There’s a talent gap between the Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers, and until the Packers close it they’re going to have a hard time winning the NFC.
The two teams have met three times in the last year, and the Falcons have won all three. The games all have been in Atlanta, so that's an advantage for coach Dan Quinn’s team.
But the greater advantage is at the skill positions on offense. In Julio Jones, the Falcons have the best receiver in the game. Their No. 2, Mohamed Sanu, might be as good as any of the Packers’ receivers.
And the Falcons also have the best running back on the field when these teams meet. Devonta Freeman is a creative and dynamic runner who’s also a good receiver. As fast as Ty Montgomery has developed for the Packers, Freeman is the better player.
So for the Packers to beat the Falcons, quarterback Aaron Rodgers has to be a lot better than his counterpart, Matt Ryan. And he’s not, or at least hasn’t been. Ryan, the league’s MVP last season, has gone toe-to-toe with Rodgers and won all three with a cumulative passer rating of 128.0 to Rodgers’ 101.0.
The Packers simply can’t match the talent of Jones, Sanu and Freeman. On offense, they haven’t had the firepower to keep up, and on defense they haven’t shown the ability to slow those three down.
There’s not much to say about Jones. He’s the best receiver in the game and overwhelms with his combination of size and speed. On Sunday night he had four catches ranging from 15 to 34 yards. Those big-chunk plays win games and open things up for others.
His run after the catch is just as impressive as his ability to get open. Jones broke a Quinten Rollins tackle to convert one big third down, and picked up about 12 yards after breaking a tackle by Damarious Randall on the 34-yard catch.
Sanu no doubt benefits from playing opposite Jones, but he’s a big (6-2, 210 pounds), strong receiver in his own right. He runs precise routes, is hard to tackle and plays faster than his pedestrian 4.67-second 40 suggests.
Sanu had three explosive plays himself in the first half: a 24-yarder against Jake Ryan in zone coverage; a 24-yarder when he spun Rollins with a move, then broke tackles by Rollins and Kentrell Brice; and a 21-yarder when he beat Randall inside even though the cornerback was lined up to take that away.
Freeman’s stats were OK Sunday night – 19 rushes for 84 yards (4.4-yard average). But where he hurt the Packers was creating yards when none were there. That helps keep the chains moving.
The Packers have plenty of talent and are going to win a lot of games. They are contenders to win the NFC. But Atlanta is the one team they haven’t been able to beat recently, and a team they don't match up well against.
To have a chance if the teams meet again in the postseason, the Packers have to develop their top draft pick, cornerback Kevin King, as the season goes on. At 6-3, King has the length and athleticism to match up with Jones better than anyone else on the Packers’ roster. He showed a glimpse of that Sunday night in the second quarter when he dived to break up a short crossing route that Jones might have turned into a big play.
King did enough in a relief role Sunday night to assume he’ll be a starter from here on out. With a season’s worth of snaps in the bank, he should be the Packers’ best chance to slow down Jones if the teams meet again in January.
Jones at linebacker
The Packers need to find a way to get their other second-round pick, Josh Jones, on the field also. And one way to do that is to play him at inside linebacker in the nitro package and leave Morgan Burnett at safety.
Up to now, the Packers have been playing Burnett at inside linebacker in their primary defense (nitro), and replacing him at safety with Brice. The Packers could just play Jones at safety instead of Brice, which is what coordinator Dom Capers did when Brice left Sunday night’s game because of a groin injury.
But going forward, Capers might be better served playing Jones at nitro, and moving Burnett back to safety. Jones' size (220 pounds) is better for inside linebacker than Burnett, and he’s a physical and willing tackler.
The Packers badly need his playmaking potential on the field somewhere, somehow. They don’t have anyone on defense with his combination of size and speed (4.41-second 40). They drafted him because they needed to get faster. Now they’ve got to play him.
His physical nature makes him best suited to play near the line of scrimmage, and if he’s at linebacker his inexperience would be less of a liability than at safety. When he makes mistakes, it will cost some yards, but when a safety blows a play it usually means a big gainer.
Sunday night had a prime example. Halfway through the second quarter, the Packers had Atlanta pinned at its 9. But on first down, running back Tevin Coleman cut back through a hole to his right for a 35-yard gain.
On that play Brice, a second-year pro, was playing near the line of scrimmage to stop the run. But he didn’t read the run correctly, got caught flat-footed and was blocked by Sanu even though he was in great position to fill Coleman’s cutback. (Cornerback Davon House, who was covering Sanu, also failed to recognize the run).
Burnett is an eight-year pro who has seen everything. If he’d been there instead of Brice, it’s a good bet he’d have recognized the run and stopped Coleman from busting out for the big gain.
On Sunday night, Jones played 29 snaps at safety after Brice left the game. If Brice can’t play this week, the guess here is that Capers will play Jones at safety. But the coordinator might be better off putting Jones at linebacker and moving the veteran Burnett back to his original position.
The Packers went deep into their depth chart at tackle Sunday night, and it showed.
With David Bakhatiari (hamstring) and backup Jason Spriggs (hamstring) out, Kyle Murphy started at left tackle. He’s been a right tackle since coming to the NFL last year, and he’s much better suited for that position. He doesn’t have the quick-twitch movement you look for in a left tackle and looked like he got hi feet tangled up a few times. He’ll need a lot of work to become a viable swing tackle.
Justin McCray replaced Bryan Bulaga (ankle, illness) at right tackle. McCray has played guard and center since entering the NFL, though he played some right tackle in college at Central Florida. The Packers like his toughness and strength as an interior player, but he’s a plodder and had a rough time operating in space at tackle.
Murphy and McCray didn’t cost the Packers the game, but the dropoff from the players they replaced was big.
» Receiver Geronimo Allison had a rough night in his return from a one-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Allison had two big errors.
On one, he slowed down on a go route down the sidelines that allowed Desmond Trufant to intercept Rodgers’ pass.
Later, he was called for pass interference on a pick route that took a touchdown by Randall Cobb off the board. The penalty was a borderline call – the Falcons did the same thing on one of their touchdowns – but Allison has to be more subtle with his rub route. He ran into cornerback Brian Poole like he was setting a pick on the basketball court. All he needs to do is brush him to create enough space to spring Cobb free.
Quarterback: With his starting tackles out, Aaron Rodgers (90.7 rating) has to get the ball out quicker. He’s not going to last the season taking hits like he has the first two games. Grade: C
Running backs: With only 12 rushes by Ty Montgomery and Jamaal Williams, it’s hard to get rolling. Montgomery (six catches, 75 yards) was effective as a receiver but missed a double-team block that allowed a sack. Grade: C
Wide receivers: After Jordy Nelson (quadriceps) left early, this group (Davonte Adams, Randall Cobb and Geronimo Allison) didn’t get a lot of separation to give Rodgers good looks. Grade: C
Tight ends: Martellus Bennett had way too many drops (four). Grade: D
Offensive line: Emergency backups Kyle Murphy at left tackle and Justin McCray at right tackle had rough nights. Grade: D
Defensive line: After Mike Daniels (hamstring) left early, the Packers had no inside pass rush. Grade: C
Linebackers: The lone bright spot on defense with three sacks combined from Clay Matthews (1 ½), Blake Martinez (one) and Joe Thomas (one-half). Grade: B-
Cornerbacks: Outclassed by Atlanta’s receiving talent in allowing seven passes of 15 yards or more to Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu. Grade: C-
Safeties: Kentrell Brice missed a hole that allowed a 35-yard run, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix missed a chance at what would have been a huge interception in the first half. No turnover plays from this group. Grade: C-