Rather, it might be at tight end.
Starring for the Atlanta Falcons is ageless Tony Gonzalez.
For the Green Bay Packers, it's been a mish-mash of mediocrity since Jermichael Finley's season — and potentially career — ended with a neck injury against Cleveland.
Gonzalez, a 13-time Pro Bowler, is one of only two players in NFL history with 1,300 receptions. He's caught 62 passes for 653 yards and a team-high five touchdowns in this, his final season in the league. If he reels in 79 yards worth of passes on Sunday, he'll reach 15,000 yards for his career. He needs only 14 yards to pass Tim Brown (14,934) for fifth place in NFL history.
Gonzalez, a two-sport star in his college days at California, is a freak of nature. He's missed just two games in his 17-year career and has caught a pass in 207 consecutive games. He hasn't caught fewer than 70 passes since 2002, and he and Jerry Rice are the only players with 16 seasons of at least 50 catches. Even at age 37, his 62 receptions this season are tied for fourth among tight ends and his 653 yards rank fifth.
"We've got to finish on a guy like him," safeties coach Darren Perry said. "When the ball's in his vicinity, he catches it. Regardless of the coverage – you can be in tight coverage on him and the ball can be in some tough locations, but if it's in the vicinity, he has a tendency to come down with it. We've got to be sure that when the ball is coming, we've got to fight and we've got to scratch and claw and do whatever we've got to do to keep him from making the catch. You see guys draped all over him and the quarterback puts the ball in certain locations and he's able to come up with the catch. We can't let him push us off and gets us off-balance because he's very clever and he knows how to use your leverage and your position against you to get between you and the ball."
Finley was off to a brilliant start, with 25 receptions for 300 yards and three touchdowns. Combined, Andrew Quarless (17 catches, 130 yards), Brandon Bostick (five catches, 92 yards, one touchdown), Ryan Taylor (four catches, 23 yards) and Jake Stoneburner (zero catches) have caught 26 passes for 245 yards and a score. With his 25 catches, Finley broke 10 tackles and gained 238 yards after the catch, according to ProFootballFocus.com. On their 26 catches, the other tight ends have broken two tackles and gained 123 yards after the catch.
"When you don't have an outstanding player, you're going to miss him," offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. "I don't know how to quantify it. He's a great player and teams have to know where he is and defend him, and that may open up some other things. When you lose a guy of his caliber, it's not optimal, I'll say that. We have other guys who are giving their best and we have to win with the players that we have."
On Thursday, tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot expressed his disappointment in his unit's all-around production. That starts with Quarless, the veteran of the group. In 2010, when Finley sustained a season-ending knee injury in Week 5, Quarless helped the Packers win a Super Bowl. A devastating knee injury sustained late in 2011 cost him all of 2012 and derailed a promising career.
Once the unit's best blocker, Quarless isn't getting the job done. Then again, none of the tight ends are getting the job done. Fontenot, in fact, showed his group video on Thursday of receivers successfully blocking defensive ends because they were using proper leverage.
"We need to get more in the run game, especially movement at the point of attack," Fontenot said. "He makes the right reads, he's smart enough. We've continually emphasized his fundamentals and tried to get our pad level (down) and gain leverage on guys, but he plays high. We need more out of him at the point of attack and finish. We've talked about that."
In the passing game, Quarless (17-of-30), Bostick (5-of-9) and Taylor (4-of-6) have combined to catch 26-of-45 passes, according to league data. That's just 57.8 percent.
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
Gonzalez has caught 66.7 percent of his passes this season.
If anyone has the potential to light a fire, it's Bostick. After sustaining a concussion against the Vikings, he was held out of the game against Detroit. Scary as it is to say that the Packers missed a player with five career receptions, that "absolutely" was the case," Fontenot said.
Bostick, an undrafted free agent in 2012, played receiver at Division II Newberry. To help transition to tight end, he said he studied Gonzalez.
"I started watching him because he's been doing it for a while and is one of the best to ever do it," Bostick said. "He's very detailed. His routes, he knows how to use his body. He just knows the game. This is his (17th) year? So he's pretty much seen it all."
Fontenot just wants to see something, whether it's blocking or receiving. Finley, who still ranks seventh among tight ends in yards after the catch, was an irreplaceable part of the offense. Still, no one could have guessed the position would contribute so little in his absence.
