If the Green Bay Packers intend on playing beyond this weekend, they'll have to do a much, much better job against Atlanta's powerful running back, Michael Turner.
On paper, the Packers are in trouble.
Turner ranked third in the NFL with 1,371 rushing yards, including a fourth-ranked 694 yards after contact and a fourth-ranked 23 broken tackles. In Week 12 against Green Bay, Turner rumbled for 110 yards on 23 carries — one of seven 100-yard games this season. In his three years in Atlanta, he has an even 100 runs of 10-plus yards.
On the other side of the coin, the Packers ranked 18th by allowing 114.9 rushing yards per game and a woeful 28th with 4.7 yards allowed per carry. It's been a slow leak rather than a full-on deluge, with a respectable 10 runs allowed of 20-plus yards and just one of 40-plus yards.
It's a far cry from last year, when the Packers ranked first in the NFL against the run with a franchise-record 83.3 yards allowed per game.
In this case, however, the stats don't tell the whole story. This year's defense, on average, has been playing nickel on between 65 and 70 percent of the snaps. Frequently, defensive coordinator Dom Capers plays nickel (three cornerbacks) against three-receiver sets, but there have been times — against Chicago, for instance — in which he's matched nickel against a traditional two-back, two-receiver set. That means seven big guys on offense (five lineman, a tight end and a fullback) blocking against six big guys on defense (two linemen, four linebackers). It's a numerical mismatch.
"Some of the calls I'll make aren't necessarily great run calls," Capers said on Thursday. "If they get a run in there and make 6 or 8 yards, so be it. When I grade things, I put it either on the defense or a jersey number. So, there's been a number of times this year when the breakdown has been the defense that I had called. You just hope that you don't have too many of those. But I think it's only fair, if everybody's doing their job and they're making 6 yards on a run, you have to accept the responsibility as a coach that the guys are doing what you asked them to do, you just put them in a tough situation."
John Bazemore/AP Images
This week, Pickett and Jenkins are relatively healthy and midseason addition Howard Green has provided another beefy run-stopper. They'll join Pro Bowl alternate B.J. Raji, who has been a dominant force over the last several games, as well as young reserves Jarius Wynn and C.J. Wilson.
With that full complement of defensive linemen and a Falcons offense hell bent on running the ball, this will be base defense against base offense.
Raji and his linemates are ready for that challenge.
"We've been a little down on the run but we've been up in more important areas," Raji said. "Last year, we were No. 1 in run defense but we struggled in a lot of other categories. Sometimes you're going to give up a little to get what you want in the long run. This game's going to be more our kind of a game, some Okie (base 3-4)."
Adding to the task is the Falcons frequently employ 6-foot-6 Will Svitek as a tight end to put another big blocker on the field. It's a personnel grouping that Capers knows he needs to find an answer to if his defense is going to stop Turner and get quarterback Matt Ryan into unfavorable down-and-distances.
"I think we can play the run," Capers said. "Obviously, it's a challenge. We didn't play the run well enough against their big people in the first game. We have to tackle better. But I think we've got the guys who will do it. When you're playing a runner like Michael Turner, this guy has a real low center of gravity and when he gets his pads down, with those big thighs, there's not a lot of surface to hit. So, you've got to know how to tackle him — you've got to wrap up and get a second and third guy there. because he's just as tough as there is as far as getting a clean hit on him, because he's not very tall and he's built low to the ground and he runs with good pad level and there's not a lot of surface to hit him."
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