The Atlanta Falcons had arrived as championship contenders.
In Week 4, with indomitable receiver Julio Jones piling up 300 receiving yards, the Falcons blasted the defending NFC-champion Panthers 48-33. A week later, the Falcons went to Denver and beat the defending Super Bowl-champion Broncos 23-16.
From those highs came sinking lows. The Falcons lost 26-24 at Seattle, with a missed pass-interference call denying Atlanta a shot at the winning field goal and an impressive three-game sweep of elite teams. Then came last week’s 33-30 loss to San Diego, with Atlanta blowing a 17-point lead and turning it over on downs on its half of the field in overtime to set up the Chargers for the winning points.
Coaches preach mental toughness. Second-year Falcons coach Dan Quinn knew he needed to build that toughness after his team started last season 5-0 but lost seven of its next eight games to plummet from postseason contention. For almost a week in May, Quinn had his players training with and listening to a group of Navy SEALs.
“We really developed our own standard of the player accountability to one another,” Quinn said in a conference call. “Knowing at times bad things happen and you’re going to be in a dark spot, how do you get through? It takes a lot of mental toughness. It takes having the standard to fall back on of how we go about our approach. One of the things that I love about our team right now is how hard they want to play for one another. So, knowing that the guy next to you can be counted on, and the guy next to you you’re counting on, those are really important topics. So, we put it right back on each other about getting ready again, how hard we have to push each other to put the work in. Although they’re difficult processes to go through, we don’t like it but we are ready to take on the challenge and onto the next.”
— Considering Quinn arrived in Atlanta after coordinating a defense that carried the Seahawks to consecutive Super Bowls, the Falcons’ defense is terrible.
The Falcons rank 27th with 28.4 points allowed per game, having given up at least 26 points in six of seven games. Under Quinn, Seattle allowed 14.4 per game in 2013 and 15.9 in 2014. The Falcons rank 26th in yards allowed, 31st in passing yards allowed, 20th on third down and 31st in the red zone.
There have been growing pains. The Falcons start four rookies — first-round safety Keanu Neal, second-round linebacker Deion Jones, fourth-round linebacker DeVondre Campbell and undrafted nickel cornerback Brian Poole. Plus, three second-year players start — first-round linebacker Vic Beasley, fifth-round defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and fifth-round safety Victor Allen. Another 2015 draft pick, second-round cornerback Jalen Collins could have a key role, too, after recently returning from a four-game suspension.
“Well, we’re still a work in progress. We’re not there yet, that’s for sure,” Quinn said. “I think they’re nowhere near as good as they’re going to be. I really see their arrow going up. Our missed tackles are going down. We’ve allowed more explosive plays than I would like. That’s one of the things that keep me up at night. How do we get better at that? The thing that I did notice when we went back through those, they’re correctable errors that I know we can improve upon. So, that lifts me up knowing we’ve got the right guys in the right spots. Now, it’s time to execute better and better. If we keep doing that week in and week out, we’ll keep improving. That’s honestly the goal.”
— Speaking of explosive plays, the Falcons have proven vulnerable in the secondary. Atlanta has yielded a league-high 26 pass plays of at least 20 yards. It ranks 29th in completion percentage (67.2 percent) and 26th in opponent quarterback rating (96.9). That could leave it ripe for the picking by Aaron Rodgers, assuming the offense worked itself out of its lengthy funk during a big second half vs. Chicago.
Cornerback Desmond Trufant, the team’s first-round pick in 2013, was selected to his first Pro Bowl last year. In a matchup vs. Oakland star Amari Cooper in Week 2, he allowed three catches in six targets for just 42 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s got one interception and two sacks on the season.
“He’s got great feet, quick, smart player,” Packers receiver Jordy Nelson said. “I’ve gone against him a couple times and you can see his development and experience kicking in. He’s one of their better players and a guy they lean on a lot.”
The Falcons selected Robert Alford in the second round of that same draft. He’s got better stats than Trufant — he leads the team with nine passes defensed and is tied for the team lead with two interceptions — but he’s the go-to target for opponents. He’s been flagged eight times, including five for interference. All of Green Bay's cornerbacks combined -- including Micah Hyde since he moved from safety -- have been penalized four times.
“They’ve been in the battles,” Quinn said. “At the line of scrimmage, we can count on them to challenge. We’ve matched Tru and Robert to different sides, so we love the fact that they can play both outside and inside when called upon. Both of them are very competitive. We had some fouls earlier with Alford that we’ve worked hard on to make sure that part of our game can go away. He’s got speed and athletic ability and really good ball skills, so we’re glad to see him coming through and being really disciplined in his approach. With Trufant, he has extreme work at the line of scrimmage. He’s got the speed to play with guys. He’s got the aggressiveness to stay with them. I’ve been most impressed by the attitude he’s displayed playing outside.”
Given Green Bay’s depleted running back corps and success with short passes last week vs. Chicago, expect the Packers to rely heavily on three- and four-receiver sets. That would put the Falcons in their nickel package. The nickel defender has been Poole, an undrafted rookie who was only a part-time starter at Florida. However, it’s possible the Falcons will go with Alford in the slot and Trufant and Collins on the outside.
“I see there’s a bunch of holes out there,” receiver Davante Adams said. “We just have to make sure we see them and get on the same page with 12 (Rodgers) and then we’ll be good.”
— If Trufant is the established star, then Beasley is the budding standout. The eighth overall pick of last year’s draft after piling up a Clemson-record 33 career sacks, Beasley had a quiet rookie season with four sacks. He hasn’t been quiet this season. He’s tied for the NFC lead with 6.5 sacks. He dominated the Broncos with 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles, and he added two sacks and a forced fumble against San Diego.
"Elusive and very fast," was left tackle David Bakhtiari's scouting report.
“He’s really coming on,” Bradley said. “He’s got terrific speed to jump off the ball. Now, he’s getting a real knack of running games, the communication it takes. The speed factor of him hauling off the ball, that jumps out. We knew that was there. Now he’s understanding each tackle that you play is a little bit different. The steps are there. That’s been a good improvement that we’ve seen from him and we expect that trend to continue. The practice work is on point. Then you gain the confidence and it all ties in together.”
Like with how Bradley used Bruce Irvin in Seattle, Beasley plays outside linebacker in the base 4-3 defense and moves to defensive end on pass-rushing situations. His pass-rushing sidekick is Dwight Freeney, who had three sacks this season and had four sacks and one forced fumble during two games with Arizona against Green Bay last year.
“He’s a really athletic guy. You’ve got to account for him in the passing game (and) in the run game,” Rodgers said of Beasley. “He’s an athletic guy who has a lot of moves. I said on the conference call with Atlanta, having a guy like Dwight down there, I think, helps all those guys. He’s got so many years and knowledge and a variety of moves, and you’re seeing Vic’s able to do it in a number of different ways with speed, with power. He’s a guy you’ve got to account for. We’ve got to block him up this week.”
Bill Huber is publisher of 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 www.twitter.com/PackerReport.