"I think that we're better," Fontenot said. "I think that you will see better out of us the next couple weeks."
2. POROUS DEFENSE AND PERILS OF THE CAP
The Falcons have gone green.
And it hasn't necessarily been a good thing.
That's especially true on defense, in general, and the secondary, in particular. The Falcons let cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson go, essentially replacing them with first-round pick Desmond Trufant and second-round pick Robert Alford.
Call it the price of success and having a highly paid quarterback — similar to what the Packers are and will be dealing with for the foreseeable future with Aaron Rodgers. With so much money invested in a few players, it's getting harder and harder for teams to hang onto quality veterans.
"We became a younger team this offseason and a lot of it is based on salary cap," Falcons coach Mike Smith said in a conference call. "As you know, the salary cap kind of defines how your team's put together. We became a younger football team and we've become even younger since the season started in terms of certain positions with young guys that have had to step up."
In 2012, the Falcons allowed 61.2 percent completions, 7.4 yards per attempt, 14 touchdown passes, 20 interceptions and a rating of 77.1. In games against Drew Brees, Eli Manning and Peyton Manning, the Falcons gave up one touchdown pass and intercepted 10 passes. In 2013, the Falcons are allowing 66.5 percent completions, 8.0 yards per attempt, 24 touchdowns, six interceptions and a horrid rating of 105.1.
Trufant ranks second among rookie corners with 14 passes defensed and has one interception. Alford has two picks.
"They've grown a whole bunch," Smith said. "I think Desmond Trufant is mature beyond his years. I think a lot of it has to do with his background with two brothers (Marcus and Isaiah) who have played in the NFL. One of them being 12 years older so I'm sure he's seen a lot of NFL games whether in-person or on TV. He has a good feel of what happens in an NFL season and in an NFL offseason. He's done a nice job for us. Robert Alford out of Southeast Louisiana continues to progress. We anticipate him being a good player, as well."
Atlanta is starting three rookies on defense — Trufant and undrafted linebackers Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu. Alford and defensive linemen Malliciah Goodman and Stansly Maponga are in the rotation, as well.
Whether the Packers can take advantage after scoring 13, 13 and 10 points in three of the last four games, however, is the great unknown, though Atlanta's pitiful pass rush (27th in sacks per pass attempt) should give Matt Flynn the time to look.
"It's funny when you talk about young players," Smith said. "I looked out there and certain time in games we'll have six true rookies out there on the field. It's been a learning experience for them. It's been a learning experience for us as coaches in terms of finding out what they're capable of doing."
3. ANOTHER CHALLENGE FOR BAD DEFENSE
The Falcons' cap issues didn't prevent them from going all-in on offense with the addition of veteran running back Steven Jackson.
With Jackson choosing Atlanta instead of Green Bay and joining Matt Ryan, Gonzalez and receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White, the Falcons looked unstoppable on paper.
Games, however, aren't won on paper. Jones sustained a season-ending foot injury in the fifth game and Ryan has been sacked more in 12 games this season than in all 16 last year. Plus, a hamstring injury wiped out most of the first half of Jackson's season. Thus, the Falcons have actually gotten worse on the ground, falling from a 29th-ranked 87.3 rushing yards per game in 2012 to a 30th-ranked 81.1 in 2013.
Those numbers are deceiving, Packers defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said.
"I didn't know they struggled running the ball this year," he said. "Watching the tape the last couple weeks, they've got two good backs and they ran the ball pretty good last week. You're only as good as your last game and last game they ran it pretty good."
Jackson rushed 23 times for 84 yards and two touchdowns against Buffalo last week. All three figures were seasons highs.
"I think whenever you have a guy of Steven's caliber and he's back on the field for you running the football, that helps. It's huge," Ryan said. "Steven had a great game for us this past weekend."
At 6-foot-1 and 231 pounds, Jackson is a powerhouse and a handful to tackle. That's not exactly encouraging news for Green Bay's defense, which ranks 24th in missed tackles.
Jackson is the NFL's active rushing leader with 10,477 yards — the 27th player in NFL history to reach 10,000 — and he needs 167 yards to pass Ricky Watters (10,643) for 20th in NFL history. Plus, he's got the most receptions (428) and receiving yards (3,452) among active running backs.
