World’s Best Preview: Lacy vs. Jackson

Eddie Lacy and Steven Jackson share a history and all-around style. Plus: How have the Packers fared against No. 1 receivers? What's the solution in the red zone? Who has the edge in Matthews Bowl II? That and more in our 20-note, 5,200-word preview that is filled with stats, notes and quotes we guarantee you won't find anywhere else. (Benny Sieu/USA TODAY)

Eddie Lacy has never been one to sit on the couch to watch football. He didn’t even intend to watch Alabama’s game against Missouri in Saturday’s SEC Championship Game.

“I can’t force myself to watch something I don’t like watching,” Lacy said with a laugh on Saturday.

So, it’s not a big surprise that the Green Bay Packers’ second-year star running back had “no idea” about how he compared to his veteran Atlanta Falcons counterpart, Steven Jackson. Which is too bad because of the history.

In 2012, the Packers started the season with over-the-hill Cedric Benson and finished it with DuJuan Harris and Ryan Grant. Third-round bust Alex Green rushed for a team-high 464 yards, quarterback Aaron Rodgers was second on the team and oft-injured James Starks added only 255 yards. The following offseason, the Packers were in the market for a big, punishing running back and courted Jackson, only for him to sign with the Falcons one day before they lost Greg Jennings to the Vikings.

As it turns out, sometimes the best signings are the ones you don’t make. A month-and-a-half later, Lacy fell into the Packers’ laps at the end of the second round and turned in a Rookie of the Year season. He’s been just as good this season as he’s become a terrific all-around back. Jackson, 31, is on the back nine of his career but remains an all-around threat, as well.

“I’ll just say this: They’re both big, physical runners,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “I’ve had a lot of respect for Steven Jackson for a long time because he’s a big man that likes to take and plant that foot and he can go north and south. You’ve got to get multiple hits on him or else he can bleed you for that extra yardage.”

The comparison is easy. Lacy is 5-foot-11 and 230 pounds. Jackson is 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds. Both players, however, are tremendous three-down performers.

“There’s a lot of similarities in terms of size,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said in a conference call. “Eddie looks very strong running the football and he is a force to be reckoned with when he gets into the secondary. And he’s similar in terms of being able to catch the football. I know there was a season that Steven had close to 100 receptions when he was in St. Louis, so he’s got very good hands. The screen game is an integral part of what Mike (McCarthy) wants to do with his offense in Aaron (Rodgers), and he can catch the ball out of the backfield, as well.”

Lacy is 10th in the league with 770 rushing yards and averages an impressive 4.4 yards per carry. According to ProFootballFocus.com, he’s seventh among backs with 35 missed tackles and 10th with 2.6 yards after contact per rush. Plus, he is fourth on the team with 31 receptions for 352 yards and is second in the NFL with an average of 11.32 yards after the catch, according to the league. Lacy has allowed only one quarterback pressure in protection, according to Pro Football Focus.

Jackson, who signed a three-year, $12 million deal with Atlanta, has rushed for 602 yards on just 3.8 per carry. However, according to ProFootballFocus.com, he is 13th with 26 missed tackles but tied for fourth with 2.8 yards after contact per rush. How good is he in the passing game? He’s caught only 16 passes for 97 yards this season but is one of only eight players in NFL history with at least 11,000 rushing yards and 450 receptions. As a third-year pro in 2006, he caught 90 passes for the Rams, and he’s averaged 41.5 receptions during his 11 NFL seasons. Like Lacy, Jackson has allowed only one quarterback pressure in protection, according to Pro Football Focus.

As has been evident with Lacy during the last several games, a big back is a big challenge in the passing game because he’s often bigger than the guys trying to tackle him.

“That’s always a challenge when you can get him the ball in space and you’ve got that kind of size and then getting him off his feet,” Capers said. “You’ve got to tackle those type of guys differently than you do a 195-pounder. He’s always been a real weapon.”

Oh, no, it’s Julio

In the 2011 draft, the Falcons sent their first-, second- and fourth-round picks and their first- and fourth-round picks of the 2012 draft to Cleveland to move up to the sixth selection for receiver Julio Jones.

It was a huge price to pay — given the state of Atlanta’s defense, maybe too high a price to pay — but there’s no doubt that Jones has held up his end of the bargain. He entered this week’s games ranked fourth in the league with 82 receptions and third with 1,169 receiving yards. Last week, with veteran receiver Roddy White sidelined, Jones caught 10 passes for 189 yards and a touchdown against Arizona and its star young cornerback, Patrick Peterson.

“You won’t find many guys as big and fast as he is,” Packers cornerback Tramon Williams said. “You’ve got a few guys around this league who can do it but you can count them on one hand. He’s one of those guys.”

Added cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt: “He’s special. He’s playing at a high level right now. He’s fast. He’s strong. He can get in and out of breaks. He’s good with the ball in his hands. He’s good at catching the flash of the ball. He’s a special player. I’ve known about Julio ever since he was in high school. He was dominant then and he’s dominant now.”

The Packers, however, have fared well against No. 1 receivers this season, as the chart below details. Chicago’s Brandon Marshall is the only No. 1-caliber receiver with a 100-yard game against the Packers this season. In all, the Packers have allowed four 100-yard receiving games (compared to eight last year). Two were to tight ends (Chicago’s Martellus Bennett in Week 4 and Carolina’s Greg Olsen in Week 7). The others came in back-to-back games to Marshall, who had three catches for 33 yards at halftime of their Week 9 blowout, and Philadelphia rookie Jordan Matthews, who had two catches for 45 yards at halftime of the blowout. So, it’s not as if those two receivers dominated the action.

Of the 15 No. 1 receivers the Packers have faced this season, they have averaged a manageable 5.3 receptions, 61.9 yards and 11.7 yards per catch. They’ve scored nine touchdowns but never more than one in a game. Only four have had more than 75 receiving yards in a game, with big games by Marshall and Philadelphia’s Jeremy Maclin padded with big second halves in blowouts.

“I think the guys have done a very good job of understanding what they like to do and how the quarterback likes to use them,” Whitt said. “I think their film study has been really, really on point. We’ve been in man coverage most of the time, so I take my hat off to the men in the room. They’ve done a good job. They haven’t been perfect, but they’ve gone out and challenged and made guys beat them. They haven’t given people anything easy. They make you beat them.”

TeamPlayerTarRecYdsAvgLongTD
SeattlePercy Harvin77598.4330
N.Y. JetsEric Decker746315.829t1
DetroitCalvin Johnson1068213.7260
DetroitGolden Tate755110.2170
ChicagoAlshon Jeffery74399.8131
ChicagoBrandon Marshall62199.5131
MinnesotaGreg Jennings623115.5170
MiamiJarvis Landry867512.5211
CarolinaKelvin Benjamin636120.3321
New OrleansBrandin Cooks769415.750t1
ChicagoAlshon Jeffery1266310.5220
ChicagoBrandon Marshall10811214.045t1
PhiladelphiaJeremy Maclin1199310.3261
MinnesotaGreg Jennings64389.5131
New EnglandJulian Edelman107486.9170

Red zone becomes dead zone

The Packers would have blown out the Patriots had they not gone 0-for-4 in the red zone.

“We got lucky there, I think, dodged a bullet going 0-for-4 against a team like that,” said the man in charge of crafting the red-zone plan, quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt. “We can’t do that in the red zone. We’ve got to score touchdowns.”

So how do you score touchdowns if defenses mimic New England’s plan of rushing only three or four? Beating seven or eight defenders in coverage is a challenge, regardless of field position, but it becomes that much tougher in the red zone, when defenses have less space to defend.

“It’s a great question,” receiver Randall Cobb said.

Rodgers and Van Pelt hope they have the answers.

