The Green Bay Packers sure looked like they didn't want to show the Atlanta Falcons much of their defensive scheme in the second half Monday night, just in case the teams meet again in the playoffs.
And it almost cost them.
The Packers won 43-37, but the Falcons in the second half turned a blowout into a one possession game in the final minutes. They did it primarily by riding receiver Julio Jones, their one truly dangerous weapon and the player the Packers knew coming into the game was the biggest threat to beat them.
Jones, who might be behind only Calvin Johnson for title as the NFL's best receiver, finished with 11 receptions for 259 yards and almost single-handedly got the Falcons back in the game in the second half. Yet the Packers never deviated from their rather basic defensive calls, and never went to great lengths to take Jones out of the game.
The previous week, against New England, the Packers pulled out all their game-plan moves with uncommon blitzes on defense and their most varied personnel groups of the season on offense. But they held back defensively against the Falcons, and it's hard not to think coach Mike McCarthy was factoring a possible playoff rematch in that decision.
The teams could meet again if the Falcons win the NFC South Division – they're tied for the division lead at 5-8 – and the Packers are a wild card. The No. 4 seed, which will be the winner of the NFC South, will host the No. 5 seed, which will be the highest-seeded wild card. The Packers could be that if Detroit beats them out for the NFC North Division.
In the first half Monday night, the Packers didn't appear to do anything unusual in their defensive game plan, and it worked. They led 31-7 at halftime. But Jones already was having a good night – he had five catches for 100 yards in the first half – and the Falcons adjusted at halftime to go to him even more.
Often against a great receiver such as Jones, you build a defensive game plan around him with as much double coverage as you can. But the Packers didn't change anything and played the second half much like the first.
They generally played one safety in the box to help stop the run. That left only one safety deep, and they played him in centerfield rather than overtly doubling Jones. He made them pay time and again.
It started on the first play of the second half, when safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix crept up to linebacker depth and Morgan Burnett took centerfield. Jones was matched one-on-one against Tramon Williams and beat him with a double move. Burnett couldn't get over fast enough to play the ball, and Jones turned the play into a 79-yard gain that set up a short touchdown.
Later in the third quarter, on a first down from the Packers' 31, the Falcons isolated Jones on the left side, thinking the Packers wouldn't outright double him. They didn't. Burnett crept into the box, Clinton-Dix played centerfield, and Sam Shields was matched one-on-one against Jones.
Jones beat Shields down the sideline and Clinton-Dix couldn't get over fast enough to help. Jones would have had a 31-yard touchdown pass but failed to get his second foot in bounds, so it was an incompletion. So, The only reason the Packers escaped the touchdown was Jones failed to make a play that is relatively routine for a receiver of his caliber.
Early in the fourth quarter, Jones lined up in the slot and beat cornerback Casey Hayward on an out pattern for an easy 12-yard gain. It wasn't a big play, but again, the Packers had no special coverage for the player who was killing them. They just lined up and played their stuff.
A couple plays later, from the Packers' 21, the Falcons again isolated Jones on the left side against Shields. Burnett crept up to play coverage against the three receivers on the right side, and Clinton-Dix lined up deep, shaded toward Jones but not all the way over in a full double team. Jones ran a fade behind Shields and caught the simple 21-yard touchdown pass.
Later still, Jones converted a third-and-6 with a linebacker, Sam Barrington, covering him from the slot.
Jones is a great player and the Falcons' primary threat, far more dangerous than 33-year-old receiver Roddy White, or 31-year-old running back Steven Jackson. Normally against that kind of player, the Packers might assign a specific cornerback to cover him on most snaps no matter where he lined up. Regardless, they'd find a way to bracket him in coverage with a safety as much as they could.
Any of the aforementioned plays in isolation can happen against almost any game plan. But taken as a whole, they suggest the Packers were holding something back. Coaches hate giving away information, and McCarthy felt safe to stay basic on the chance these teams will meet again. But once he made that decision, it was hard to flip the switch back on, and it nearly led to a second-half disaster for the Packers.
Monday night showed just how difficult the Packers have become to defend because of their running backs.
The Falcons have the NFL's last-ranked defense in yards and inferior personnel on that side of the ball, so they're vulnerable. But still, they stuck with the two-deep safety look as diligently as anyone the Packers have played this season and paid a heavy, heavy price.
It wasn't just in the run game, though it was there as well. Halfbacks Eddie Lacy and James Starks combined for 148 yards rushing on 23 carries (6.4 yards a carry).
But quarterback Aaron Rodgers targeted 11 passes to his halfbacks – nine to Eddie Lacy, two to James Starks. They combined for seven receptions for 59 yards.
Defenses obviously don't want Rodgers beating them. But Starks and Lacy are showing they can win games too.
LANG ON THE MEND
Right guard T.J. Lang's injured ankle looks like it's feeling better.
The Packers' offensive line play of late has been excellent, and Lang looked more spry Monday night than he had since injuring his ankle at New Orleans on Oct. 26. One series in the second quarter stood out, when in the span of six plays, Lang had three excellent blocks on important runs.
On the first, he pushed back defensive lineman Tyson Jackson a couple yards, which sprung Starks with a huge cutback lane on a 21-yard run. A few plays later Lang shot out to the linebacker level to block Joplo Bartu on a three-yard run by Starks that put the Packers in third and short. And on the next play, Lang displaced Jackson again, which allowed fullback John Kuhn to run right behind him for four yards and the first down.
— Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty