The depleted Green Bay Packers offense had done its job, driving 86 yards for the go-ahead touchdown to give it a 32-26 lead with 3:58 remaining.
That put the game in the hand of the Packers’ depleted defense.
And they failed. Miserably.
The Falcons were scarcely challenged en route to driving 75 yards for the game-winning points. For all the Packers had done right for 56 minutes, victory was ripped from their hands in those final 4 minutes.
“There's no excuses,” defensive tackle Micah Hyde said. “Everybody here is here to play and that's the way we see it.”
On first down from the 25, running back Devonta Freeman motioned out of the backfield and lined up wide right. Cornerback Demetri Goodson took Freeman, which left receivers Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel matched on Hyde and linebacker Joe Thomas. Gabriel went straight up the field, so Hyde took Gabriel. That matched Sanu against Thomas. The result was predictable. A 5-yard pass and an easy 9 -yard gain.
On second-and-1, quarterback Matt Ryan directed Justin Hardy to the right side of the formation. Hardy lost Goodson, Ryan delivered a strike to the 45 and Hardy was brought down by Goodson at the 47 for an easy gain of 13.
The next play was what appeared to be a near-pick-six by LaDarius Gunter. It was a well-designed call by coordinator Dom Capers and a well-disguised play by the secondary. On the left side of the formation, Sanu was in the slot and matched by Hyde and Julio Jones was to the outside and matched by Gunter. Hyde blitzed, so Ryan thought he had an easy completion to Sanu. But Gunter jumped the route and sprinted toward the ball. Ryan’s pass was accurate, though, and hit Sanu’s hands just before Gunter got there. The result was a harmless incompletion.
The Falcons ran a well-executed screen on second down. When Freeman caught the ball at the 43, he had two receivers and two linemen in front of him. Gunter escaped the clutches of tight end Austin Hooper and made the stop after a gain of 8 to the Packers’ 45.
That made it third-and-2 — the “longest” of Atlanta’s two third-down plays. Jones and Sanu lined up next to each other just a few yards to the left of left tackle Jake Matthews, with Jones at the line of scrimmage and Sanu in the slot. Jones took his route straight upfield, which meant a natural pick of Hyde. That freed up Sanu, who was wide open at the 38 and tackled at the 33 for a gain of 12.
Gunter, who clutched his hamstring the play before, was out of the lineup on first down, which put Goodson at right cornerback and Josh Hawkins at left cornerback. Hyde followed Sanu as Sanu motioned from right to left, then blitzed. Jones was lined up to the left and took his route up the field. Goodson and Thomas followed Jones, which left Sanu wide open. When he caught the ball at the 31, the nearest defender was safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at the 23. Sanu plowed into Clinton-Dix at the 26 and was brought down at the 24. The Falcons let the clock run down to the 2-minute warning.
On second-and-1, Gunter returned to the field. Freeman motioned out of the backfield for what was in essence a receiver screen. Thomas played it nicely but couldn’t get Freeman down until Freeman had fought for a first down at the 23.
The first-and-10 play would be Green Bay’s best chance to win the game. Jones ran a deep in-breaking route but Gunter played it perfectly. The ball went through Jones’ hands at the 9. Jones hit the ball with his hands, helmet and hands again. Clinton-Dix had a play on the ball at the 6 but couldn’t make the grab.
On second down, the Falcons sent three receivers to the right, with Sanu the man in the middle and covered by Goodson, who was playing an inside technique. Sanu easily beat Goodson, with Goodson stumbling as Sanu made his cut to the sideline at the 19. Sanu caught the ball at the 18, stiff-armed Goodson at the 17 and fought forward to the 14. That set up third-and-1 with 1:14 to play. The Falcons had two tight ends, with Hooper the tight end on the right, and Sanu and Jones lined up just to the right of Hooper. It was the only aggressive call on the possession by Capers — a six-man pressure likely about stopping the run as much as it was pressuring Ryan. Hooper blocked down on blitzing linebacker Blake Martinez for a couple of seconds before going into his route. It’s the oldest tight end trick in the book, and he was wide open for a gain of 3 to the 11.
That set up the winning touchdown. As they had done throughout most of the final drive, Jones and Sanu lined up in a tandem to the left. Green Bay had its nickel defense in, with Hyde lined up over Jones, who was at the line of scrimmage and just beyond the left hashmarks, and Gunter nearest to Sanu, who was lined up a step behind and to the outside of Jones. At the snap, Sanu ran inside of Jones and straight up the hash while Jones worked his route to the outside. Freeman entered the route, working behind Jones and Sanu, which occupied Hyde. With Gunter on Jones and Hyde on Freeman, that left inside linebacker Jake Ryan as the nearest defender to Sanu. (See post-snap screenshot from Fox's coverage below.) Sanu got behind Ryan for an easy touchdown.
“It was a miscommunication. We'll look at it on film,” Ryan said.
Where were the safeties? Clinton-Dix helped Gunter against Jones. Morgan Burnett took Hooper, who ran a corner route on the other side of the formation. In retrospect, perhaps Burnett should have stayed in the middle and allowed Martinez to take Hooper. Instead, Martinez and Goodson doubled a crossing route by Hardy and the safeties were nowhere near Sanu on the killer touchdown. But with zero knowledge of the call or how it's supposed to be executed, that's 20/20 hindsight.
On the final drive, Capers sent more than four rushers just once — the third-and-1 catch by Hooper. The Packers only got pressure on Ryan once, when outside linebacker Nick Perry raced around Matthews and hit Ryan a split-second too late on Ryan’s 9-yard completion to Sanu to the 14.
“We just didn't get it done. Just flat out, we didn't get it done,” defensive tackle Mike Daniels said of the pass rush. “We're better than that and we've got to get to work so we can prove that we're better than that.”
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.