While Julio Jones has been on the minds of several scribes covering the Packers this week, Green Bay’s next opponent—the Falcons—has a number of other players that Mike McCarthy and his coaching staff should be extremely concerned about going into a Week-8 showdown that is shaping up as an offensive fireworks show in the Georgia Dome.
In a one-week departure from my Essential Matchups analysis of the upcoming contest, I’ve decided to highlight some of the top contributors on a Falcons’ team that has taken the league by storm by sitting atop the NFC South standings and doing it in impressive fashion by defeating last season’s Super Bowl participants (among others) the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers.
But after back-to-back losses to Seattle and San Diego, many devoted fans of the Dirty Birds remain guarded about their team’s fast start since it was only a season ago that they went on to drop seven of their last nine games after posting a 6-1 record in September and October.
The most glaring area of concern in Falcons Nation is a porous pass defense that has allowed teams to earn come-from-behind wins along with allowing the second-most passing yards (294 pg) and touchdowns (15) to the opposition.
Their shortcomings in defending quarterbacks stem from an inconsistent pass rush and a lack of experience among their safeties and linebackers, many of whom are all still in their early 20s.
What the unit doesn’t lack, however, is talent, as GM Thomas Dimitroff has assembled an intriguing cast of athletic defenders that are just as capable of making big plays as they are of giving them up.
What the Packers shouldn’t do is take the wide-lens look of their conference foe and assume they’re facing a defense that’s bound to surrender offensive production and discount the enormous potential of Atlanta’s young corps of enforcers in the back seven.
Here are six high-impact Falcons that could all play significant roles in adding a fifth win to the ledger against what should be a highly-motivated Green Bay group that is looking to prove they have what it takes to conquer a quality competitor on the road.
From an individual standpoint, one cannot overlook Matt Ryan’s resurgence as the field general of the NFL’s most potent offense that leads the league in total yards and points per game (32.7).
Transitioning to offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s scheme wasn’t a pleasant experience for the Pennsylvania native last season as Ryan was required to deliver several of his throws on the run as part of a moving pocket.
The 31-year-old is a timing and anticipation thrower with excellent deep-ball accuracy, but he doesn’t move very well. Forcing him out of the pocket will be crucial for the Packers this week if they hope to see Ryan toss any interceptions.
Constant pressure on the part of the Chargers (with much of it coming from rookie phenom Joey Bosa) last week caused Ryan to overthrow wide-open receivers late in the game as well as deliver an interception in the fourth quarter that put San Diego in position to kick a field goal and force an overtime session.
The ninth-year quarterback’s turnover came about as a result of the fact that outside of Jones, his receiving options are very limited and often leaves Ryan with no other option but to jam balls to his star wideout even when he’s surrounded by multiple defenders.
The Bolts’ consistent pass rush resulted in Ryan losing his sharpness in the red zone while also affecting his offensive line which was called for four false-start penalties despite playing in front of a friendly home crowd.
Right tackle Ryan Schraeder , in particular, has struggled against speed rushers in recent weeks and Green Bay has multiple outside linebackers that can win their one-on-one matchups with either one of Atlanta’s bookends which will be vital in knocking the slow-footed Ryan off his game.
Expect the 5-foot-8, 206-pound running back to get a larger workload in Week 8 in light of the absence of backfield mate Tevin Coleman who is out with a hamstring injury.
More touches for Freeman begs the question: Can he handle the lion’s share of snaps in the Falcons backfield? The fact that the third-year veteran has been limited in practices with a hip ailment certainly doesn’t help matters.
Also consider how Freeman struggled down the stretch in 2015 when he was asked to practically carry the entire ground attack on his shoulders. He rushed for 3.1 yards per carry in the second half, which ranked lowest in that area among ball carriers averaging 10 attempts or more.
At his best, the Florida State product is hard-nosed darting runner with exceptional burst along with start-and-stop quickness. In addition, his 22 catches put him among the league leaders in receptions at his position.
But Coleman is the bigger and more physical back that actually possesses more speed than the smaller Freeman to boot. There’s no getting around the fact that the thunder Coleman supplies will be sorely missed.
According Pro Football Focus (PFF) stats, Freeman averaged only 1.93 yards after contact versus San Diego. Going up against Mike Daniels and Green Bay’s top-ranked run defense could see No. 24 struggle again to churn out tough yards between the tackles considering the fact that he’s not a pile pusher despite being a hard runner.
At 230 pounds, Tamme isn’t an overwhelming physical force and is essentially a non-factor as a blocker. Catching the ball is where he earns his money and Ryan has the utmost confidence in the former Indianapolis Colt, who ranks third on the team in pass targets with 29.
The 31-year-old tight end doesn’t consistently light up the stat sheet as he once did, but he remains an impeccable route runner that can makes plays from the slot or lined up wide.
Tamme’s soft hands allow him to reel in throws outside of his frame as he showed while securing a 17-yard touchdown pass in last week’s overtime loss to the Chargers.
Shanahan loves utilizing all of his tight ends in the passing game, especially in the red-zone area. But while rookie Austin Hooper gives the offense the best chance to make plays on deep seam routes, Tamme can be a sneaky weapon in getting open by working the short-to-intermediate zones.
The Packers, to their credit, have yet to get torched by tight ends despite allowing touchdowns to Julius Thomas and Kyle Rudolph earlier in the year and Tamme isn’t on par with those two in terms of being a playmaker.
The top priority for Dom Capers and company will be to keep Tamme out of the end zone on his four or five grabs, which is probably his ceiling in the Falcons’ offense.
The one-time Clemson Tiger is hitting his stride in his second season as an NFL pro after playing much of his rookie campaign with a torn labrum.
Last year saw Beasley thinking too much and trying too hard to beat blockers with an assortment of spin moves rather than just relying on his superior speed and agility off the edge to penetrate the offensive line.
The explosive disruptor is using his electrifying first-step get-off to routinely run past right tackles and is currently ranked fifth overall in sacks with 6.5 in seven games.
It won’t be an easy task for Bryan Bulaga to keep the young sack master off the stat sheet since the right tackle’s strengths lie in his technique and positioning, but not so much in his ability to move laterally.
The rookie middle linebacker is the classic run-and-hit defender that can terrorize opponents with his sideline-to-sideline range and ability to aggressively fill in the gaps when attacking the line of scrimmage downhill.
His 4.45 speed in pass coverage make him a threat to take it to the house if he gets his hands on a wayward pass as he did against the Saints on the Monday Night Football earlier in the year.
Jones’ toughness and athletic prowess to make plays at any part of the field have silenced critics that questioned his size (222 pounds) during the pre-draft evaluation process.
He may occasionally miss one of his reads, but overall he’s made far more positive than negative plays thus far and has exhibited the football IQ to become a quick learner.
Aaron Rodgers will need to be aware of the New Orleans-born dynamo that has suddenly become Atlanta’s top defensive playmaker.
Neal plays the Kam Chancellor role in Dan Quinn’s 4-3 scheme that uses three-deep zone as its dominant coverage. Though not quite as big as the Seattle Seahawks’ safety, the rookie hitman looks to deliver kill shots on every opposing player that crosses his path.
Both running backs and wide receivers will need to be on alert with Neal on the field since the 2016 first-round pick can both drop the hammer in going downhill versus the run as well as strike pass catchers with considerable force when they run across the middle.
Getting a shifty route runner like Randall Cobb matched up the stiff-hipped Neal in coverage is the best way to attack this youngster that can execute momentum-swinging plays in a close game with his toughness and explosiveness on contact.