Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY

World’s Best Preview: Big-Play Passing Games

The Atlanta Falcons have what the Green Bay Packers used to have: a big-play passing attack. Plus, the disappearance of the YAC attack, deep looks inside the Falcons, key fumble data, pass-catching backs and much, much more in a preview overflowing with stats, notes and quotes that you won't find anywhere. Guaranteed.

The Green Bay Packers used to demolish defenses with a blitzkrieg of big plays in the passing game.

Not anymore. For Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons, it will be the Packers trying to avoid being run out of the Georgia Dome by a big-play barrage.

From 2008 through 2014 — the first seven seasons with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback — Green Bay crushed the spirit of opposing defenses with an unparalleled assault of long-distance completions. Its 270 completions of 25-plus yards during that span led the league and its 71 touchdowns trailed only the Saints (74). Even while being only a part-time player for most of his first three seasons, Jordy Nelson ranked sixth with 63 receptions of 25-plus yards and fourth with 23 long-distance touchdowns. Greg Jennings added 61 big-play catches, with most of those in a Packers uniform. 

It’s been a different story this year. Entering Week 8, the Packers have eight completions of 25-plus yards. That’s tied with Buffalo for 30th in the NFL, with only San Francisco (seven) having fewer. But the reality is the Packers have the most impotent deep-passing game in the NFL. Buffalo might not have many big plays, but those big plays have been, well, big plays. The Bills are averaging a league-long 45.9 yards and have four touchdowns on their long completions. The 49ers are averaging 39.7 yards and have four touchdowns on their long completions. The Packers are averaging 32.6 yards and have two touchdowns on their long completions. Only Tampa Bay has a shorter big-play average, but at least it’s got 12 of them on the ledger.

In other words, the Packers have the fewest big-play passing yards in the league.

Who’s leading the league in 25-yard completions? The Falcons with 21, with seven of those going for touchdowns. It is that big-play production the Packers must limit if they’re going to upset the Falcons.

“That’s what they’re based off of,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “Obviously, they’ve been productive all the way around with both the run and the pass game. (They have) the No. 1 total offense and No. 1 scoring offense, and a lot of that is based off of being able to do both (run and pass). They’ve got an excellent play-action passing game, which the run sets that up. When you have a receiver like Julio Jones, this guy can go deep and go up and win the jump balls and make an awful lot of big plays. All you have to do is look what the guy has — what, 800-and-some yards already? You just see every game, he shows up and makes big plays.”

Jones has more 25-yard completions by himself (nine) than the Packers have total (eight). He is bigger, faster, strong and more explosive than anyone in the Packers’ injury-plagued secondary. Keeping him somewhat in check will be a daunting challenge for backups-turned-starters LaDarius Gunter, Demetri Goodson and Micah Hyde and will require an all-around defensive effort. Regardless of the secondary combination, the Packers have given up too many big plays; they check in at No. 23 with 14 passing plays allowed of at least 25 yards.

“The quarterback’s going to give him 50-50 balls all game long, and he should,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “He’s producing in a way that he deserves to get those 50-50 balls. You can never let up. The deeper he gets down the field, the faster he gets. If you think at 20 yards you have him covered, you’re wrong, because he’s just getting started. He’s a 100 runner; he’s not a 40 runner. He’s getting faster and faster. Where most people top out at 40 yards, he keeps going. You have to make sure you’re playing top shoulder, you’re playing the proper leverage. If you’re not, he’s going to run by you. He’s done it many times this year. He’s beaten Cover-2, Cover-3; he’s beaten doubles, he’s beaten two-man. He’s beaten every coverage pretty much that I’ve seen on film. He’s taken advantage of it.”

IT’S UP TO THE RECEIVERS

The short-term fate of the Packers’ offense revolves around the production of four men whose lockers are right next to each other at Lambeau Field.

From left, it’s Nelson, Davante Adams, Ty Montgomery and Randall Cobb. Without running backs Eddie Lacy and James Starks, and with question marks surrounding replacements Don Jackson (hand) and Knile Davis (command of the offense), those players will be asked to carry the offensive load.

“We feel that way always,” said Cobb, who hasn't dropped a pass. “As a group, we feel like the team goes through us. I think whenever we play at a high level, it allows the team to play at a high level. We all feed off each other. That’s not anything on the running backs or the offensive line or anybody else on our team. It’s just the mentality you have to have as a group. We try to bring that every day and we try to stress that we’ve got to make the plays when we’re given those opportunities. It’s not about what plays are being run. It’s all about the execution and all about making the plays when we get those opportunities.”

Adams, Cobb and Montgomery carried the load against Chicago. They combined for 34 of Rodgers’ 39 completions and 374 of the Packers’ 406 total yards. Those yards were gained incrementally. The Packers gained 8.4 yards per completion, and Rodgers’ yards per attempt for the season actually went down as he averaged 5.82 yards on his 56 attempts. Since at least 1950, according to Pro Football Reference, there have been 33 games in which a quarterback has completed at least 39 passes. Rodgers’ 326 yards were the third-fewest and he had the fourth-lowest yards per attempt.

These numbers are unthinkable compared to the aforementioned first seven years with Rodgers as the starting quarterback. Not even the return of Nelson, who has three receptions of 25-plus yards, has changed the dynamic.

It’s interesting to compare the numbers between Sunday’s starting quarterbacks. Ryan’s average completed pass travels a league-long 7.91 yards through the air. Out of 32 qualifying quarterbacks, Rodgers’ average of 5.30 air yards per completion is the shortest in the league. When Rodgers won his second MVP award in 2014, he ranked ninth with 6.82 air yards per completion. When he won his first MVP in 2011, he averaged 7.66 air yards per completion.

Those numbers aren’t likely to get much better, at least for the short term. Until the Packers can develop a running game, their play-action game will lose its punch. Based on the Chicago and Dallas games, Green Bay’s best offensive approach is a short, quick-hitting passing game. That means it will be up the receivers to turn short gains into something larger.

However, yards after the catch have been hard to come by, too. During the MVP seasons, Rodgers received an average of about 6.0 YAC per catch. This season, it’s down to 4.8. Montgomery has a team-best 6.65 YAC per catch, followed by Cobb at 5.59, Nelson at 3.74 and Adams at 2.79. In 2014, when Nelson was healthy, the Packers led the NFL in scoring and Rodgers won his second MVP, Lacy’s 10.29 YAC ranked third in the league. He was followed by Cobb at 6.42 YAC, Nelson at 5.11 and Adams at 4.55. For Nelson, Cobb and Adams, the YAC average is down — and down drastically.

“It’s on us mentally to make sure that we are always doing what we need to do to carry the offense if need be,” Adams said. “We know that big plays, the shots down the field, it’s our job to go down and get those and the YAC plays and getting Aaron those yards because we break a tackle. Don’t always put it on him to throw a dime down the field. We try to put as much as we can on our shoulders because we feel like we can carry that.”

IT’S UP TO THE LINE, TOO

Without a running game to rely upon, Green Bay’s basic offensive game plan might look a lot like the pass-happy formula it rode to victory over Chicago last Thursday.

Against the Bears, Rodgers threw 56 passes, was sacked twice and scrambled once. That’s a total of 59 dropbacks out of 81 plays. Such a one-sided approach makes life difficult for the offensive linemen charged with keeping Rodgers’ jersey clean. Green Bay’s line, however, kept Rodgers on his feet — as it’s done all season.

“You give a team 56 opportunities to get after your quarterback,” left tackle David Bakhtiari said of the challenge. “Statistically, everyone loves sacks. It’s what gets defensive ends voted into the Pro Bowl and that’s what you guys use as one of the only metric systems for offensive linemen. When you go into a game that’s very pass-happy and you’re not having any balance to where a pass rusher’s just sitting there thinking, ‘I get to have 56 rushes’ — kind of like one-on-ones at practice — ‘I get 56 times to try and beat my man.’ That definitely puts you at a disadvantage. But as an offensive line, we see it as a challenge. If that’s going to be our strength to help us win the game, we’ll pass it 70 times. Whatever.”

Rodgers at least did his linemen a favor by speeding up his delivery. According to data provided courtesy of Pro Football Focus, Rodgers’ average time to throw this season has been 2.94 seconds. Against the Bears, that was down to 2.69 seconds.

“All year, we kind of talk about rhythm and timing,” guard T.J. Lang said. “That’s what it is. It’s dropping back and taking what the defense gives you. Aaron did a tremendous job, our receivers did a great job of getting open. The short passing game last week almost took over for our run game a little bit. When they’re giving you 4, 5, 6 yards on the pass, you’ve got to take it. However many times we throw, we don’t complain. Obviously, we’d like to be a little bit more balanced but it was a good feeling last week when the passing game was clicking. Those guys have been putting in a lot of time at practice, in meetings, making sure that they’re getting the rhythm down. It definitely takes a little bit off of us up front when those guys are doing their job getting open and we’re finding those short passes. Frustrates the defense, too, because they feel like don’t have a chance of getting to the quarterback when he’s throwing the ball that fast.”

Despite Rodgers’ penchant for holding onto the ball, he’s received excellent protection. The Packers enter this week’s games ranked sixth with a sack rate of 4.64 percent. From 2008 through 2015, the duration of Rodgers’ time as the starting quarterback, their best season was 5.60 percent in 2014 with a cumulative sack rate of 7.60 percent. With 11 sacks in six games, Green Bay is on pace to yield 29 sacks. Its best season under Rodgers was 30 sacks in 2014, and the eight-year average is a whopping 42.1 sacks.

So, with a fine line, coach Mike McCarthy has the freedom to pass, pass and pass some more to offset the lack of a proven running back.

“For us, our game plan is doing this: It doesn’t matter,” Bakhtiari said. “We have this philosophy that EB (offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett) instilled in us and that’s block until infinity. If it’s a three-step and it turns into a 6-second timeframe of holding onto the ball, we don’t care because we know we’ve got the best player on the field and he’s going to make a play. We’re going to make sure we do what we have to do and block our guy, and we’re not going to let anything dictate how long we should block. If someone says we should only block for a second or two and the ball needs to be out, cool, great, if it does. If not, don’t be the reason why (there’s pressure).”

INSIDE THE FALCONS

The 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.”

OUR BEHIND ENEMY LINES PODCAST

— 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, with his 53.7 percent catch rate ranked fifth among corners who have been targeted at least 40 times, according to PFF.

“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.”

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— 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.”

HISTORY LESSONS

— The Packers lead the series 17-13, including 2-1 in the playoffs. Green Bay has won four straight in the series, outscoring the Falcons 138-93 and winning the turnover battle 9-4. We’ll have more on turnovers later.

The first of those four consecutive wins came in the 2010 playoffs, a 48-21 win that propelled the Packers to the Super Bowl. The last of those came in 2014, when the Packers led 31-7 at halftime before surviving 43-37. Rodgers threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns. Ryan threw for 375 yards and four touchdowns, and Jones caught 11 passes for 259 yards.

“He played great that night, that’s for sure,” Ryan said. “It was kind of a shootout type of game. Came up big for us. I forget how many yards he ended up playing, but I know he didn’t even play the last 6 or 7 minutes of the game, too. So, he’s that kind of player. He can dominate a game so many ways and he’s done it so many times.”

— On Oct. 12, 1989, the Cowboys sent Herschel Walker to the Vikings in a blockbuster trade in which the Cowboys received, among other things, three first-round draft picks and three-second-round draft picks.

During the 2011 draft, Atlanta sent its first-, second- and fourth-round picks (Nos. 27, 59 and 124) as well as its first- and fourth-round picks in 2012 to Cleveland to move up to the sixth overall pick to select Jones.

Dallas won the Walker trade by acquiring the draft picks. Atlanta won the Jones trade by getting a superstar player that Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt called one of the top five players — not just receivers — in the NFL.

For the record, what did the Browns get? Not enough. With the 2011 picks, they selected nose tackle Phil Taylor, receiver Greg Little and fullback Owen Marecic. The first-round pick in 2012 was used on quarterback Brandon Weeden. The fourth-round pick helped them move up to the third overall spot to grab running back Trent Richardson. None of those players are with the Browns. More damning, only Weeden — a backup with the Texans — is in the league.

— Speaking of trades, then-general manager Ron Wolf changed the Packers forever by acquiring the Falcons’ No. 3 quarterback, Brett Favre, for a first-round pick on Feb. 10, 1992. Jeff Pearlman’s biography on Favre details the quarterback’s time in Atlanta

— Ryan set an NFL record last week against San Diego with his 46th consecutive game of at least 200 passing yards. The last time he failed to get to 200? Ryan threw for 172 yards in a blowout loss to Seattle on Nov. 10, 2013. Ryan’s season-low total for this season is 240 yards, which came in a 45-32 win over the Saints in Week 3.

STATS THAT AREN’T FOR LOSERS

— The Falcons are plus-2 in turnovers while Green Bay is minus-2. Fumbles are the noteworthy number. Atlanta has a league-low two fumbles. Green Bay fumbles more than that every game, with a 31st-ranked 2.2 fumbles per game equating to 13 for the season.

“You look at their entire defense, they fly around,” Packers offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said. “Tremendous effort and energy. Their ability pursuing and finishing, and then they also do a really good job as far as takeaways. Our priority is taking care of the football. That’s something that we emphasize day-in and day-out. We have to be fundamentally sound.”

Rodgers needs to be wary of the Falcons’ edge rushers. Only Arizona’s Carson Palmer has fumbled more than Rodgers (six) this year. Beasley has three forced fumbles and Neal has two, and Freeney’s 47 career forced fumbles are only one off the NFL lead since 1994, according to STATS.

“We have a profile on every football team that we compete against, and that was definitely highlighted in the profile presentation on their ability to take away the football,” McCarthy said. “I think they play with a lot of energy. They fly around. They do a very good job stripping the football. I think it was six of the eight fumbles they’ve caused have come off of edge pressure, whether it was (Beasley or Trufant). Trust me, they’ve seen the highlight and we’ve addressed it, and it’s all part of getting to know your opponent.”

— The red zone has been a dead zone for the Packers. While they rank a mediocre 17th with a touchdown rate of 52 percent, they’ve gotten into the end zone on just five of their last 13 treks inside the 20. Could Green Bay get new life this week? Atlanta’s defense ranks next-to-last in red zone with an opponent touchdown rate of 75.0 percent.

“We know we’ve got to be efficient and score points, especially in the red zone,” Rodgers said. “We’ve been doing a great job on third down, ranking at the top of the league there, but the red zone’s been slipping a little bit. We’ve been not scoring (touchdowns) as often as we need to do. In a game where you’ve got Matt playing so well and Julio obviously having a big season, you’ve got to expect them to make so plays, so we’re going to have to score some points.”

— The focus of Atlanta’s passing game is Jones, for obvious reasons. However, check out this statistical comparison: According to STATS, Atlanta is No. 1 in the NFL with 1,126 yards after the catch. Green Bay is 20th with 735 YAC. Now, put those numbers together with this: Atlanta is tied for second with only three drops. Green Bay is better than you think, tied for eighth with six drops.

From Atlanta’s perspective, that means the receivers are making the plays they need to make, and then making plays on their own. It’s a group bolstered by the offseason addition of Mohamed Sanu (23 catches, 258 yards, two touchdowns) and the intense focus defenses put on Jones.

