In the moments before their game against the Atlanta Falcons, the Green Bay Packers won the coin toss and elected to defer. The afternoon was all downhill for them from there.
The Falcons took the opening kickoff and moved 80 yards in 13 plays in a drive that consumed the first 6:36 of the game to take a 7-0 lead.
The next time they got their hands on the ball (starting on their own 31), they moved the ball 59 yards in 12 plays consuming five more minutes (and 21 seconds). By the time Matt Bryant added the field goal, there were just 14 seconds left in the first quarter, and the Packers already trailed 10-0.
The second quarter would prove similar. Another 80-yard drive on their first possession of that quarter pushed the Falcon lead to 17-0. They went into the locker room at half-time leading 24-0 after a 5-yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Julio Jones with just three seconds left capped a quick 68 yard drive.
The Packers made a little second half noise, but they were never truly in this one, falling by a final score of 44-21. The Atlanta Falcons (who only attempted 6 passes in the second half) will now advance to their second ever Super Bowl to face New England on Sunday.
So, How Good is the Falcon’s Offense?
Pretty darn good.
They finished the regular season as one of the top scoring offenses in NFL history, racking up 540 points (an average of 33.8 per game). They then put up 36 points against Seattle in their first playoff game, before hanging 44 on the Packers. By yardage they finished second in the league this year (third in passing yards and fifth in rushing yards). Quarterback Ryan finished completing 69.9% of his passes for almost 5,000 yards. He averaged 9.26 yards for every pass attempted, and 13.3 for every pass he completed. His regular season touchdown-to-interception ratio was 38-7.
Prominent on the receiving end is record-setting wide receiver Julio Jones, who stormed through the regular season hauling in 83 passes for 1409 yards. In the signature moment of the Championship Game, he beat cornerback Ladarious Gunter to the inside for a 73-yard catch-and-run touchdown that pushed the score to 31-0. Julio would finish the afternoon with 9 catches for 180 yards and 2 touchdowns.
But the game – like the season – belonged to Ryan. At 27 of 38 for 392 yards and 4 touchdowns, Matt picked the Packer defense clean. A predominantly man coverage team, the Packers lined up in man coverage against Jones and the Falcon receivers for 26 of the 38 passes (68.4%). They didn’t come close to slowing them down. Ryan sliced their man coverages for 16 completions in those 26 attempts (61.5%). Fifteen of those 16 completions earned first downs as Ryan totaled 269 yards with those passes (10.35 per attempt and 16.8 per completion). Three of his four TD passes came with the Packers in man coverages.
Gunter was supposed to have help with Jones, but it never materialized. Slightly more than one third of the time the Packers were in man, Ryan looked for Jones, throwing 9 of the 26 passes in his direction. Julio finished catching seven of them for 140 yards and both of his touchdowns. The Packer man coverage schemes clearly didn’t work.
But neither did their zones. Ryan and the Falcon passing game were equally proficient when Green Bay dropped into zone coverage. Matty completed 11 of 12 (91.7%) of his passes against the zone defenses for 123 yards and his initial touchdown pass.
In their own evaluation of the execution of their strategy, the Packers will probably concede that they knew they were asking, perhaps, too much of a somewhat banged up secondary. But they were counting on getting enough pressure on Ryan to give their secondary a chance to compete. Indeed, when Ryan did face significant pressure (and I grant this is a small sample size), he was a fairly mortal 4 for 7 for 57 yards and no touchdowns. But the Packer pressure was sporadic and all too often the Green Bay secondary was hung out to dry. Top pass rusher Clay Matthews was mostly a non-factor. He finished with one tackle, no sacks and three pressures. He spent 90% of his evening lining up opposite of Falcon left tackle Jake Matthews. While Jake effectively eliminated Clay, it should also be pointed out that Clay has been battling a fairly serious shoulder injury all year. Whether it was the Falcon offensive lineman or the limits of his health – or some combination of the two – the absence of Clay’s outside pressure was a critical blow to the Green Bay defensive scheme.
A couple of numbers that more fully illustrate the dominance of the Falcon passing game:
Ryan threw 15 passes from his own side of the 50-yard line. He completed 14 of those passes (93.3%) for 231 yards. His passer rating from his side of the field was 141.0. For the game, seven of their nine possessions ended in Green Bay territory, and they ran 44 of their 68 plays (64.7%) on the Green Bay side of the field.
Additionally, the more balanced Atlanta offense adds to the effectiveness of Ryan’s play-action passing game – something they should, perhaps, do more of. Ryan only went play-action seven times, but completed six of those passes for 179 yards and the 73-yard touchdown to Jones. Jones, in fact, was the target of 4 of those 7 play-action passes, and accounted for 4 completions and 133 yards. Julio is very dangerous all the time – but especially when the Falcons run play-action.
