Packers Insider: Thumbs up to defense, down to challenge flags
In the aftermath of Mike McCarthy's firing, no one knew how the Packers would respond in an otherwise meaningless game against a bad Falcons team. With no realistic playoff hopes on the line, the Packers nonetheless delivered a spirited if uneven performance for a resounding 34-20 win. That's a testament to interim coach Joe Philbin, who somehow got the Green Bay offense back into a flow behind solid play from Aaron Rodgers (21-for-32, 196 yards, two touchdowns with no interceptions and a passer rating of 103.2) and improved execution on third down (seven conversions in 13 attempts). The defense made the kind of takeaways that were missing under McCarthy and Mason Crosby atoned for his critical miss a week ago with field goals of 50 and 48 yards.
After the two teams traded touchdowns on their opening drives, the Packers took a 10-7 lead on Crosby's 50-yard field goal with 7:45 left in the second quarter. On Atlanta's ensuing possession, Bashaud Breeland stepped in front of a third-down Matt Ryan pass intended for tight end Austin Hooper and returned it 22 yards for a touchdown to put Green Bay ahead 17-7. It was the first pick-6 by the Packers since Damarious Randall returned an interception 21 yards for a score last season at Dallas.
The Packers' defense, as it has done often this season, stiffened after being burned for a game-opening 75-yard TD drive. The Falcons didn't score again until early in the fourth quarter with the Packers comfortably leading 34-7. The defense displayed a nose for the ball, with Breeland scoring on the pick-6 and also recovering a fumble. The pass rush registered only two sacks (one by Clay Matthews and a team sack) but applied enough pressure to keep Ryan from picking apart an injury-ravaged secondary, which was beaten twice for TDs by Falcons star Julio Jones (eight catches for 106 yards) but largely kept the Atlanta aerial game under control.
Philbin got a little too enthusiastic with the challenge flag, flinging it twice on the Falcons' first drive only to see both original calls upheld. That not only cost the Packers two timeouts, it also left them with no challenges for the rest of the game. Fortunately for Philbin, the Packers won handily and no further challenges were necessary. Philbin poked fun at himself afterward, joking that he wanted to get those replay decisions out of the way early, the flag didn't fit well in his pocket and vowing that "we'll do some challenge education this week."
» Philbin finds a rhythm: With Joe Philbin never having called plays in the NFL, and not at all since 1996 while as a college coach, many were curious how he would do with the call sheet. And the opening script was masterful as the Packers marched 75 yards in nine plays and Aaron Rodgers hit Davante Adams for a seven-yard touchdown and 7-0 lead. One three-and-out later, the Packers put together drives that encompassed 12 and 10 plays that ended in field goals, and then the Packers opened the second half with a smooth six-play, 72-yard touchdown drive. They added another eight-play touchdown drive to bury the Falcons at 34-7 in the third quarter. The Packers didn’t go with a tempo offense at all, but there didn’t seem to be any breakdowns in communication between Rodgers and Philbin, and the offense operated efficiently.
» Rodgers was still Rodgers: Many wondered if Rodgers would look or play differently now that McCarthy was no longer running the meeting rooms or calling plays, but the Packers quarterback was just as alternately brilliant and frustrating as he had been the previous 12 games. He threw a dart over the head of Falcons linebacker Sharrod Neasman for a touchdown to Randall Cobb; he overlooked open receivers running across him for throwaways or scrambles. He was nimble in the pocket and broke out for long runs to extend drives; he held the ball and took unnecessary hits. As with most of the season, Rodgers ended with an impressive stat line but for the full 60 minutes, it looked like much of the same. He did break New England quarterback Tom Brady's NFL record for consecutive passes without an interception, with No. 359 coming on a 24-yard touchdown pass to Cobb that put Green Bay up 27-7. He has 23 TD passes with one interception this season.
» Makeshift offensive line makes do: The Packers likely had an idea all week that starting guards Lane Taylor and Byron Bell might not be able to go Sunday, but it was jarring nonetheless to see them join starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga on the sidelines. Jason Spriggs, Justin McCray and Lucas Patrick all had starting experience but no doubt Philbin had hoped to have some continuity in his first game. Then early in the third quarter rookie Alex Light saw his first snaps to briefly relieve McCray. Rodgers was sacked four times and was under duress, but the run game averaged 5.8 yards per carry (before kneel-downs) and Rodgers had more than enough time in moments to get throws off and push the ball for the Packers' highest-scoring game since scoring 31 at home against Miami on Nov. 11.
» Defense gets its six: The Packers haven’t turned opponents over much in 2018 and headed into Sunday with just 12 takeaways, a woeful 23rd in the league. But the Falcons came into Lambeau Field having given it up 10 times in the last five weeks. Well, Matt Ryan gave and Bashaud Breeland took with an easy pick-6 in the second quarter to give the Packers a 17-7 lead. Ryan telegraphed the throw to Austin Hooper and Breeland made it look easy. It was the first interception by the Packers since Week 4 and the first defensive touchdown the Packers scored this year.
» Officials whiff badly: There are few things in the league that should never be missed when it comes to penalties, considering how many bodies there are flying around on every play. But the main one is hits to the head and especially hits to the head of a quarterback. The referee missed it last week when Arizona’s Chandler Jones hit Rodgers in the head on a pass attempt, and Sunday's crew missed a call when Atlanta's Brian Poole hit a sliding (and therefore protected) Rodgers high in the right shoulder and head area. No flag, and Packers guard Lucas Patrick nearly incited a brawl by racing downfield to protect his quarterback. The refs eventually called Desmond Trufant for leading with the head on a tackle, but real damage was almost done at that point. They can’t miss those calls, and not on quarterbacks.