressures (15½ were sacks) followed by Clayborn (24), Grady Jarrett (23), Dwight Freeney (20), Brooks Reed (11), Ra’Shede Hageman (nine), Jonathan Babineaux (eight) and Courtney Upshaw (seven).
Beasley led with a pressure-per-snap rate of one every 18.1. Freeney was next at one every 20.8 followed by Clayborn at one every 24.3, Jarrett at one every 27.4 and Hageman at one every 29.4.
“We just said Beasley’s the guy,” said the assistant coach. “They have something in common with the Packers. Neither can rush the passer that good.”
Beasley (6-3, 246), the eighth pick in 2015, had so little success trying to rush against right tackle Bryan Bulaga that coach Dan Quinn used him to spy Aaron Rodgers later in the game. One scout said since then Beasley has become more than just an edge speed rusher.
“From (midseason) on he has added to his repertoire,” he said. “He had a nice underneath move against Seattle, and he’s active on stunts. He’s got the speed (4.53). I hadn’t seen enough of a change-up early.”
The venerable Freeney, 36, registered only one pressure against the Packers but, according to Sportradar, posted two knockdowns and five hurries against the Seahawks’ outmanned offensive line.
“Same thing as before,” said one scout. “Got some straight-line speed and that spin move. High effort.”
Former Ravens outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw has been backing up at defensive tackle. Minus Clayborn, he’ll probably siphon some of the snaps at end in Quinn’s 4-3 “under” front.
The best players inside are Jarrett and Babineaux, 35. Former Chief Tyson Jackson, a classic 5-technique, played just 13 snaps in the first Green Bay game because the Packers employed few power formations.
Secondary change: An argument could be made that cornerback Desmond Trufant was the team’s most valuable player on defense before he went down in Game 9 with a separated shoulder that ended his season.
The Falcons, who use Cover 3 as their base scheme, responded by promoting Jalen Collins (6-1½, 203). He was in the coaches’ doghouse earlier in the season and was a healthy scratch against Green Bay.
Collins, a second-round draft choice in 2015, has 4.49 speed.
“He’s long but he doesn’t use his length and struggles with awareness, matching routes, reading hips,” said one personnel man. “I question his reactionary quickness. Long strider. Opens the gate. Not tight man coverage.
“I would attack him. If they could get (Randall) Cobb against him, Cobb would just turn this guy around like a turnstile.”
Another scout said it wouldn’t be fair to label Collins as a weak link.
“I couldn’t say there were deficiencies where there was a dramatic drop-off,” he said. “Collins is a solid football player. Trufant obviously was their best corner but Collins understands their scheme and has done a nice job.”
The Falcons ranked 25th in yards (371.2), 27th in points (25.4) and 16th in takeaways (22). They also ranked 26th in third-down defense and 32nd in red-zone defense.
Robert Alford (5-10, 186), who became the No. 1 corner, has 97.2% playing time. Rookie Brian Poole (5-9½, 213) has 75.2% playing time as the season-long nickel back.
“Alford has speed (4.36),” said one scout. “He can run with a 9 (take-off) route. He’s definitely the best of the group but he’s not a lock-down guy.
“Poole struggled in press (coverage). I didn’t see recovery speed (4.50). I have questions about his overall game. He looked like a guy that’s been pressed into (action). I would definitely attack him, too.”
They meet again: It’s likely that LaDarius Gunter will be matched all over the field against Julio Jones. Gunter pressed Jones at the line knowing a safety, usually Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, would be laying in wait behind them.
Jones was limited to three catches for 29 yards. It helped that Jones was targeted just once in the last 35 minutes after limping off with a lower leg injury late in the second quarter.
Against the Seahawks, Jones played just 42 of 72 snaps (58%) with a left toe/foot injury that has nagged him for weeks. He sat out Games 13-14 with the toe injury.
“I wouldn’t say he’s limited,” one scout said. “I see a little bit (of a drop-off) but he’s still dynamic and tough. He’s not putting up the big numbers but you need to game-plan for him.”
Mohamed Sanu caught nine of 10 targets for 84 yards and the winning touchdown pass with 31 seconds left when Clinton-Dix broke down in coverage.
Former Brown Taylor Gabriel (5-7½, 168) didn’t have a reception for more than 19 yards in the first six weeks before beating Demetri Goodson to the post for a 47-yard TD. Aldrick Robinson, Justin Hardy and Gabriel rotate as the No. 3 wide receiver based on the play but Gabriel easily has been the most dangerous.
“Gabriel is a nice complement,” said one scout. “You have big Sanu and big Julio Jones. With Gabriel working the slots it’s a different animal with his speed and change of direction and separation quickness. He’s still a complementary guy but you may have to account for him.”
Veteran Jacob Tamme was the starting tight end until suffering a shoulder injury seven plays into the Green Bay game that ended his season. Another veteran, Levine Toilolo, has 54.9% playing time but rookie Austin Hooper (39%), a third-round draft choice, is the tight end to watch.
“Hooper wasn’t playing much early,” one personnel man said. “He’s not a change of direction guy but he has straight-line speed (4.70) and good hands.
“There are some tight ends you just cross off as a non-threat. You can’t ignore him.”
According to Sportradar, the Falcons dropped five passes against Seattle (two by Toilolo, two by Jones) after dropping just 23 in the regular season.
Jones led in regular-season drops with six followed by Sanu with five.
Super stability: The Falcons were the only NFL team to start the same five offensive linemen in each game. One scout said the unit ranked among the top 10.
“Everybody’s stayed healthy, and that’s pretty rare,” he said. “They had the most playing time together, and it shows up on tape. They’re smart guys, quick, zone guys. They work well together. I think that definitely helped them against Seattle, which uses a lot of twists and has a pretty good front.”
Based on performance this season, another scout ranked the starters in this order: center Alex Mack, right tackle Ryan Schraeder, left tackle Jake Matthews, left guard Andy Levitre and right guard Chris Chester.
“Are any of them truly a Pro Bowl-type talent?” asked another personnel man. “Maybe Mack. But they’re veterans and they have continuity, and what (Matt) Ryan does well is get rid of it quickly.
“This group does a good job blocking at the second level. That’s part of their success in the (fifth-ranked) running game. Mack, Chester, Levitre, Matthews all can get to the second level and be effective.”