And then, there was third down. The Falcons finished the game a devastating 10 for 13 in third down situations, including 6 of 9 when the third down was six yards or more. Ryan was 10 for 11 (90.9%) passing on third down for 101 yards. Nine of his ten completions went for first downs. Three of his touchdown passes came on third-down throws. It all adds up to a 144.5 rating on third down.
But with all the positives of the un-stoppable passing game, there are a few cautionary observations to make. First, it can’t be forgotten that the Packers finished the season ranked thirty-first out of thirty-two teams in pass defense. That was by yardage allowed. But the passer rating against them was a troubling 95.9 (ranking them twenty-sixth in the league). The New England team that they are set to face on Sunday allowed opposing passers an 84.4 rating (they finished eighth). In addition, the Patriots allowed the fewest points of any team in the league. Ryan-to-Jones is a devastating combination, and it’s unlikely that New England will be able to shut them down completely. But it’s not unreasonable to think that they will be able to slow them more than Green Bay could.
If all Atlanta has on Sunday evening in Houston is Ryan-to-Jones, I don’t think it will be enough. Which brings me to the Falcon running game.
After a season of accolades, the Atlanta Falcon running game continued a pattern of fading against the league’s better run defenses. Including their two playoff games, Atlanta has played 5 games against defenses ranked eighth or better at stopping the run. In those games, the Falcons have averaged 86.4 yards. The only time in any of those games that they cracked 100 yards was the Championship Game against Green Bay. They managed 101 yards on 30 carries in that game. Leading by 24 at the half, the Falcons went into the second half with the goal of establishing their running game. They focused to the extent that 16 of their 22 second half plays were runs. They managed just 47 yards on those carries (2.9 per). These struggles continued even after Green Bay lost starting inside linebacker Jake Ryan to injury about midway through the third quarter. Additionally, 23 of the yards they did get came on scrambles from Ryan and 7 more were the result of a direct snap to wide receiver Mohamed Sanu out of the Wildcat formation. As far as running backs taking handoffs, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman (who combined for 1599 yards this season), combined for only 71 yards on 25 carries during the game.
Much of the yardage that they did get came as a result of Green Bay defenders over-running the play and leaving the talented Falcon running backs open cutback lanes – something the disciplined Patriot linebackers are unlikely to do.
New England finished the season allowing just 88.6 rushing yards per game – the third-best total in the NFL this year. If Atlanta is unable to run the ball against the Patriots, I expect that Ryan and the passing game will have a much more difficult evening than they did last Sunday.
This, I feel, is all the more likely after getting a close look at the Falcon offensive line. In the aftermath of a 44-21 blowout, you would expect to see domination on the part of the winning team’s offensive line. To state it directly, I was unimpressed. Matthews (as mentioned) did a nice job pass blocking against Matthews. I’m not completely sure if that was due to great blocking or injury on the part of Green Bay’s Matthews. Left guard Andy Levitre had some very good moments, throwing some excellent blocks, but also had very bad moments where he was beaten quickly both in pass blocking and run blocking. Center Alex Mack and right guard Chris Chester mostly failed to defensive linemen Mike Daniels and Letroy Guion (Daniels, in particular, had a very strong game against all of Atlanta’s interior linemen), allowing the Packer linebackers to mostly flow freely to the point of attack. And right tackle Ryan Schraeder – although a four-year veteran and two-year starter seemed to struggle most, seeming slow to react.
I don’t expect this team to run the ball against the Patriots. Matt Ryan and his passing game will gain yards and put up points, but not as many as they have been wont to score throughout the year. Which leads to what I consider to be the most important question regarding this year’s Super Bowl.
How Good is the Falcon Defense?
As the Packers began the season, their backfield featured Eddie Lacy as the main running threat. He lasted five weeks before succumbing to a lingering ankle injury. Later on James Starks resurfaced for a few games before he also landed on the injured reserve list. A running back named Don Jackson played in three games, starting one, before his season ended with an undisclosed injury after Week Nine.
By the time the Green Bay offense took the field for the first time in the Championship Game, their running game was reduced to a converted wide receiver (Ty Montgomery), a Seattle castoff (Christine Michael) and fullback Aaron Ripkowski.
The Packers opened the playoffs running just 25 times for 75 yards against the Giants. They followed that up running just 17 times against Dallas for 87 yards. Last Sunday, they came into Atlanta with no intention of running at all. After Montgomery gained four yards on Green Bay’s very first play, the Pack threw on their next eight plays.