Even though his eight-season streak of 1,000-yard seasons will end this year, is the 30-year-old Jackson still a top back?
"Absolutely," said Pickett, who played with Jackson in St. Louis. "I was watching him to see if he'd slowed down any and I was like, ‘That's the same Steven Jackson.' He's a great back and he still has it: He's still got the jump-cut, the vision and he lowers his pads. Every run, he's getting 5 yards, it seems like. He's hardly ever going backward."
Backward is the only direction the Packers' run defense has gone of late. Since rising to No. 4 in the league against the run, the Packers are 26th. They have been gutted for 185.2 rushing yards per game during the five-game winless streak. It's one of the worst stretches of run defense in the team's long history; the Packers allowed 180.3 rushing yards per game when they yielded a team-record 2,885 rushing yards in 1979.
"It's like putting on a glove," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said of what it takes to play solid run defense. "Everybody's got a gap, you've got to take care of that gap, and you've got to do a good job tackling. And we've just not been as consistent as we need to be in that part of our defense. So much of what we do on defense is based on being able to play the run. I think it's kind of where our base philosophy starts — play the run, try to get more predictable down-and-distance situations — and if you aren't playing the run well, then you're always playing uphill. You take our last game, in our third-down situations, we had four third-and-1s and one third-and-2. So, about half of the third downs, when you're dealing with third-and-1, third-and-2, you aren't going to win a high percentage of those like you are if you can keep it third-and-6 or 7 or more."
THE OTHER SIDELINE
— 4. Last week, during a conversation about quarterbacks with a scout, he went off on a tangent about the four quarterbacks who signed contracts in excess of $100 million: Aaron Rodgers, Ryan, Joe Flacco and Tony Romo.
"Only one of them," he said, "is worth it, and that's Aaron," he said. "Look at (Joe) Flacco. They gave him the money, got rid of a bunch of other guys so they could pay him and asked him to win games. He's not good enough to put a team on his shoulders. Same with Matty Ice. He has shown that he's not good enough. That's why there's a salary cap. It punishes the good teams and helps the bad teams."
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
Ryan has seen his passer rating fall from 99.1 in 2012 to 89.6 in 2013. During a recent five-game losing streak, he threw five touchdown passes and nine interceptions.
However, the Packers' pass defense hasn't exactly been playing with blanket coverage. They rank 28th with 7.46 yards per attempt and 31st with a 1.49 interception percentage. Sam Shields has had an excellent season and Tramon Williams has played well the last four weeks, but Davon House has regressed, the safeties have made almost no impact and the inside linebackers have been exploited in coverage.
"Personnel-wise, a lot of the same guys that we've faced in the past and, certainly, know how talented they are and what they can do," Ryan said. "When you watch the film, I know that stats tell one story but they play with great effort and they're getting guys back healthy. I think Clay Matthews being back healthy changes their defense. I thought he played well last week and he looked like he was in his element out there – just flying around, playing with great effort. I think they've got a lot of really good players and they're starting to get those guys healthy and that makes a difference."
This will be Ryan's fifth career game against Green Bay, including the 2010 Divisional playoff game in which Williams had two interceptions — one in the end zone to kill a scoring drive and then a defining pick-six just before halftime. In the four career games, Ryan has thrown five touchdowns and five interceptions and never thrown for 200 yards.
"I have a lot of respect for both of those guys," Ryan said of Williams and Shields. "Both of those guys can make plays on the football when it's in the air, both have great ball skills. Both have a knack for jumping on routes but also being able to recover on double moves. I think with as much man-to-man coverage as they play, they both do an excellent job."
— 5. Like the Packers losing Randall Cobb and Finley, the Falcons have had a hard time overcoming the loss of Jones and the declining play of four-time Pro Bowler Roddy White.
Harry Douglas has picked up some of that slack, with a team-high 66 catches for 906 yards and two touchdowns. He has definitely become Ryan's go-to receiver, even ahead of Gonzalez. Ryan has targeted Douglas 26 times the last two weeks. He's been tremendous in the slot.
A five-year pro, Douglas' best statistical season was 2011, when he caught 39 balls for 498 yards and a touchdown.