“I think you have to run it effectively,” said Rodgers, who for his career has thrown 138 touchdown passes against four interceptions in the red zone. “You have to be able to run it down in the red zone. We didn’t run it great down there. Didn’t have a lot of opportunities, actually, to run it. We passed the ball on a lot of second and third downs. Mixing up the balance there I think is important.”

Van Pelt agreed.

“You just do the numbers,” he said. “One less guy in coverage, then we’re good to throw. It’s kind of the same as out in the field, you like to run vs. a good box and throw vs. a bad box, but you’ve got to run the ball down there vs. those teams that want to drop everybody out. That’s definitely a must.”

What’s also a must is the Packers must get things fixed with a potential playoff berth on the horizon. While they are tied for 10th with a touchdown rate of 58.3 percent once reaching the opponents’ 20-yard line — close to the 60-plus percent success rate achieved in 2008 and 2010 through 2012 — much of that success came early in the season. In the first seven games, Green Bay went 19-of-27 (70.3 percent). Not coincidentally, Cobb had seven red-zone touchdowns in the first seven games. Since, it’s just 9-of-21 (42.9 percent). Cobb has just one red-zone score, including none in the last three.

“It’s tough and it’s always the dilemma,” Van Pelt said about beating seven- and eight-man coverage schemes near the end zone. “You’ve just got to be disciplined in your reads, be patient, because obviously they’re not rushing as many. You’ve got to utilize the whole field, so you can’t just read one side of the field. You have to bring your checkdowns into play and extend plays because, obviously, the more you extend the better we are.”

The other sideline

— Shawn Slocum was glad to be rid of Devin Hester.

With Chicago, Hester set the NFL record with 13 career punt-return touchdowns. Unfortunately for Slocum and Co., Hester signed with Atlanta.

“When the schedule came out, I said, ‘Oh, man, we’ve got to play him again.’ Devin’s a great player,” Slocum said.

Hester returned a punt 84 yards for a touchdown against the Packers in his NFL debut in 2006. He also returned a punt for a touchdown when Chicago beat Green Bay in Week 3 of 2010. This will be Hester’s 18th game against the Packers.

“He’s a very smart returner,” punter Tim Masthay said. “I don’t know what all goes into it but he sees the field very well. He sees lanes very well, hits them very well. It’s no different now. It will be a huge challenge, just like he always is.”

Hester is having another brilliant season. With his 62-yard touchdown on a punt return against Tampa Bay in Week 3, Hester scored his 20th career return touchdown — breaking a tie with Hall of Famer Deion Sanders. With a 68-yard punt return last week against Arizona, Hester leads the NFL with a 15.4-yard average.

Green Bay’s punt unit has been tremendous, with teams averaging only 5.7 yards per return.

You know, it’s always been a big adrenaline rush for me. I’ll say that for sure,” Masthay said of kicking to Hester. “It’s always been something that has excited me. He’s the best that’s ever done it and he’s still doing it excellently after all these years. I would say it’s always a week where I have heightened adrenaline.”

 — It’s Matthews Bowl II.

Three weeks after brothers Clay Matthews and Casey Matthews played linebacker in the Packers’ rout of the Eagles, Green Bay linebacker Clay will go head-to-head with cousin Jake Matthews. Jake was the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft. As the Falcons’ starting left tackle, he figures to see plenty of Clay, even with Clay’s move to inside linebacker.

“I know everyone is really looking forward to it on both sides of the family,” Clay Matthews said. “This one’s obviously a little more interesting (than Clay vs. Casey) in that we’ll actually get to be squared off against one another. It’s funny to study someone on paper, try to learn their strengths and weaknesses, and it just so happens to be your cousin.”

Clay’s father, former NFL linebacker Clay Jr., and Jake’s father, Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, are among the family members in town for the game.

“I’ve heard stories of my father playing against my uncle, and each one of them feeling bad for their respective victories, individually speaking. That’s why I say it should be interesting,” Clay said.

Jake Matthews is the family’s fourth first-round pick and seventh to reach the NFL.

