The 4-2 Green Bay Packers travel to the Georgia Dome this Sunday to face the 4-3 Atlanta Falcons. Here’s three things to watch and my prediction for how the game ends up.
This is unquestionably the biggest challenge facing the 2016 Packers. Despite the mini bye week given by last week’s Thursday night game, the team is riddled with ailments.
Sam Shields and Eddie Lacy have already been placed on Injured Reserve. Behind Lacy, Starks remains out with a knee injury. Don Jackson is battling a left hand injury that leaves his ball-handling abilities in doubt.
If Jackson can’t play, the snaps at running back will likely go predominantly to Ty Montgomery, assuming of course that he overcomes his illness. The newly acquired Knile Davis won’t be the feature back, but he should be ready for some select plays.
Injuries have ravaged the Green Bay secondary. Damarious Randall will be out for a few more weeks, while Quentin Rollins’ status is in question for this week. This leaves Ladarius Gunter, Micah Hyde, Demetri Goodson and Josh Hawkins to cover the Falcons’ explosive passing attack.
Additionally, Jared Cook remains out with an ankle injury and Clay Matthews is questionable with a hamstring.
How can the Packers coaches adapt to these injuries? In 2010, the Packers lost Jermichael Finley, Ryan Grant, Nick Barnett and 13 other players to Injured Reserve. But Mike McCarthy and Dom Capers coached up their young talent and adjusted their schemes, and the team didn’t miss a beat. They’ll have to perform a similar feat this year.
The numbers speak for themselves. Matt Ryan is the league’s leading passer with 2,438 yards, and Julio Jones is the top NFL receiver with an astounding 830 yards.
Jones is a special receiver. He can win in every area of the field, off the snap, at the catch point, and with the ball in his hands. He’s bigger, faster, and more refined as a route runner than anyone the Packers have faced this year. The only talent who comes close is Odell Beckham Jr., but Jones’ experience and maturity transcend his.
This is typically a task that would fall to Sam Shields. But with him out, expect Ladarius Gunter to shadow Jones all afternoon.
Gunter is a big and physical corner who has played technically sound football this year. But he’s nowhere near the talent or experience of Jones, and Dom Capers shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that he’s up to the task of shutting down Jones 1-on-1.
From Plaxico Burress to Keenan Allen, this Packers defense has been burned by #1 receivers in the past. But with the limited personnel available to him, expect Dom Capers not to underestimate Jones. There should be safety help on every single play, regardless of how that affects the run defense.
Gunter and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix will need to play excellent games to contain the damage that Jones and Ryan inflict. Keeping him under or around his season average of 138 yards will be a big win for the Packers.
Last week against the Bears, Davante Adams, Ty Montgomery and Randall Cobb all surpassed 10 catches. Noticeably absent was Jordy Nelson, with just 1 reception for 9 yards.
Most of the focus recently has been on Montgomery and his versatility out of the backfield. But as the season progresses, an increasingly relevant question will be this: who is Aaron Rodgers’ #1 outside receiver?
Jordy Nelson was supposed to cure all the 2015 ills of the passing game, while Davante Adams was thought by some to be on the bubble for a roster spot in training camp. Last week, though, Rodgers consistently passed up Nelson to target Adams, who had a very favorable matchup against two 2015 undrafted free agents in De’Vante Bausby and Jacoby Glenn.
The development of Adams is a supremely encouraging sign for this Packers’ passing game. Adams repeatedly beat the Bears on basic outside isolation routes including curls and slants, and he fought hard for extra yards after the catch.
But Nelson’s slow start to the season is discouraging, if not completely unexpected. He’s had some good moments, but nothing like the top 5 receiver that we saw in 2014. As a 31 year old receiver coming off an ACL tear, he’ll need to step up in the second half of the season to justify his $11.55 million cap hit in 2017.
Nelson will likely see the Falcons’ #1 cornerback Desmond Trufant for most of the game, which could limit his impact. But he’s still a dependable receiver with some playmaking skills. Expect Mike McCarthy to use Nelson in different ways this week, including in the slot, to get him more targets.
Adams has had great games in the past, but he’ll need to sustain his performance to solidify himself as a quality starting receiver. And Nelson must be itching to prove that he is fully back from the surgery and is once more a force to be reckoned with. It will be revealing to see who Rodgers targets and who has success against the Falcons defense.
Falcons 31, Packers 24
The Packers’ offense appears like it might have finally found a working identity with Ty Montgomery as a focal point. But against the Falcons, I don’t think it will be enough.
Green Bay is too injured for me to predict a win here. Matt Ryan and Julio Jones are likely to connect on at least a few big plays against this depleted secondary. If Rodgers plays well enough and the Packers get an unexpected spark from a turnover or on special teams, they could very easily walk away with a victory. But I don’t think it will happen this Sunday in Atlanta.