"I think a guy that has been underrated for a long time is Harry Douglas and has been a big part of what we've done," Ryan said. "He certainly hasn't had as many targets when we've had Julio, Roddy and Tony healthy. He hasn't been as big a part of the mix the last five years but this year he's been a No. 1 for us half the season, really, if not more. I think he's played really well and shown what he's capable of doing."
Meanwhile, White had his first big game in a long time with 10 catches for 143 yards against Buffalo last week. White, who set an NFL record with 115 receptions in 2010 and followed that with 100 in 2011 and 92 in 2012, hadn't had a 10-catch game since back-to-back weeks in December 2011. White, a first-round pick in 2005 who missed the first three games of his career at midseason, hadn't had more than four catches in a game all season and had only 20 for the year until last week.
Because of those issues, Ryan ranks 31st in the league with his average pass completion traveling 5.42 yards downfield, according to the league. Ryan averaged 6.30 in 2012, 7.09 in 2011, 6.59 in 2010, 6.74 in 2009 and 8.01 in 2008.
— 6. The Falcons lost John Abraham, the NFL's active leader with 130.0 sacks, during the offseason and replaced him with Osi Umenyiora. Umenyiora ranks eighth among active players with 81.5 sacks. He's run hot and cold this year, though. Of his 6.5 sacks, six of them came during two-sack games against Tampa Bay, the Jets and Miami.
Flynn will have to be wary of Umenyiora's ability to strip the ball. He's forced two fumbles this season to give him 34 – sixth-most among active players. While with the Giants, he had a key sack-strip in the 2011 playoff game at Lambeau Field on a play in which Greg Jennings was breaking open for an almost-certain touchdown, and he had a sack-strip in the Packers' loss at New York in 2012.
— 7. "Draft-and-develop" isn't just Green Bay's way. Of Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff's 53-man roster, 28 came in his six drafts. His first-ever draft pick was Ryan. Plus, he's got nine undrafted players on the current roster. Among them is Worrilow, who had back-to-back games of 19 tackles against Carolina and Seattle. That's the most tackles by an undrafted player since 1994, according to STATS, and is second-most in the league this season behind Buffalo's Kiko Alonso (22 vs. Cincinnati).
— 8. The Falcons are 34-2 when Ryan has a passer rating of at least 100 and they're 18-1 when he throws three touchdown passes. The player nicknamed "Matty Ice" has delivered in the clutch. He's authored 23 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, including against Seattle in last year's playoffs and last week against Buffalo. His 22 game-winning drives in his first five seasons are the most by a quarterback since 1966.
— 9. The Packers' passing game, as everyone knows, has suffered without Rodgers. It hasn't helped that the Packers have been without Randall Cobb since sustaining a broken fibula in Week 6 and Finley to a career-threatening neck injury in Week 7. They were the Packers' best run-after-catch performers. With Rodgers, Green Bay averaged 166.3 yards after the catch per game. Without Rodgers, Green Bay is averaging 121.8 YAC per game.
— 10. Rodgers started the first eight games. The Packers scored 26 points on the opening possessions of those games. In the four games in which Rodgers did not start, the Packers have been blanked.
— 11. Without game-breaking receiver Jones, the Falcons have turned to a methodical style on offense. In terms of 10-play drives, they're first in the league with 28 possessions, second with 21 scores and fourth with 103 points. Their average scoring drive is taking almost nine plays, 4 minutes and averaging 64.5 yards.
"Atlanta has always been a team who can control the clock and move the ball down the field," Williams said. "(They've been) keeping the ball for quite a bit, so we've got to try to do our best to get off the field and hopefully we do that."
— 12. The Packers lead the series by a scant 15-13 margin, including playoffs. One of those wins came in Green Bay's final appearance at County Stadium in Milwaukee. On Dec. 18, 1994, the Packers won 21-17. Trailing 17-14 with 1:58 to play, Brett Favre led a 10-play, 67-yard touchdown drive, which he punctuated with a 9-yard touchdown run in which he dove across the goal line. Had he been stopped short, the clock probably would have run out. In the victory, which propelled the Packers to the playoffs, Sterling Sharpe sustained a spinal injury. He played the next week against Tampa Bay — scoring three touchdowns — but never again.
— 13. There's no place like home, at least in past seasons. Since the start of the 2008 season, the Packers boast the league's third-best home record at 35-10-1, with Atlanta tied for fourth at 35-11. The Packers, of course, are 0-2-1 at home without Rodgers.