“He’s a good complement,” Whitt said of Sanu. “They use him in the slot, they use him outside. He runs with power. They like him in the screen game. He gets the ball, he gets upfield and he goes right now. He can catch the ball away from his body. I think that the two of those guys together, they’re a challenge. They’re a challenge. Then you have to throw the tight end (Jacob Tamme) in there, you have to throw how they use the backs. I think their offensive coordinator (Kyle Shanahan) has done an outstanding job of attacking each defense that he’s faced. He’s done an outstanding job of designing plays to attack each specific defense that they’ve faced. You have to take your hat off to them.”

— A couple of statistical oddities for Atlanta. First, Jones’ least productive games have come against New Orleans (one catch) and Denver (two catches) but the Falcons won both games. They’ve lost their last two games despite Jones posting seven catches for 139 yards and one touchdown vs. Seattle and nine catches for 174 yards vs. San Diego. Second, the Falcons lead the NFL in scoring despite ranking 17th on third down (39.0 percent) and 18th in the red zone (50.0 percent.)

“I think we’re still a work in progress,” Ryan said. “We’re still getting better. We need to find ways to finish games a little bit better than we have up to this point.”

FOUR-POINT STANCE

— With Montgomery’s move to running back, the Packers have a new dimension on offense: A pass-catching threat out of the backfield.

That’s not to say they haven’t had that in the past. In 2015, James Starks’ average of 11.37 yards after the catch led the NFL by almost 2 full yards. In 2014, Lacy’s average YAC of 10.28 ranked third in the NFL. Starks caught 43 passes last season and Lacy caught 42 the year before, so it’s not as if the backs have been an ignored part of the passing attack.

Montgomery, however, has added an electric dynamic with his back-to-back games of 10 receptions. After being a nonfactor in the first four games, he’s caught 20 passes for 164 yards the past two games. Of his 8.2-yard average, 6.65 has been YAC.

“It’s all about moving the chains,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said. “The checkdown routes, we’ve had success on those type of routes, and it’s a way to continue to just move the chains and put us in a manageable third-down situation, and that’s really what it’s all about. We want those extended drives, we want to be able to put ourselves in position to continue to convert on third down and sustain those long drives.”

The Cowboys and Bears had no answers for Montgomery. The Falcons, however, pose a different challenge. Rookie linebackers Jones and Campbell were among the most-athletic linebackers at the Scouting Combine, giving them the ability to run with Montgomery on those flares and checkdowns.

“At the end of the day,” Montgomery said, “I feel like it’s my job to make sure that I win my one-on-one matchup, no matter what it is. I can’t speak on what defenses are trying to do. I can only try to adapt to how the game is being played and try to do my job.”

The Falcons have received excellent production from their backs in the passing game. Starter Devonta Freeman has caught 22 passes for 169 yards. Backup Tevin Coleman, who will not play due to an injured hamstring, has caught 19 passes for 330 yards — a sizzling 17.4 yards per catch. His yardage total is tops among backs and his average YAC of 14.58 is second-best in the league. Combined, they lead NFL tandems in total yards and total touchdowns from scrimmage.

“They’re a big part of our passing game, whether it be a checkdown or a screen or whether it be lining them up in a wide receiver position and letting them run, because they’re so talented and versatile,” Ryan said. “They’ve been huge for us. They have certainly sparked us in a lot of games and made some great plays for us.”

Coupled with the long-ball game to Jones, the Falcons have the ability to really stretch a defense.

“It’s their game,” Capers said. “It’s a matchup game. Their running backs are good with the ball after the catch, and they work them a lot not only in the backfield but outside of the backfield. They’ll line him up in the backfield and motion him out to a receiver position, where they’ll line up in a lot of empty sets, and then they’ll bring them back into the backfield. So, you have to be ready for them both ways, in and out of the backfield.”

