Saturday, January 15, 2011

Packers Must Force Falcons To Make Mistakes

First of all, I must announce my renewed optimism for today's game against the top-seeded Falcons:  my sister had a baby girl this morning, and perhaps in honor of today's game, named her "Victoria".  If I have to choose between that being a good omen for a Packer victory versus having Keyshawn Johnson pick the Packers to win, I'll take my new little peanut as a better harbinger of success.

But, in the end, it is going to come down to two teams that are competing for the right to advance to the NFC title game, and in the end, there couldn't be two more different teams facing one another today.

The Falcons are the conservative, stick-to-their-philosophy of a hard-nosed running game and putting their quarterback into the role of a game manager.  Defensively, they trust their front four to get pressure while dropping seven into coverage and waiting for mistakes.  They have a solid special team corps and a top-flight returner that can do some real damage.

The Packers, on the other hand, are unpredictable on offense.  Despite lip service given to the running game, they will only stick to it if (as McCarthy puts it) a "hot hand" steps up to take the rock and do some damage on the ground.  Otherwise, the Packers are a risk-taking offense that is far from patient and wants to get down the field fast or die trying.  Defensively, when they play back in coverage behind a three-man rush, it usually ends up hurting them in the long run, so look for Capers to bring the pressure and hide coverages.

In other words, the Packers are the risk-taking team, while the Falcons sit back and wait for you to make a mistake.

And, despite the Packers playing an almost-perfect game against the Falcons in the regular season, they still lost on the basis of just a few mistakes:  a Rodgers' fumble and a failure to challenge a Tony Gonzalez reception in time.  The Falcons didn't go out and take the game from the Packers...the simply stayed in the game and took advantage of the mistakes they eventually made.

So, the logical conclusion you might make is that the Packers must play a completely perfect game.  It's completely valid, but also completely impossible, at least, if the Packers play how they have all season.  There's not a single game that has gone by in which every squad has shown up and played to their potential, whether it be a special teams snafu or the passing game going completely down south.  Face it:  the game the Packers played against the Falcons, in which they lost by three points, was quite possibly the most complete game they played all season (at least, against a quality opponent).

So, the only other way to to win this game is to force the Falcons to do what they normally don't do:  Atlanta is going to have to be in a position to take risks and make mistakes.  And then, the Packers are going to have to take advantage of them.

And, it is going to have to start with Michael Turner, the bruising running back who can simply take over the ebb and flow of a football game by consistently moving the line of scrimmage forward.  The pressure Turner takes off of Matt Ryan is completely believable when you look at the impact an effective game has had for Aaron Rodgers.  The big difference is that Turner consistently does this for Ryan, while opposing Packer defenses are usually surprised when the Packers do it to them.

No, the Packers are not going to stop Michael Turner, but I have a strong suspicion Howard Green will be active this week to take up space and be an object a lot harder for the Falcon offensive linemen to move.  The Falcons are patient, however.  They don't view a three-and-out as a failure, because they know their defense will hold and keep giving them chances.  The Falcons consistently dominate time of possession because they take time off the clock, even when they don't score.

That is what must change:  the Packers have to keep the Falcons' drives short and sweet, get them off the field, and get them itchy to do something flashy when they come back in.  The more they feel like Ryan has to win the game with his arm, the more characters like Nick Collins, Tramon Williams, Clay Matthews, and Charles Woodson can tip the balance of the game with a turnover or a sack.

Secondly, the Packers can negate the Falcons' faith in Turner by taking advantage of his Achilles' heel as late:  fumbling the ball.  The Falcons didn't have a single turnover against the Packers, but against in the Falcons' last three games, they committed four, including a fumble by Michael Turner in each of the last two games.  We all know the psychological impact of fumbles, as we remember Ahman Green and how he kept having to focus on ball control.  If the Packers cam get him to fumble early and capitalize on it, the impact can be more than just those points on the board:  you can put a little doubt in Turner's mind and in the minds of those controlling the playcalling.  In a do-or-die game, you are far more likely to break from your game-planning mold when something isn't working...there's no next week to come back to.

Finally, the Packers have to strike early.  No, I don't think the Falcons will change their complete approach to the game if the Packers are up 13-0 at the end of the first quarter, but the longer that lead continues by more than a touchdown, the more the Falcons will be forced into doing what they are not used to doing:  taking risks.

In order to get that early lead, the Packers have to reduce their own mistakes:  number one, the receivers have to catch the ball this week.  Drops aren't just mental mistakes, they are costly minuses on any offensive drive, an instance of everything working on a play except the very end.  The Packers have been shying away from their bonafide corps of wide receivers the past few weeks as they have offensively been going towards a short-passing game and, occasionally, a power running game. 

Jason Wilde did a nice job investigating the usage of the Big Five formation, noting that the Packers have run out of it 30 out of 46 times this season.  I don't think that's the best usage of the spread, especially since the Packers have found so much more useful yardage out of their reverse-bone formation, especially when it is now pretty obvious to opposing scouts that the Big Five means a better-than-half chance they will be seeing a draw play.

The more players the Falcons are forced to bring into the box leaves more space available for guys like Driver, Jennings, and Jones to get open downfield, and Rodgers is at his best with time to throw (play-action) and throwing the ball on a dime.  It doesn't have to be a quick-strike offense, as we've seen how teams react to our 54-second drives (remember the Cardinals last year?), but good, momentum-turning drives that frustrate defenses.

Making the Falcons bring more players into the box takes them out of their usual, conservative gameplan.  It puts their secondary into more one-on-one matchups with our receivers, and with Rodgers at quarterback, I'll take that matchup every time.

I predicted a 16-13 score on Cheesehead Radio this week, and I stand by it.  I think the Packers will have some slow going against the Falcons offensively, but their defense will do their job and keep the Falcons at bay.  In the end, the team that ends up on the better end of that score will depend on whether or not Mike McCarthy and the Packers can dictate the game to the Falcons, and force them to make the mistakes they usually do not.

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