Chicks did the long ball, according to the old Major League Baseball promotional slogan.
So, too, does Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan. On passes thrown at least 21 yards downfield, Ryan completed 29-of-58 passes for 1,099 yards with 10 touchdowns and no interceptions. Only Washington’s Kirk Cousins was more accurate on deep passes, but no quarterback could approach Ryan’s touchdown-to-interception ratio or 135.4 passer rating.
“We do it quite a bit in practice,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “We’re at our best when we’re able to run play action, run keepers, because we do feature the run game so well. Having that balance allows us to take some shots down the field that we enjoy doing, and it’s been a part of Matt’s game. When we do take our shots in practice, you see guys hauling and they do put the time in together, I can tell you that. “
Ryan credited his receivers and the play-calling of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. The receiver group is led by Julio Jones, who averaged 17.0 yards per catch. The NFL defines a “long” pass as one that’s thrown at least 15 yards downfield. Despite missing two games and being dogged by a toe injury throughout the second half of the year, only two receivers caught more “long” passes than Jones (24) or had more yards (626). It’s not just Jones, though. Taylor Gabriel averaged 16.5 yards per catch and Aldrick Robinson averaged 16.2. Both had six “long” completions.
With Ryan pulling the trigger, the Falcons fielded the best long-passing game in the league. According to league data, the Falcons had a league-high success rate of 57.3 percent (first down or touchdown) on long passes. Only two other teams were even better than 50 percent, and Green Bay was way down the chart at 37.1 percent.
Defensively, opponents had a success rate of 46.5 percent against Green Bay, the fourth-worst in the league. That includes a league-worst 14 touchdowns.
“He’s definitely going to give his guys a chance to make some plays,” Packers cornerback LaDarius Gunter said. “We’re going to have to make more plays than they do on those 50-50 balls.”
-- The Falcons reached the NFC Championship Game in 2012 but fell on hard times under Mike Smith, with a 4-12 season in 2013 and a 6-10 in 2014. Quinn took over in 2015 and the results were instant – if not sustainable. The Falcons started last season 5-0 but lost six in a row at one point to tumble to 8-8. This year, the Falcons lost the opener at home to Tampa Bay, then back-to-back games at Seattle and San Diego to fall to 4-3.
Atlanta snapped that mini-skid by beating Green Bay 33-32, and enters Sunday’s game on a five-game winning streak in which it dominated its opponents with an average margin of victory of 19.0 points.
When did Quinn sense his team had the goods to make a run?
“It’s a good question, one I hadn’t thought about,” Quinn said. “We lost our opener. It was a disappointing game because we were playing at home against a division team. After that, we had a couple of road games where we played well, out at Oakland, out at New Orleans, and that I think is where the shift maybe took place to say, ‘All right, one game does not make a season.’ I wanted to make sure our resiliency was right. Past that, we lost a close game to Kansas City here at home (in Week 13), a difficult one, and another shift happened with our team after that loss. They got even more connected and then our defense started to gain some confidence as we were playing better over the last five or six weeks.”
-- Not unlike the Packers with Sam Shields, Atlanta’s defense suffered a major blow when Pro Bowl cornerback Desmond Trufant was lost for the season with a torn pectoral in late November. That’s forced Robert Alford to move into the No. 1 role and Jalen Collins, who wasn’t playing well enough to even be active for the first matchup against Green Bay, to move into the starting lineup.
“It’s been a challenge, for sure,” Quinn said. “You know that everybody in the league is going through challenging spots at different positions, and different positions it seems like get affected each year. The guy who’s really stepped up for us is Jalen Collins. He played quite a bit for us last year in our nickel defense. He started off slowly. He wasn’t available for a couple games and then he worked his way back and just kept getting better and better as the season was coming along. He’s done a really good job of stepping in when Tru went down. We’re real pleased with the way Jalen’s competing.”
The numbers back up Quinn’s point. According to data provided courtesy of Pro Football Focus and that statistical service’s best guess at coverage responsibilities, Alford allowed a 61.2 percent completion rate, seven touchdowns vs. two interceptions, and a passer rating of 100.9. Collins allowed 56.0 percent with two touchdowns, two interceptions and a rating of 77.1. Considering the health of the receivers, look for the Packers to target Randall Cobb against slot corner Brian Poole. An undrafted rookie from Florida, Poole allowed a 65.8 percent completion rate, three touchdowns, one interception and a rating of 90.0.
-- If Green Bay can keep second-year star Vic Beasley away from quarterback Aaron Rodgers, then Rodgers should have ample time to survey that secondary. Beasley was tremendous, going from four sacks and no forced fumbles as a rookie to league-high totals of 15.5 sacks and six forced fumbles this season.
“There’s so much to gain and so much to learn as a pass rusher. I think he’s just getting started on it,” Quinn said. “He’s able to beat somebody to the punch because of the speed that he has. Last year, I don’t know if he had his counters quite right. He worked hard at that to make sure that that part of his game could come alive, and he did.”
Beasley had a sack in the first matchup, coming on a delayed blitz after starting off as a spy.
“He’s a very fast player,” left tackle David Bakhtiari said. “It’s a fast track and he’s lighter in the ass. Any time you get a guy that doesn’t weigh that much, he better be fast because you have to compensate, and he’s definitely fast.”
With Adrian Clayborn (4.5 sacks) on injured reserve, the Falcons don’t have anyone else with more than three sacks (Dwight Freeney and Grady Jarrett).
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.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.null