“It reminds me a lot of what my dad would always say, whenever they were scouting Cleveland going into the week, the coach would be like, ‘Hey, we’ve got to look out for this guy; he’s a game-wrecker,’ Jake told reporters in Atlanta this week. “It was kind of weird because I’ve been watching him for five or six years now going back to college, just watching him on TV, and then now actually going into a film room and studying him, it’s a little different feeling. I’ve still got the same mind-set: He’s a great player, either way. He does a really good job mixing up his speed to power moves. He’s good with his hands and jumps those snaps real well, especially us being on the road. It will be fun. I’m be excited for it.”

Jake Matthews started 52 games at Texas A&M but only at left tackle as a senior. Despite the bloodlines, he’s had a tough rookie season. According to ProFootballFocus.com’s rankings, he is the worst offensive tackle in the league. Among tackles, he’s been flagged a league-worst 10 times. Among left tackles, he’s allowed a third-worst 39 total pressures and a fifth-worst six sacks.

“Jake has done very well,” Smith said. “We drafted Jake to be our right tackle this year. Unfortunately, in the preseason, we lost our starting left tackle (Sam Baker), so he made the transition with one preseason game to go that he was going to be our left tackle. He has really played well, especially over the last month. It’s going to be interesting to watch he and his cousin go at it this week. I’m sure that they’ve had some family battles before but this will be an interesting one to watch, because I’m sure that they will get matched up at some point in time in the game.”

— The Packers might be without cornerback Sam Shields (concussion) and the Falcons definitely will be without cornerback Robert Alford (broken wrist). It’s a major blow to a pass defense that wasn’t that good, anyway.

The Falcons’s defense ranks last in the NFL in passing yards per game (284.9) and per attempt (7.91). The defensive backs haven’t been helped by a pass rush that ranks next-to-last in sack percentage (3.24).

In 2013, Atlanta drafted Desmond Trufant in the first round and Alford in the second. The 6-foot Trufant, with two interceptions and a team-high 13 passes defensed, has been excellent. He figures to follow Nelson. Alford has three interceptions. The larger problem is who follows Cobb into the slot, because neither Robert McClain nor Josh Wilson are very good.

The saving grace has been their ability to take away the ball. The Falcons have 14 interceptions — they had 10 all of last season — including at least two picks in each of the last four games. Safety Kemal Ishmael has an interception in three straight games.

“They’re confident (and) they break on the ball extremely quick,” Nelson said. “They mix it up quite a bit with what they like to do, but when they’re (playing) off (coverage), they give you some cushion but when they see it, they react, they’re on you. They attack the ball well before and after you catch it. Good young players that are going to get out and get after you a little bit.”

— Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan goes by the nickname “Matty Ice.” His 22 game-winning drives from 2008 through 2012 were the most in the NFL by a quarterback in his first five seasons since 1966. The first of those came at Lambeau Field in 2008, with the Falcons winning 27-24.

“I think Matt Ryan's an excellent quarterback,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “Extremely productive. I think when young quarterbacks come into the league and they're able to hit a certain level, the game slows down and they completely understand everything and they're able to go out and win games for their football team. I thought Matt accomplished that at a very early part of his career. He's been a heck of a player for quite some time.”

The magic, however, has been missing. After guiding the Falcons to a 36-12 record during the 2010 through 2012 seasons, they’ve gone just 9-19. Of course, all of that shouldn’t get dumped on the shoulders of Ryan, but that’s the nature of playing quarterback — especially after signing a five-year, $104.75 million contract extension just before the start of training camp in 2013. Ryan’s three-year haul of $63 million was the richest in NFL history.

After throwing 26 touchdowns and 17 picks with an 89.6 rating last season, Ryan heads into Monday with 21 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a rating of 93.7. Of Atlanta’s five wins, Ryan led game-winning drives against New Orleans, Tampa Bay and Carolina.

