ATLANTA – They carried hope into Atlanta, the momentum of a strong Week 1 combined with nine months to stew over their last game on the Falcons’ turf.
These Green Bay Packers were different. Better. A secondary fast enough to deal with the most dangerous cover in football.
It took Julio Jones four plays to show that hope was misguided. He started split left before the snap, lined up across cornerback Damarious Randall. Like a sprinter out of the blocks, Jones ran an over route from the left numbers to the right, where he was all alone for a 34-yard catch.
“When a guy literally is running away from you from numbers to numbers…” Randall said, his voice trailing off while sitting at his locker.
He didn’t finish the sentence. No need for further explanation. When a receiver literally runs away from a corner, nothing else can be done.
This was the Packers secondary Sunday night in a 34-23 loss: helpless.
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Nine months of anticipation, of plotting and preparing through the offseason, boiled down to 60 minutes. They signed Davon House. They drafted Kevin King. They released LaDarius Gunter.
They scrapped their game plan from the NFC championship game, did everything opposite.
Then the Packers got a chance to see what their labor produced. In the end, Jones remains the same game wrecker he’s always been against this secondary. His five catches for 108 yards didn’t put his dominance into adequate context.
Jones had four catches for 95 yards in the first half.
He had two catches for 53 yards on the opening drive.
“What you see on TV,” cornerback Quinten Rollins said, “is what you get on the field. So everything you see on TV, why you say this guy is one of the best receivers in the NFL, is the same thing we’ve got to cover on the field.”
The Packers were determined to learn. They did not make the mistake of shadowing Jones with one corner again. Unlike January, when Gunter followed wherever Jones lined up, the Packers kept their corners in place. Davon House was the left perimeter. Randall was the right perimeter. Rollins took the slot.
When that didn’t work — the Falcons marched 86 yards on nine plays for an opening touchdown — the Packers improvised. Eventually, King replaced Randall on the right perimeter. Then Randall replaced Rollins in the slot. This was kitchen-sink coverage, defensive coordinator Dom Capers and cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. trying everything to slow the Falcons.
It didn’t work until the second half, when the Falcons let off the gas to preserve their blowout advantage.
“We lost both games,” Rollins said. “So it’s kind of hard to say it helped or didn’t. It was definitely a different game plan than we ran in January.”
This was the Packers secondary: clueless.
They have history with Jones. No receiver has more often been their foil. In three of their past four meetings, Jones has exceeded 100 yards against the Packers secondary.
In the lone exception, last October’s trip to Atlanta, Jones was slowed by an ankle injury more than anything. He only had 29 yards on three catches that afternoon, but his presence was enough to be a decoy on the game-winning touchdown.
The Packers have no answer. Jones caught nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns in January. They changed everything, and he burned them again.
Without scoring a touchdown, Jones controlled Sunday’s game from the start. Four of his five catches were at least 15 yards, two longer than 25. His 15 yards against Rollins on third-and-12 prolonged a touchdown drive in the second quarter, allowing the Falcons to take a 14-7 lead. They never trailed again.
BOX SCORE: Falcons 34, Packers 23
CHAT: Ryan Wood, 3 p.m. Monday
REPLAY: Packers-Falcons game blog
“We just took what they gave us,” Jones said. “They came out in single high, so we made them pay. When we get those opportunities where I’m in single coverage we just try to get me the ball and make the best of it because a lot of teams use two men on me.”
The Packers played man coverage against Jones, and he beat them. They dropped into zone, and he found holes. If there’s an effective solution to slow Jones down, they’ve yet to find it.
After it was over, the Packers cornerbacks kept Sunday night in perspective. They mentioned the limited impact of one September game, that there’s still a long season ahead. Nobody is panicking, they said. Nobody’s confidence needs a defibrillator.
Then, almost by accident, House let slip what the Packers continued inability to cover Jones means.
“We’ll see him in January,” House said, already thinking of a future playoff rematch. “And we’ll have a better game plan, and we’ll execute better on the back end, as a defensive unit.”
This was the Packers secondary: foreshadowing.
It’s possible — maybe more than possible — the NFC’s two best teams met Sunday night. With the Falcons owning the head-to-head tiebreaker like last season, a playoff matchup in Atlanta could be looming once again.
The Packers have the pieces to win a Super Bowl. They’ve plotted and prepared enough to have legitimate hope. Right now, Julio Jones is the most obvious obstruction standing between them and where they want to go.