— Atlanta is strong on special teams, with these three stats worth noting: One, while Falcons returner Eric Weems has a 73-yard return, the Falcons have given up a mere 54 return yards on Matt Bosher’s 22 punts. Two, Bosher’s net average is 43.2 yards while counterpart Jacob Schum’s gross average is just 41.1 yards. And three, Atlanta is yielding just 19.7 yards per kickoff return and ranks third in opponent starting field position following a kickoff at the 22.9-yard line.

“The kicker and the punter have both done a nice job,” special teams coordinator Ron Zook said. “In their kickoff, it seems like their philosophy might be to test you a little bit, tease you, put it in there about 2 yards deep and see if you’ll come out. And their punter has done a nice job of covering. Their gunners have done a good job. It’s going to present a problem for us, just like we try to do to people with our gunners and our punt coverage team.”

Weems, a 10-year pro, remains a weapon at age 31. He’s averaging 13.8 yards per punt return, 22.4 yards per kickoff return and has a team-high four tackles.

“He just plays hard,” Zook said. “We’ve talked to our guys all week about how hard the guy plays. He plays hard, he plays physical. He’s one of them guys that he’s always going to be talking in your face. He gives it everything he has. He knows what he is and he does an awfully good job of it. He not only is a good returner, he plays hard in all phases.”

Sticking with special teams, Green Bay’s average ranking in our five core special-teams stats (field position on kickoffs/kickoff returns, net punting for/against and field-goal percentage) is 16.6, helped by a No. 7 ranking in field-goal percentage and a No. 8 ranking on kickoff-return field position. Atlanta’s average ranking is 10.4, with top-six rankings in kickoff coverage (third), field-goal percentage (fifth) and net punting (sixth).

On the plus side, only one team has allowed fewer punt-return yards than Atlanta. That’s Green Bay. Schum’s 17 punts have yielded just 36 return yards.

— It’s Matthews Bowl II.

For Green Bay, it’s Clay Matthews from outside linebacker. For Atlanta, it’s Jake Matthews, who will be trying to stop his cousin from hitting Ryan as the quarterback’s blind-side protector.

“It’s been really fun watching him on tape,” Clay Matthews said on Thursday. “He’s progressed a lot in these past two years since we saw him as a rookie. That makes it even more fun to kind of touch on that a little bit. It’s fun to see the success he’s had.”

For Clay Matthews, the son of longtime NFL linebacker Clay Matthews Jr., it’s been a relatively quiet start to the season. In five games, he’s second on the team with three sacks and nine quarterback hits, by the coaches’ count.

For Jake Matthews, the son of Hall of Fame offensive tackle Bruce Matthews, it’s been another step on the journey since being the sixth overall pick of the 2014 draft. As a rookie, he allowed seven sacks and was penalized nine times (five for holding) in 15 games. In starting all 23 games in 2015 and 2016, he’s allowed a total of 5.5 sacks and been penalized seven times (five for holding).

“I’m excited,” Jake Matthews told reporters in Atlanta this week. “It’s pretty surreal experience to be playing against your family, you’re playing against your blood. … The positions that we play, we are one-on-one against each other for most of the game. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be exciting. It’s going to be a good matchup.”

— Jones is the marquee name at wide receiver in this game but it’s Cobb who is tied for the NFL lead with 15 receptions on third down. Speaking of third down, Ryan’s 105.7 passer rating ranks third and Rodgers’ 97.1 rating ranks fifth. Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger lead the league with six touchdown passes on third down.

QUOTEWORTHY

Packers LBs coach Winston Moss, on the need to pressure Ryan: “You can ask any defensive coach, any philosophy you want. You can go back and forth but, at the end of the day, the offense is throwing the ball, you want to be getting after the quarterback, and you want to make him uncomfortable. So, that’s our deal every week, but you’re absolutely right. I think it’s important to establish some type of way to get him uncomfortable. If you do not, and you let Matt Ryan stay in rhythm with that offense, you’re in for a long day.

Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.


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