“I think Matt has matured every year as a quarterback and his leadership skills have been a big part of why we’re successful, not only the skill that he has in terms of throwing the football and running the offense,” Smith said. “Matt is the leader in that locker room. I think that’s the thing that you see. The head coach and the quarterback are the two guys that have the win-loss record attached to them — nobody else really does — and he’s done a very good job throughout his entire career of being what a starting quarterback in the NFL needs to be not only on the field but off the field.”

History lessons

— With a victory on Monday, McCarthy would earn his 98th win with the Packers. That would tie Vince Lombardi for second in franchise history behind Curly Lambeau’s 212.

“Goals like that are something that I’ve never really written down,” McCarthy said. “I’ve always looked at the opportunity to coach in Green Bay as very unique and I’m just trying to take advantage of it as best I can. There’s a lot of things that go into being successful: our program and what the organization gives us and so forth. It’s not something that I think a whole lot about.”

— The Packers’ run to the Super Bowl in 2010 started with the Wild Card win at Philadelphia. Really, though, it was the 48-21 win at top-seeded Atlanta in the divisional round that “catapulted everything,” in the eyes of Williams, who was a huge reason for that victory.

“Honestly, right at the end of the half,” Rodgers said of his top memory. “We went down there and hit James (Jones) for a touchdown to go up 21-14, and then they came back and Tramon picked it off right at the end of the half to put us up 28-14. That was a huge momentum swing for us, so we really tripled up. We scored at the end of the half, Tramon scored and then we came in the second half, had a big third down (when) I was able to get out of a sack and hit James to get that drive going. Next thing you know, it's a tie game and it went to up three scores (on Rodgers’ touchdown run), so that kind of took a lot of the air out of the building.”

— At 5-7, the Falcons are in control of the NFC South. Should they win the division at, say, 7-9, they shouldn’t automatically be written off. In 2010, the Seahawks won the NFC West at 7-9, then beat New Orleans 41-36 in the Wild Card round.

Ryan recognizes that, but he quickly admits that he needs to play better in big games. He’s 1-4 in the playoffs with nine touchdowns, seven interceptions and an 85.2 rating.

“It’s one of those things that I’ve had pretty Septembers and Octobers and Novembers and ugly Decembers and Januarys,” Ryan said. “It doesn’t make a difference what you do during those months. If you get in and you play well in January, that’s all that matters. Hopefully, we can continue to plug away, take it one week at a time and, hopefully, when we look up at the end of the year, we’ve got enough wins to get in.”

— The Packers have scored 245 points in going 6-0 at home. Even with two home games left on the schedule, that’s the fourth-most in franchise history. Barring a power outage, they’ll get to No. 2 on Monday by leapfrogging the 1983 and 1996 teams (254 and 252, respectively). The 2011 team holds the team record with 321 points. They’ll need to score 77 points against the Falcons and Lions to set the record.

Noteworthy numbers

— Rodgers, who will make his 100th career start on Monday, is on top of his game. He’s a runaway favorite to win MVP honors with 32 touchdowns, three interceptions and a league-leading 118.6 passer rating.

“I don’t know that there’s been a quarterback that’s had a stretch like he’s had in the history of the NFL,” Smith said.

Rodgers appreciated the accolades but wasn’t going to ponder the words or the numbers or the milestone too much.

“I think you just have to realize that you're one game away from getting thrown in the trash,” Rodgers said. “So you've got to continue to stay focused on the things you can control — your preparation, your performance each week — and realize this is a ‘What have you done for me lately’ league.”

Rodgers has done plenty lately. In the Packers’ streak of eight wins in nine games, he had a rating of at least 109 seven times, five games of at least 300 yards and a combined 27 touchdowns and two interceptions.

Of all of his record-breaking stats, perhaps this is the most incredible: Rodgers’ career touchdown-to-interception ratio of 4.00 crushes Tom Brady’s second-ranked 2.76-to-1. He could throw 24 interceptions on Monday and still be ahead of Brady. In his first 99 starts, Rodgers had 57 games of zero interceptions and 59 games with a 100-plus passer rating. Those are far and away the best numbers in NFL history, ahead of Alex Smith’s 52 pick-free games and Tony Romo’s 50 games with a 100-plus rating.