Maybe the Packers can reheat some of that home cooking on a cold December day: They own a league-best 12-game regular-season home winning streak in December and January. Only Green Bay (11-0) and San Francisco (9-0) are undefeated n December/January home games since 2009. Atlanta is 1-5 on the road this year.
— 14. Since Dimitroff became the Falcons' general manager in 2008 and picked Smith as his coach, the Falcons were the only team in the NFC to post five consecutive winning seasons. The Falcons had double-digits wins in four of those seasons, including 13-3 in 2012, 10-6 in 2011 and 13-3 in 2010.
— 15. With a 56-24 record from 2008 through 2012, Smith posted the second-most wins by a coach in his first five seasons. George Seifert went 62-18. Plus, Smith was the third-fastest coach to 50 wins since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, doing so in 71 games. Seifert was the fastest with 62 games, followed by Chuck Knox in 65 games.
— 16. Green Bay's problems returning kickoffs have been well-documented. Don't look for that to change this week. After an Atlanta kickoff, opponents' average starting point is the 20.4-yard line. That's the fifth-best in the league. The Packers' average starting point following a kickoff is the 20.4-yard line, as well. That's a woeful 29th in the league, a figure bolstered by the Lions kicking the ball out of bounds twice last week. The Packers, in fact, have benefitted from three out-of-bounds kickoffs this season out of just 14 kicked league-wide. Why would any team directionally kick against Green Bay's dreadful unit is one of life's great mysteries.
— 17. This is what the Packers are lacking at safety: In four seasons as a starter, hard-hitting William Moore has been involved in 19 turnover-producing plays (12 interceptions, seven forced fumbles). That's tied for the fourth-most among current safeties behind Buffalo's Jarius Byrd (22), Oakland's Charles Woodson (21), New England's Devin McCourty (20) and tied with Seattle's Earl Thomas (19). Woodson, of course, got most of his turnovers playing cornerback for Green Bay.
Moore was particularly clutch last week, with a fumble recovery late in regulation that set up the game-tying field goal and a forced fumble that set up the game-winning field goal in overtime.
Moore (second round, 2009) and Thomas DeCoud (third round, 2008) rank first and third on the team, respectively, in tackles. DeCoud was a Pro Bowler last year with six interceptions.
"Their safeties are definitely important to their scheme," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "If you study them on film, particularly their blitz packages, they don't line up and play two coverages. His ability to come down in the box and make plays, cover tight ends, even handle a third receiver in the third slot. He's a good football player. What Mike Nolan asks of those guys, the communication particularly of the safeties, has to be excellent."
— 18. You can look at a million different variables in trying to figure out why the Packers are 5-6-1 and the Falcons are 3-9. But you can stop with this: Green Bay is tied for 21st in turnovers (minus-4) and is 31st in red-zone offense (44.2 percent touchdowns). Atlanta is tied for 29th in turnovers (minus-11), 32nd in third-down defense (46.0 percent conversions) and 29th in red-zone defense (63.4 percent).
— 19. Since Rodgers was injured, opposing defenses have blitzed more often — though not by much. Rodgers was blitzed, on average, on 8.5 passing plays per game, according to league data. With the other quarterbacks, the rate has gone up to 9.6.
Mike Nolan is in his 15th season as a defensive coordinator, including his second in Atlanta. Blitzing is his calling card.
"They're going to give us a lot of looks," Flynn said. "We're expecting a lot of different looks. They're going to try and mentally confuse us, our protection rolls and things like that, but we just have to execute. We have to get open, I have to make throws and we just need to take advantage if we get hard boxes."
Added offensive lineman Marshall Newhouse: "They like to bring pressure, some exotic pressures – safeties, dropping D-linemen, bringing guys from all over the place."
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
Or, the best thing that was said that we couldn't work into a story this week.
— 20. Left tackle David Bakhtiari, on the extra days off after last week's loss at Detroit: "It just sucks having such (a butt) whipping and then having to sit on that bad taste in your mouth. You're hungry after that. You only feel as good as your last game. All of us, including me, especially me, feel like (crap). You want to go out there and re-establish yourself. People are doubting us. That's fine. Cool."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.