3TFO: Falcons @ Packers, Week 14
Originally scheduled as a marquee matchup on Sunday Night Football, the game between Atlanta and Green Bay has lost most of its intrigue due to substantial injuries and a combined 8-15-1 record. The Falcons have been out of playoff contention for a while, but are coming off an overtime win and have shown improvement over recent weeks.
After another winless game without Aaron Rodgers, the Packers’ playoff chances are quickly fading. While the offense’s woes without Rodgers have been significant, the defense seems to be the greater hindrance. The Packers likely need to win their final four games to have an opportunity to win the division. Can the Packers regain their early-season form to get their season back on track? Or will the Falcons shut the door on the Packers’ playoff hopes? Here are three matchups that will factor into Sunday’s game.
Packers Offensive Line vs. Falcons Pass Rush
It remains to be seen whether Rodgers will be healthy enough to return this week, although it looks unlikely since he has yet to be cleared by the medical staff. Regardless of who is under center on Sunday, the Packers’ offensive line needs to improve its pass protection. Matt Flynn has been under pressure on 41.8% of his dropbacks over the last two weeks, including being sacked seven times. He has not had much success when pressured, completing only 7 of 19 attempts for 65 yards with an interception.
One of the deciding factors will be if Evan Dietrich-Smith will be able to play. Dietrich-Smith’s +5.7 pass blocking grade ranks highest among centers. Guard T.J. Lang was clearly out of position when he slid over to replace Dietrich-Smith at center last week. His return would also keep backup Marshall Newhouse, who has earned an -8.7 pass block grade over the last four weeks, on the sideline. Rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari has had a decent year pass-blocking considering the Packers’ situation at left tackle. He has had moments one would expect from a rookie like allowing three sacks and one hit last week. Still, he has held his own much of the season, including a six-game stretch in which he did not allow a single sack or hit. The Packers’ need a high level of play from Bakhtiari again, along with the rest of the offensive line.
Fortunately for the Packers, they will face one of the least productive pass rushing defensive lines. Heading into last week, the Falcons ranked last among 4-3 defensive lines with a 5.90 Pass Rushing Productivity. The trend continued as they collected just four pressures (all hurries) on 32 dropbacks by E.J. Manuel in last week’s game. Father Time may be catching up to Osi Umenyiora, who is on his way to a negative pass rush grade for the first time since we started grading in 2008. Jonathan Massaquoi and Corey Peters have each generated only one pressure over the last four games. Finally, Peria Jerry’s five sacks rank second on the team, but he has just nine other disruptions on the season. All in all, the Falcons need someone to step up, especially if Rodgers returns.
Falcons Run Game vs. Packers Run Defense
The addition of Steven Jackson certainly has not worked out the way the Falcons had planned. Missing four games set him back, but even when he has been on the field he has not been as effective as in the past. Jackson is on pace for a career-low 3.5 yards per carry and his 2.0 yards after contact is his lowest in the six years we have been tracking. However, he has been getting more carries as the season has progressed and has begun to hit his stride with his best run grades coming over the last three weeks (+3.4 cumulative). Jackson should continue to receive a heavy workload since fellow running backs Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling have both had little impact on the ground after his return from injury in Week 8. Jackson could still use more help from his blockers though, since Atlanta ranks 21st as an offense in run blocking.
Through Week 8 the Packers boasted one of the top rush defenses with 83.5 yards per game allowed. The tide has quickly turned, however, as opponents are averaging 185.2 rushing yards over the last five games against the Packers, the second-worst over that time span. The defense has missed a combined 26 tackles against the run in the last five weeks—12 more than in their first seven games. Although missed tackles have contributed to their porous defense, their over pursuit and inability to shed blocks has loomed large. Inside linebackers A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones have continually taken themselves out of position to make plays. Hawk’s -13.3 run grade ranks 50th out of 52 inside linebackers while his 4.8% Run Stop Percentage ranks last. Meanwhile, Jones started the season well, but has earned a -5.7 run grade since returning in Week 9 after missing three games due to a hamstring injury.
Clay Matthews vs. Lamar Holmes
Clay Matthews was virtually nonexistent in his first game back against the Eagles. The enormous club protecting his broken thumb clearly hampered his ability to get separation from the Eagles’ offensive linemen. Since shedding the large cast, he is performing closer to his usual standard. He has had five pressures in two of his last three games, including three sacks and a forced fumble. Even though he is known for his pass rushing ability, Matthews remains their best run defending linebacker as well.
Matthews could be in for another impactful game as he goes against first-year starter Lamar Holmes. Because of injuries to Sam Baker, Holmes has been forced to flip sides to left tackle and looked overwhelmed during the first half of the year. His 59 total pressures allowed are second-most for any offensive lineman this season, leading to a 91.1 Pass Blocking Efficiency. Holmes has allowed five or more pressures in half of Atlanta’s games but has gradually improved over the last month. Over two-thirds of his allowed pressures have come around the outside or have been bull rushes—the two areas Matthews excels at when pass rushing.
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