Midway through the second quarter, when Ripkowski burst over left guard for a 12-yard run, it was only the third Packer running play in their first 13 plays. And, after Ripkowski fumbled the ball away at the end of that run, it would be the last Packer running play until they trailed 31-0 and there was 13:46 left in the third quarter. (Montgomery would take the Packers’ fourth running play of the day on their twenty-sixth offensive snap.) Fifty-five offensive plays into their afternoon, Green Bay had all of ten running plays, and two of them were scrambles by their quarterback.
With the game well out of reach late in the fourth quarter, the Packers ended their season running on 7 of the last 9 plays. They ended the game with 99 yards on 17 rushes. Subtract the three scrambles from QB Aaron Rodgers and two designed QB runs, and the actual yardage gained by running backs taking handoffs was 39 yards on 12 carries – most of them late.
Sometimes defenses have to work to make teams one dimensional. The Packers were one dimensional coming off the bus. Even though the Falcon defense has been vulnerable to the run all year (allowing 104.5 rushing yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry) and even though Atlanta had at least five defensive backs on the field for every defensive snap of the game, Green Bay never tried to exploit this opportunity. So dormant was the Packer running attack, that in 50 called passing plays, Rodgers threw just one play-action pass.
Instead, the Packers attempted to answer the Falcons’ high-efficiency offense with Aaron Rodgers throwing the ball to Jordy Nelson (playing with cracked ribs), Davante Adams (trying to stay on the field after spraining his ankle last week), Jared Cook (who dropped two more passes) and Randall Cobb. Factor in the loss of three more offensive starters to injury as the game progressed (the Packers lost Montgomery and two offensive linemen: Lane Taylor and T.J. Lang), plus the fact that Atlanta was up 17-0 almost before anyone could blink, and things seemed to tilt decidedly to the advantage of the Atlanta defense. (In fact, the Packers put the ball into play trailing by twenty or more points on 43 of their 64 offensive snaps).
Yet, by game’s end, this limping, one-dimensional Packer offense had scuffled for 21 points and 367 yards, gaining 5.7 yards per offensive play. In fact, take back Mason Crosby’s miss of a 41-yard field goal on Atlanta’s first possession and Ripkowski’s fumble at the Falcon 11-yard line on their second possession, and the Packers could easily have put up 31 or so points against this Atlanta defense that finished twenty-fifth in the league in yards allowed and twenty-seventh in points allowed.
The television crew that broadcast this game went to great lengths to praise the Atlanta defense. I’m not sure I’m convinced.
The Falcons also played decidedly more man coverages than they did zone, and showed weaknesses in both. Rodgers was 12 for 19 against the Falcon zones (63.2%) for 147 yards (an average of 12.25 yards per completion). The Falcon linebackers – and specifically middle linebacker Deion Jones – frequently got lost in zone coverages. Randall Cobb – whose quickness is reminiscent of Patriot receivers like Julian Edelman – caught four of the five passes thrown to him in zone coverage for 78 yards and four first downs.
Even more telling, in the man coverages that the Falcons prefer, they had noted difficulty finding someone who could cover Jared Cook, the Packer tight end. Cook finished with 7 catches for 78 yards. He also had the two drops that would have accounted for at least 13 more yards. Particularly ineffective against the Packer TE was safety Keanu Neal who was completely manhandled in his attempts to cover him. If covering Cook is a challenge, how much more difficult will an accomplished tight end like the Patriots Martellus Bennett be.
When playing Green Bay, most teams focus on keeping Rodgers in the pocket. Atlanta managed that for the most part by blitzing him. On almost 47% of the Packer pass plays (22 of 47), they sent five pass rushers his way. None of these were exotic, overload blitzes designed to bring a free rusher. Instead, the purpose of these blitzes was as much to keep Rodgers in the pocket as it was to hurry his process. And in this, it was largely successful. The blitz got to Aaron once, and Rodgers scrambled out of pressure three other times. But he only threw from outside of the pocket 7 times, and completed only 3 of those passes (albeit for 82 yards). His lone interception was thrown after he rolled out of the pocket and heaved a long pass downfield on third-and-21.
While there were some holes, there were a lot of things the Falcon defense did quite well.
In the wake of the Falcon’s victory, many of the commentators suggested that New England’s defense would be facing a unique challenge in the Atlanta offense. They neglected to mention that Atlanta’s defense would be similarly challenged. In New England, they will be facing a more balanced offense with another elite quarterback and receivers who aren’t battling injuries.
The Atlanta Falcons are an impressive team and they have made great strides over the last few years. They have become an elite offensive team, but their defense still lags behind. Far enough behind to be a liability against the Patriots.
What Comes Next?
Ideally, I would like to get one more post written before Sunday, taking a closer look at the AFC Championship Game. I am a little behind and facing a busy week, so I make no promises.
And then, some time after the Super Bowl – hopefully not too long – we will do a little analysis on the last game of the season.