— Smith thought the Packers had outscored their opponents 72-0 in the first quarter of their last five home games.

Close enough. The Packers have outscored their foes by a combined 79-0 — including 13-0 last week. In fact, they’ve scored 82 unanswered first-quarter points at home, dating to the Week 2 game against the Jets. Atlanta has been good in the first quarter, too, owning an 86-47 edge in the opening period.

“It’s something that’s way, way skewed toward them starting fast,” Smith said. “That’s something that we pride ourselves on, as well, is we want to start fast. We need to do that, whether we’re playing at the Georgia Dome or we’re playing up in Green Bay. We need to get a fast start to this game. That will be our goal is to not match them but go out and start faster than they’ve started. That will be a challenge because they are playing as good as anybody in the league right now.”

— Some nuggets on Ryan: He is one of five quarterbacks in NFL history with 25,000 passing yards in his first 100 career games. (Ryan threw for 25,322 yards; Rodgers is fourth with 25,616.) Ryan has a 37-3 record when he posts of a passer rating of 100-plus, a 20-2 mark when he throws at least three touchdown passes and a 28-4 ledger when he averages at least 8.0 yards per attempt. Since Dirk Koetter took over as offensive coordinator, Ryan ranks third in the NFL with 67.4 percent accuracy.

— Atlanta’s magic number is 20: Over the last three seasons, the Falcons are 12-1 when allowing less than 20 points but 10-21 otherwise, according to STATS. Atlanta is 4-0 this season when allowing less than 20 points, with three of those wins coming in the last four weeks.

“A-No. 1 on a football team how they played the last four games, particularly the last game,” McCarthy said. “You talk about their defense under (coordinator) Mike Nolan. Three turnovers against Arizona. I think their run defense is definitely tough. We haven't run the ball very well against them the last three or four times we played them.”

Four-point stance

— According to STATS, Ryan has been sacked in 22 consecutive games. That’s the longest streak in the league. The Packers extended their league-best sack streak to 32 games by dropping Brady on the Patriots’ final offensive play last week. Getting just one sack, however, wasn’t indicative of the steady rush the Packers produced with just four rushers.

“The one thing I think we were able to do and it was a goal early in the game was to try to get pressure in his face, try to get quarterback hits,” Capers said. “You saw some deflections. I think I counted about six quarterback pressures, counting those quarterback hits on him. And those hits are cumulative. They have an effect on a quarterback, I don’t care who it is or how long they played, if you hit the quarterback it affects their timing and rhythm.”

Ryan has performed well when feeling the heat. According to ProFootballFocus.com, he has completed 55.9 percent of his passes when pressured, fifth-best in the league.

— These are two of the NFL’s best big-play passing games. Entering this week, Ryan and Rodgers were tied for fourth in the NFL with 45 completions of at least 20 yards. Since 2008, when Rodgers took over as the Packers’ starter and Ryan was drafted in the first round, Rodgers leads the NFL with 16 touchdown passes of at least 70 yards. Ryan is tied for third with eight.

— Rodgers owns an NFL-best 134.4 passer rating at home. He’s thrown 20 touchdown passes and no interceptions at Lambeau Field. Since throwing his last interception at home against Minnesota on Dec. 2, 2012, Rodgers has tossed a league-record 31 touchdown passes. Ryan, on the other hand, ranks 30th with a passer rating of 81.4 on the road.

— Third down is a big advantage for Green Bay’s offense. The Packers rank fourth in the league by converting 46.9 percent of the time. Atlanta’s defense, with its terrible pass rush, ranks 28th as opponents have moved the chains 45.5 percent of the time.

Quoteworthy

Mike Daniels, on Green Bay’s strong defensive performance vs. New England: “We have a lot of improvements to make from that game. It wasn’t a perfect game by any means, but that’s what’s so exciting about it. We played very well but we can still keep getting better. That’s our goal: Keep building off of that performance.”


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