Dougherty: Packers need redemption on the run

Pete Dougherty
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The Green Bay Packers’ top-rated run defense failed its first major test this season.

Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Nick Perry (53) tackles Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) after a 29-yard scamper during the fourth quarter at Lambeau Field.

That was two weeks ago, when Ezekiel Elliott and the NFL’s top rushing team repeatedly gashed the Packers in the Dallas Cowboys’ 30-16 win at Lambeau Field. Elliott had 157 of the Cowboys’ 191 rushing yards, and simply put was the difference in the game.

But Sunday in Atlanta offers a chance for redemption against the NFL's top-scoring team.

That might sound counterintuitive if you go by the stat sheet. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has the NFL’s second-best rating (113.6), and the Falcons rank No. 2 in passing yards and No. 1 in yards per attempt. They have the game’s best receiver in Julio Jones, and he’s that rare bird averaging more than 20 yards a catch (20.8).

And yet, the 4-3 Falcons wouldn’t be the league’s best offense to date without halfback Devonta Freeman. He was a Pro Bowler last season, and the Falcons’ offense plays off him to a far greater degree than stats suggest.

“When they have to throw the ball it takes them out of their comfort zone,” said an assistant coach for a team that recently played the Falcons. “Their comfort zone is run the ball, play-action pass, run it, play-action pass. Throw drop backs (only) when they need to. ... When they are running the ball effectively and throwing play-action passes, they’re tough."

The Packers’ reach deep into their depth chart at cornerback this week only underscores the point.

Defensive coordinator Dom Capers will be trying to stop a sophisticated veteran quarterback and a singular receiver while missing his top three cornerbacks (injured Sam Shields, Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins). He and his assistants have had a long week.

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But the Jones matchup against the Packers’ second-string cornerbacks makes it even more crucial for Capers’ run defense to play up to its No. 1 ranking. It’s a part of the game that rarely catches eyes or produces game-changing plays, but this is true nonetheless: For the Packers to have a chance, they have to shut down Freeman on early downs while still gearing their game plan around Jones.

That's a different challenge than Capers faced against the Cowboys.

In less than half a season the rookie Elliott already ranks with Todd Gurley as one of the top two backs in the Adrian Peterson-less NFL. He was so good he scorched a Packers’ defense stacked to stop him. Capers even came up with a new personnel group – a nickel package with five run stoppers on the line of scrimmage and Clay Matthews as the lone linebacker – specifically to deal with Elliott. It didn’t work.

Freeman, while good, isn’t Elliott. But he doesn’t need to be to affect games when he has Jones and Ryan occupying defensive plans. The third-year pro is small (5-8, 206 pounds) and not particularly fast (4.57 40) for his size, but he’s a darter who finished last season as the NFL’s No. 7 rusher and this year is No. 8 (508 yards) while averaging 4.8 yards a carry.

“He’s very quick. Runs really hard,” the assistant coach said.

Capers’ quandary is if he brings up a safety to help stop the run, he’ll only have one deep. That’s less help for the three cornerbacks (LaDarius Gunter, Demetri Goodson and backup slot man Micah Hyde) filling in for the injured starters. And they need all the help they can get with Jones.

But the Falcons might help Capers there. They’re one of the few teams that play a lot of what used to be considered standard offensive personnel: two backs, two receivers and a tight end. Their fullback, Patrick DiMarco, has played about one-third (31.2 percent) of the Falcons’ offensive snaps. That makes them a throwback in a league where three receivers and one back now are the norm.

Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan also mixes in his share of multiple tight-end sets, including occasionally three at a time with Jacob Tamme (70.8 percent of the offensive snaps), Lovine Toilolo (52.7 percent) and Austin Hooper (23.3 percent).

In many games, Capers might play his base 3-4 defense, which is his best run personnel, only a handful of snaps. But he should be able to use it more this week against Atlanta’s run-oriented personnel.

That allows Capers to play five big run defenders at once: three defensive linemen (from among Mike Daniels, Letroy Guion, Kenny Clark and Mike Pennel), plus two outside linebackers (from among Nick Perry, Datone Jones and Clay Matthews).

Perry and Jones have been revelations against the run this year. They’ll probably have to play together on some early downs, though that means taking the best pass rusher (Matthews) off the field.

And Clark and Pennel need to show up big for the first time this year. Clark, the Packers’ first-round draft pick, had his best game of the season last week in 17 snaps against Chicago. Pennel might be the Capers’ best run defender and should be in better football shape now that he’s three weeks removed from a drug suspension.

The Packers clearly need a lift this week. Playing second-string corners against the Bears is one thing; Jones and the Falcons are another.

So put it on Capers’ run defense, which has been the surprise of the Packers’ 2016 season. The stats say it’s the league’s best. Now it’s time to see if it really is.

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