Packers’ next opponent: Underachieving Falcons present challenges
The Green Bay Packers have lost five of six and fired head coach Mike McCarthy after last week’s stunning loss to the Arizona Cardinals at Lambeau Field, and they now welcome a similarly underachieving team in the 4-8 Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons have lost four straight and are 1-4 on the road.
Basics on the Falcons
After taking a 10-7 lead at home against Baltimore, Atlanta allowed 19 unanswered points to eventually lose 26-16. The Falcons' defense managed to keep the pedestrian Ravens offense out of the end zone in the second half until Matt Ryan was sacked at his own 12-yard line and fumbled. Baltimore scooped it up and scored for the game-sealing touchdown.
Year 2 of the offense under Steve Sarkisian hasn’t fared much better than a year ago when he took over after Kyle Shanahan left for San Francisco after the 2016 Super Bowl season. Sarkisian runs what is considered a “West Coast” style offense, which is based on timing passing routes. But the longtime college coach had his first exposure to NFL offense in 2004 as Oakland’s quarterbacks coach under Norv Turner, who is off the Don Coryell tree of offensive philosophy. Timing and rhythm matters, but the deep ball is a big part of it.
Marquand Manuel is in his second season as defensive coordinator. The 39-year-old has been with head coach Dan Quinn in some capacity since 2012 when he joined the NFL as an assistant special teams coach in Seattle. The Falcons run a 4-3 scheme.
Touchdowns by rookie receiver Calvin Ridley, which leads the team.
Completion percentage for Matt Ryan, by far a career high in his 11th season.
Field goal percentage for kicker Matt Bryant.
Players to watch
Matt Ryan, QB
The 33-year-old former Most Valuable Player is having a typically solid season, but it has been more efficient than years past. He is completing passes at a 70-percent clip and has drastically reduced his interceptions (five in 460 attempts). While still over-reliant on Julio Jones (133 targets) he has found confidence in receivers Calvin Ridley, Mohamed Sanu and tight end Austin Hooper. Heading into this week he has played exactly 85 career home and road games, and on the road his completion percentage falls to 63.8 percent, his rating is nine points lower (90.3) and he has thrown 11 more interceptions away from Atlanta.
Julio Jones, WR
After threatening a holdout for a contract extension and raise this offseason, the 29-year-old receiver is leading the NFL in yards with 1,323 on 86 catches. Still an incredibly physical pass catcher at 6-3 and 220 pounds, Jones can also still stretch the field. He is battling a hand injury, however, and he has had untimely drops throughout his career.
Damontae Kazee, S
A fifth-round pick out of San Diego State in 2017, Kazee has turned into a ball hawk on the back end of the Falcons' defense. The 5-11, 190-pound second-year player has six interceptions to date after not having one as a rookie. He also has eight passes defensed and has forced a fumble. He also has 61 total tackles.
Reasons to worry
The No. 1 concern for Packers interim head coach Joe Philbin is, if the team quit on McCarthy against Arizona, has it checked out for the remainder of the season? Or, can he somehow reinvigorate a team with nothing to play for? Pride only goes so far, as seen last week. Third down continues to be the “black eye”; McCarthy said the Packers’ conversion rate has dropped to 35.6 percent (26th in the league). If the offense can’t stay on the field, they clearly can’t beat many teams. If Philbin doesn’t have an immediate fix for that, Sunday could be another long day at Lambeau.
The defense has been up to the challenge most of the year but has consistently given up important plays late in games, and Ryan and the Falcons will be able to capitalize on such errors – especially if the Packers have to once again roll out multiple street free agents in the secondary.
Reasons to relax
Like the Packers, the Falcons have struggled to score under the direction of a former MVP quarterback in his 30s. During their four-game losing streak, Ryan’s offense hasn’t topped 20 points and in their eight losses, the Falcons have scored over 20 just twice.
With McCarthy fired and the offense likely taking a somewhat different direction under Philbin (who will also be calling plays) the Packers and Aaron Rodgers could rally with a bounce-back performance following the embarrassing loss to the Cardinals. The defense remains beat up, but Mike Pettine’s group has played winning football for most of the season. Atlanta has turned the ball over at least once in six straight games for a total of 10 giveaways.