Tackling The Issues

The Packers are hoping a problem in their first meeting with the Falcons this season doesn't play a factor in the second. As they prepare for a divisional playoff game in Atlanta, they will know a little bit better what to expect from one of the NFC's more physical teams.

As a group, the Atlanta Falcons might be the toughest team to tackle in the NFL.

No one knows that better than the Packers, who, in a meeting with the Falcons earlier this season for NFC supremacy, had one of their worst tackling games, according to coach Mike McCarthy.

In a close contest — the Packers lost 20-17 on a Matt Bryant field goal with 9 seconds left — tackling, or the lack thereof, might have made the difference.

"Fundamentally, that was not our best game," said McCarthy, "and there was one giveaway in the game. Obviously, we had the one, we did not take the football away, we didn't tackle very well, they ran the ball extremely well with their big people on the field. That's something we need to do a better job of. But it was a well-played game on both sides of the ball. There was a lot of efficiency for both teams, and we anticipate the same type of game Saturday night."

This time around, the Packers are hoping for different results. As they prepare for their divisional playoff game with the Falcons this week while coming off strong performances in three straight elimination games, the focus is on getting the Falcons' offensive playmakers to the ground.

"I think you're more mentally aware of it," said linebacker Desmond Bishop. "Sometimes your fundamentals can slip a little bit if you're not conscious of it. I think just making a conscious effort at practice to come up with the proper technique, and in the game just know that it's important that you got to use your technique, or the type of back that we're playing against can easily break a tackle."

Running back Michael Turner, equipped with tree trunk-like legs, is a load to bring down at 5-foot-10, 244 pounds. Of his 1,371 rushing yards in the regular season, 110 (on 23 carries) came against the Packers on Nov. 28. More than half of his yards for the season — 694 — came after contact, a figure that ranked fourth in the league.

"When you play against a back like him, sometimes he's going to get yards," said Bishop, "but we can't hurt ourselves by missing tackles on him. If you have the chance, the opportunity, you've got to bring him down.

"Whenever we can make him bounce outside and run lateral instead of downhill, that helps in our favor as well."

The Packers also will have to contend with one of the more physical and productive receivers in the league, 212-pound Roddy White, and a Hall of Fame tight end, 6-foot-5 Tony Gonzalez. And along with Turner in the backfield, 252-pound fullback Ovie Mughelli and backup running back Jason Snelling, at 223 pounds, are hardly slouches.

Mughelli had a big 16-yard catch in the regular-season meeting with the Packers on the strength of two missed tackles. Though he failed to get a first down on the play, the gain, off a dump-down pass from Matt Ryan, set up a fourth-down conversion and eventually a score for the Falcons to go up 10-3 just before halftime.

Snelling had a similar play in the second half when he broke three tackles on a third-and-9 from the Falcons' 21 to pick up a first down. That led to a long Atlanta touchdown drive to break a 10-10 tie.

The Packers will be challenged by the Falcons' run schemes and figure to put forth a much different game plan than last week in the wild-card round against the Eagles. Whereas defensive coordinator Dom Capers mixed defenses and blitzes to keep Michael Vick at bay, he will not face the same challenges with Ryan at quarterback. The Packers would figure to play as much base defense this Saturday as they have in any game all season, a stark contrast from the predominantly nickel and dime defenses they played last Sunday.

A healthy Cullen Jenkins, who returned from injury against the Eagles to play 30 snaps, should help along the defensive line. And defensive end Ryan Pickett figures to be busy ,as well. Though the Packers finished the regular season 18th in rush defense, Pickett thinks that ranking is misleading.

"We definitely feel good about our running defense," said Pickett. "It's not No. 1 like it was last year, but if teams think they are going to try to make a living running on us, it's going to be hard on them."

That remains to be seen. But what is certain is the Packers have a better appreciation for what they will be facing. In theory, that should help them "tackle" the issues.

"The big thing is to make sure that you get them to the ground," said Jenkins of Turner and Co. "On top of that, they run the ball so well that it opens up the play-action pass. So, they're one of the teams that you have to make sure that you're really disciplined. Everybody needs to make sure that they are taking care of their own assignments."

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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com

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