Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith and QB Matt Ryan talked a good game last week about how last year’s playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers was in the rear view mirror. Things started off so promising during this game for the Falcons that they almost had me believing them.
“Last year was last year,” Ryan had said. “New season, new teams.” All true, but unfortunately for the Falcons…the same result.
Momentum seemed to change early in the second half as the Packer defense made it clear that they were not going to let the Falcons sustain drives or get into scoring range. Then, with injuries piling up in the Atlanta secondary, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense started to get into a rhythm. It was quickly apparent that Atlanta’s two touchdowns would not be enough to hold on for a victory.
Coming into this game, the Packers’ defense had been surrendering yards to their opponents at an historic level. Only their strong red zone defense and penchant for turnovers had saved their bacon. That held true against the Falcons. After surrendering a total of 140 yards and two touchdowns on Atlanta’s first two possessions, Green Bay only allowed 111 yards and forced a shut out the rest of the way.
Rodgers (+7.1) turned in another masterful performance, sidestepping pressure, delivering pinpoint accuracy and spreading the ball around to 12 different receivers. The Falcons’ coverage wasn’t horrible, Rodgers was just too good. The scary thing is that the Packers offense could have been even better. If not for a rash of dropped passes, five in total, by their receivers, the Packers could have put this game away much earlier.
Green Bay – Three Performances of Note
1) Another good hair day
To the casual observer, Clay Matthews’ (+4.3) one sack on the season might suggest a drop off in performance. This is a perfect example of why the standard statistics just don’t tell the full story. First of all, Matthews was overrated last year. He wasn’t even in the running for our 2010 Defensive Player of The Year, an honor that went to DT Kyle Williams of the Buffalo Bills. In fact, he only graded out as sixth best among 3-4 outside linebackers. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but certainly demonstrates how long flowing hair can lead to significant hype. This season, even without all the sacks, he’s ranking at about the same position among his peers and continues to have a significant impact against the run and rushing the passer. So far, no drop off is evident.
This game was no different, with Matthews leading the defense on three QB hits and a pressure. Matthews also delivered a flurry of impact plays in the fourth quarter, including a batted pass, with the game still on the line.
2) Interior supermen not bulletproof
The Packers interior offensive line had their first sub-par game of the season. Up until this week, OC Scott Wells (-3.4) and LG T.J. Lang (-1.6) had been impeccable in pass protection and consistently doling out the hurt in the run game. Both took steps backwards against Atlanta, giving up a sack and five pressures between the two of them. Wells in particular, had trouble in the run game where he tended to get hung up on his initial blocks and was a step slow getting to the second level.
3) Trial by fire… Nobody burned
Green Bay suffered a huge blow when veteran LT Chad Clifton (-1.4) went down with what is being described as a “significant hamstring injury.” With second-year man Marshall Newhouse (+1.9) already filling in at RT for an injured Bryan Bulaga (knee), things looked dire for the Packers offense and Rogers’ safety in particular.
Newhouse, in his second start as a pro, was shifted over to LT and the Packers plugged their rookie first round pick Derrek Sherrod (+0.4) in on the right. Sherrod had been rather underwhelming during the preseason and there’s no question that Rodgers and head coach Mike McCarthy were worried. McCarthy initially used lots of maximum protection to assist his young tackles and had his tight ends help out with chip blocks. Rodgers even seemed uncomfortable at first, looking skittish in the pocket as he anticipated pressure from the edges. For the most part, it never came.
Both players held up remarkably well, giving up just one hit and three pressures, allowing McCarthy to take off the training wheels, open the offensive game plan back up and go on to win the game. Bulaga is expected back for next week’s game against St. Louis, but it looks like Clifton could be out for an extended period of time. With this pair’s performance, they look to be in good shape to absorb the loss.
Atlanta – Three Performances of Note
1) Center… folds
On the other side of things for the young players was Joe Hawley, (-3.1) who didn’t experience the same level of success making the start at center for injured long-time starter, Todd McClure. Hawley couldn’t match the strength of the Packers’ interior, especially in the run game. Green Bay DT BJ Raji stood him up several times at the line of scrimmage and was able to shove him to the side to limit the running back to little or no gain. Hawley’s performance and an apparent ankle injury to RG Garrett Reynolds, has got to have the Falcons concerned about the overall health of their running game.
2) How do you like your stops, spoonfed?
Atlanta LB Sean Weatherspoon (+3.2) struggled through a pretty rough 2010 campaign as a rookie, but is really starting to put it together this season. Weatherspoon notched six stops (solo tackles that result in an offensive failure) and now leads all LBs in the league with 26. He was the primary culprit for Wells’ rough outing; on multiple occasions slipping past Wells’ block attempts to stop Packer RBs in their tracks.
Weatherspoon’s aggressiveness might have played a part in the Packers’ success with the play-action pass and he did have one ugly play in coverage where he fell down to leave a wide open Jermichael Finley charging down the seam – but so far, a promising start for the young player.
3) Corey’s Story
Another defensive standout for Atlanta, and also a member of their 2010 draft class, was DT Corey Peters (+3.2). Peters has provided the Falcons with a formidable inside pass rush presence – something they’ve been failing to get consistently from any of their defensive linemen. During the 2010 season, Peters didn’t offer much in rushing the passer. So far this year however, he’s been grading positively and has already tallied a sack, a hit, and five pressures.
His early third-quarter sack against Lang was a thing of beauty. As Lang reached his hands out to engage the charging Peters, Peters knocked Lang’s hands down with such force that by the time the stunned LG had recovered, Peters was driving Rodgers into the turf.
● Atlanta only sent extra pass rushers on 23% of Aaron Rodgers’ drop backs. Maybe they should have blitzed even less. Rodgers stat line against the blitz was 8 – 9 for 167, two touchdowns and a NFL QB Rating 158.3.
● Michael Turner (-0.4) rushed six times for zero yards towards Clay Matthews side of the field, either behind or outside of his RT. He logged seven carries for 30 yards at 4.3 yards per rush otherwise.
● Sam Shields (-1.2) drew the assignment on rookie WR Julio Jones (-0.9) for most of the night. Jones was targeted only four times and caught one pass for 16 yards.
PFF Game Ball
Marshall Newhouse, OT, Green Bay Packers
We have officially run out of superlatives for Rodgers so we’ll give the game ball to one of his linemen who really upped his game from week 4. Marshall Newhouse was humbled in his first career start by Von Miller but rebounded this week, kicking over to left tackle part way through the game and keeping the Falcons under performing defensive ends quiet in a solid display deputising for the injured Chad Clifton.
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