Dougherty: Time for Packers to turn to rookies on defense

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers cornerback Quinten Rollins (24) gives up a catch top wide receiver Julio Jones (11) against the Atlanta Falcons Sunday, September 17, 2017 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga.

ATLANTA - Different stadium. Same teams. Same result.

Eight months later, the Green Bay Packers still can’t keep up with the Atlanta Falcons. The Packers’ 34-23 loss at the newly christened Mercedes-Benz Stadium in so many ways looked like the Packers’ blowout loss to these same Falcons in the Georgia Dome last January in the NFC championship.

The Packers’ defense, which this time featured a heavy dose of their nitro package, couldn’t get any stops when they needed them. And the offense failed to put any pressure on the Falcons, because it failed to match Atlanta, or at least keep the game close, in the first half.

The score didn’t look quite as bad this time — it was 44-21 in the championship game — but for the bulk of the game it was similar enough.

Of course, there are some caveats for this one. It’s tough to win in the NFL when both starting tackles (David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga) are out with injuries. But with the Packers' defense getting gashed against both the pass and run, it probably didn’t matter anyway.

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Atlanta scored when it needed points and got first downs when it needed to kill the clock. There’s little reason to think the Falcons wouldn’t have scored as many points as they needed to win this one.

The biggest lesson coming out of this game is that the move of Morgan Burnett to linebacker made at best a marginal difference this time around. The Falcons still are too complete and explosive for the Packers. Coordinator Dom Capers’ defense had no answers for receivers Julio Jones (five catches, 108 yards) and Mohamed Sanu (five catches, 85 yards) in the first half, and running back Devonta Freeman (19 carries, 84 yards) in the second half.

It’s time the Packers quit slow-playing the development of their top two draft picks, cornerback Kevin King and safety-linebacker Josh Jones. They drafted them specifically to get faster and more explosive on defense, so they’d have a better chance against the Falcons and their ilk.

Both actually played a decent amount Sunday night. Capers went to King after Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins took their lumps in the first quarter or so, and King showed why he was the No. 33 pick in the draft. His length at 6-3 makes a difference, and he had the athleticism to make a tackle or two in the open field that nobody else was making.

You have to think this game was enough for Capers to put King in the starting lineup and keep him there. Let the other guys (Davon House, Randall, Rollins and Josh Hawkins) battle it out for the other two cornerbacks spots in nickel and nitro. King is the most talented of the group and is going to improve the most between now and January.

As for Jones, he played at safety after Kentrell Brice left the game because of a groin injury. But safety isn’t where Jones will make a difference. He’s got to get some snaps at linebacker. There has to be a way to get him on the field, either in the dime or in some other special package.

BOX SCORE:Falcons 34, Packers 23

CHAT: Ryan Wood, 3 p.m. Monday

REPLAY:Packers-Falcons game blog

NFL: Scores | Standings

The game also revealed what an indispensable player Mike Daniels has become. The defensive lineman left the game in the first quarter because of a hamstring injury — he’d been on the injury report all week because of a hip issue — and never returned. Without him blowing up the occasional play and providing an inside rush, or at minimum commanding a Falcons double team, the Packers’ defense floundered.

If his injury is a long-term or lingering problem, the Packers will be in trouble.

The odds were against the Packers from the start because Bakhtiari (hamstring) and Bulaga (ankle, illness) were pregame scratches. So was backup left tackle Jason Spriggs (hamstring), though his disappointing training camp meant that the issues Sunday night might have been the same even if he’d played. That left Kyle Murphy, a right tackle by trade since entering the NFL last year, as the left tackle, and Justin McCray, a guard-center, as the right tackle.

It’s tough to win in the NFL playing backups at both tackles. And when receiver Jordy Nelson left the game for good in the first quarter, the Packers were without their best receiver.

Those losses aren’t impossible to overcome, but it makes for a much tougher road, and the Packers couldn’t put up the points early to keep contact. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sacked three times and hit seven times. One of those hits turned into a fumble that Atlanta returned for a touchdown. In two games this season, he’s taken too many shots. 

After a touchdown drive on the Packers’ first possession, Rodgers was shut out the rest of the first half. He closed the score in the fourth quarter, but that was mostly window dressing.

For now, the Falcons remain the clearly superior team. It’s a long season, and much can change between now and the start of the playoffs. But the Packers can't match the Falcons’ weapons in a shootout, so they have to find a way to close the talent gap with their defense.

They don’t have a lot of options. A healthy Daniels is a must. As is getting more help from this year’s rookie class. King and Jones have to play.

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