Pressing Questions  

C-Spire  

Packers can pass, Falcons can run, so what gives?

  • By Pat Kirwan NFL.com
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The Packers were a preseason favorite to get to the Super Bowl, but they didn't win their division and had to overcome a plethora of injuries, many to their starters.

The Falcons, on the other hand, in the same division as the defending Super Bowl champions, figured to be a wild-card team at best, not champions of the NFC South -- let alone have home-field advantage.

Green Bay has already been to Atlanta this year and lost, 20-17, but that's the norm against Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who is 20-2 at home. There is little doubt this rematch in Saturday's NFC Divisional Playoff game will be as tough a matchup as the Falcons could face in the postseason.

Here are four critical questions heading into the Packers-Falcons rematch:

1. Can Pack stop Turner?

I talked with Packers defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins this week about the first Falcons game, and the first thing out of his mouth: "We better tackle Michael Turner better than (we did) last time." Turner carried the ball 23 times for 110 yards and a touchdown. He is a load, to say the least, as evidenced by 695 of his 1,371 rushing yards coming after contact. If the Packers don't gang-tackle this guy, he'll have another 100-plus day.

Green Bay is ranked No. 18 against the run largely because of the injuries up front on defense. The Packers have a blitz-scheming defense and can occasionally get caught in a pressure call when a run play is called. They did a nice job against LeSean McCoy last week, but he's a quick back who had only 12 carries.

Atlanta is going to give Turner 20 to 25 carries in this game. He had three runs over 10 yards in the last game. The problem Green Bay faces is when tight end Tony Gonzalez flexes his alignment and challenges the Packers' front seven to loosen up, which can create running lanes for Turner.

2. Can Capers' blitz scheme rattle Ryan?

Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers dialed up only 14 pressure calls against Michael Vick last week, by my count, but Capers will have games in which the pressure calls can easily exceed 20. Capers averages about 35 percent of his third-down calls as blitzes, slightly higher on first downs.

Ryan was sacked twice last time in 28 pass plays, but he completed 86 percent of his attempts. It might not be a good idea for Capers to run too many of his double inside blitzes with the inside backers or the Charles Woodson slot-corner blitz that has been so successful against other quarterbacks.

The Packers have to deal with wide receiver Roddy White, who had a league-leading 115 receptions this year and is targeted more than 11 times a game. The Packers will need Woodson to handle White, but expect the Falcons to throw to him more than the seven times they did in the first matchup.

Ryan hit nine different receivers the first time. That kind of distribution means doing a good job of reading coverages, which I expect again from Ryan.

3. Is Starks the final piece?

When the Packers lost running back Ryan Grant in the season opener, they basically lost their entire rushing attack, which plummeted to No. 24 in the NFL. Along comes rookie James Starks last week for 23 carries and 123 yards, and the Packers suddenly have balance.

Atlanta is an underrated rush defense that finished 10th in the NFL. The last time these teams met, Rodgers was the leading Packers rusher. Atlanta was 5-2 this year when opposing teams rushed for more than 100 yards, and the Falcons will be willing to let Starks have some production before they give up their pass defense with Rodgers and those terrific receivers. Rodgers threw for 344 yards last time, and if it weren't for his first-half fumble that led to a momentum-changing touchdown for the Falcons, Green Bay might have won the game.

4. Can Atlanta's secondary handle Green Bay's aerial attack?

Five different Packers receivers averaged more than 11 yards a reception in the first game, but the team scored only one receiving touchdown. Atlanta finished the year 27th against the pass, and a big part of the problem was the pass rush.

John Abraham had 13 sacks -- and had a sack/fumble against Rodgers -- but the rest of the team generated only 18 sacks on the year. The Packers will slide the protection to Abraham and buy time for Rodgers, who is equally capable in the pocket or on the rollout, to attack the secondary. Falcons defensive end Kory Biermann has to do a good job of contain Rodgers, because if he breaks contain, it will be a long day for the corners against Greg Jennings and Donald Driver. I expect Green Bay to have more than 300 yards passing in this game, although Atlanta corners Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson are playing well.

The Packers were my preseason pick to go to the Super Bowl, but I never figured they would have to go on the road three times to do it. So I'm changing it up and taking the Falcons in a repeat of last time, 20-17.

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