Packers-Falcons: Keys to the game

The St. Louis Rams' offense is called "The Greatest Show on Turf." No offense to Marc Bulger and the Rams' talented receivers, but they can't hold a candle to Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick.

As a quarterback, Vick is average at best. Actually, the stats say he's below average, no matter what he preached after a decent passing game last week against the Miami Dolphins.

Among regular starting quarterbacks, Vick's passer rating of 70.8 ranks a woeful 26th in the 32-team NFL, behind such luminaries as benched Ravens QB Anthony Wright and injured interception machine Daunte Culpepper of Minnesota.

With his average of 6.057 yards per pass attempt, he's about 1.5 yards less than the magic number of 7.5 that coaches prefer.

Before a 22-of-31 showing against Miami, Vick had gone 22-of-49 for a total of 228 yards, with one touchdown and four interceptions, in his previous two games. His 228 yards last week were a season high. By 51 yards.

Still, slowing Vick will be the key to Sunday's game at the Georgia Dome. Any fan with a football IQ of more than 10 knows the reason.

1. Running man

For all of the questions about the accuracy of his arm, there are no questions about his fleet feet. Even saying Vick is like a running back playing quarterback probably isn't fair, since there hasn't been a running back who strikes this kind of fear in defensive coordinators since, perhaps, Barry Sanders.

Vick is averaging 5.97 yards per rush, or slightly less than his passing average.

"He's in the pocket and he gives you one of these (wiggles) and it almost freezes you," former Packers defensive end Vonnie Holliday, now with Miami, said after last week's game. "As a defensive player, you don't want that. You want to continue to take a shot at him. It's almost subconscious. It's always frustrating playing a guy like that. When you're rushing a pass on second or third down and you want to make a move on the offensive lineman, then you have to think about, where do I attack now?"

Packers defensive ends Aaron Kampman and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila will rush Vick at their own peril. If they rush too far upfield, Vick will step up in the pocket and scramble. If they rush with too much vigor, Vick will motor around them. If the defense reacts too strongly to a play-action fake, Vick will pick up big yards on a keeper. If the defense senses screen, it will create a gap for Vick to run up the middle.

"Keeping contain" no doubt was a phrase uttered hundreds of times in the Packers' defensive meeting rooms this week.

2. Running men

Vick is hardly a one-man band when it comes to running the ball. While he's a major reason why the Falcons lead the NFL in rushing with 184.9 yards per game, ageless veteran Warrick Dunn and battering-ram backup T.J. Duckett provide their own headaches.

This is one DVD (Dunn, Vick, Duckett) that gets two thumbs down across the league.

Dunn's 820 yards rushing rank fourth in the league, and his 5.1 yards per rush rank third in the league among runners who carry the ball at least six times per game.

While the focus is on Vick, Dunn's running stats are what shed the most insight on Atlanta's success or failure. In Atlanta's two losses, he has rushed for 54 yards (against Seattle) and 83 yards (against New England). He hasn't been held to less than 88 in the team's six wins.

3. Take away the big play

Given Atlanta's team speed, this is easier said than done. Not surprisingly, the Falcons lead the NFL in rushes of 20-plus yards with 15. (The Packers have two such rushes.)

Former Packer Allen Rossum hasn't been on top of his game as a punt returner this season (4.0 yards per runback), but with a career average of 10.6 — including season averages of 12.4 in 2004, 14.0 in 2003 and 12.0 in 2002 — he is a big play waiting to happen on punts and kickoffs (23.5-yard average this year).

As is usually the case in domes, nothing energizes the crowd more than a big play by the home team. Given the Packers' difficulties indoors through the years and all their troubles this year, silence would be golden.

4. Turnovers

Tying into the big-play key, if the Packers have designs on pulling off a major upset, their turnover troubles are going to have to be reversed.

While Jim Bates' defense has played surprisingly well, the Packers aren't helping the offense by giving it an occasional short field to operate on. The Packers have forced 10 turnovers this season. Only five teams have forced fewer. On the other side of the ball, the Packers are tied for fifth with 19 giveaways. Favre is on pace for a career-high 28 interceptions.

The Falcons, meanwhile, rank eighth in the league in turnover margin at plus-6 (17 takeaways and 11 giveaways).

5. You've Gado believe

Let's see: The Packers' first- and second-string running backs are on injured reserve and their third-stringer has a broken rib. That forced the Packers to sign three "street" free agents. The guy with the most knowledge of the offense among the replacements, Walt Williams, was put on injured reserve Friday.

Needless to say, the Packers' running game is a mess.

Still, the Packers have to stick with last week's formula. Samkon Gado wasn't overly impressive in his debut as a marquee running back against Pittsburgh last week, rushing 26 times for 62 yards. That's 2.4 yards per rush. Still, even a bad running game is better than no running game at all, since much of the Packers' passing game is tied to play-action fakes. Anything that opens up the passing game even a little for Favre will be more than welcome.

Lawrence is a regular contributor to Send comments to

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