After a 10-day layoff, the Green Bay Packers return to action this Sunday at Lambeau Field against the Atlanta Falcons. This game was originally scheduled to be a Sunday night matchup, but after the early decline of the Falcons and the recent plummet of the Packers, the NFL wisely flexed this game into a Sunday afternoon time slot.
Atlanta is 3-9 and has already been eliminated from postseason contention. Their sole purpose now is to ruin everyone else’s party. It’s hardly a party in Green Bay, however. The Packers, once 5-2, have not won in five straight games and sit at 5-6-1. But the Packers always seem to be in the thick of divisional races down to the wire and despite their horrid play over the past month, are still just a game and a half out of first place.
The big question this week is whether or not Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers will be cleared to return. As of Wednesday, Rodgers was practicing with the team (in pads), but still had not been cleared to return to game action. Matt Flynn was taking reps with the starters in practice and will start if Rodgers can’t go.
Earlier this week, I dubbed this game the “Horrible Bowl” and I stand behind that moniker. Whichever team emerges the loser this week can officially call themselves “horrible”. It would give the Falcons double-digit losses for the first time since 2007 when they finished 4-12. It would drop the Packers to 5-7-1 and with eight wins the highest total they can achieve this season. It would be the team’s worst finish since 2008 when they went 6-10.
This could be the shortest “Keys” post to date by simply stating “Score more points than the Falcons” but let’s attempt to dive a little deeper into this contest and what we will likely see.
Green Bay’s Offensive Line Health
Missing practice this week for the Packers were center Evan Dietrich-Smith and left tackle David Bakhtiari.
EDS is dealing with an ankle injury that he apparently suffered this week in practice. As if he needed any help staying off the field, he was already nursing a knee injury that knocked him out of the game against the Detroit Lions. Guard T.J. Lang moved over to play center and Marshall Newhouse filled in at right guard. That experiment, in so many ways, failed. If Dietrich-Smith can’t play this week, Lang will likely stay at center with Lane Taylor or Newhouse filling in at right guard.
Bakhtiari missed Thursday’s practice with an illness. If Bakhtiari is also unable to go on Sunday, that changes the complexion of the line even further. That would likely move Newhouse to left tackle (God help us all), Josh Sitton at left guard, Lang at center, Taylor at right guard and Don Barclay at right tackle. It’s also possible that the Packers could move Barclay to right guard and insert Derek Sherrod at right tackle.
In any scenario, the best one is that both EDS and Bakhtiari can go and be effective this week. The Falcons’ pass rush has been very pedestrian this season, racking up just 22 total sacks. This could be the break the Packers offense, especially the passing game, needs to get going.
Health has been the Packers Achilles heel all year long (pardon the expression) and given the way the ball has bounced for the Packers this past month, it would not be surprising if they were unable to take advantage of a less-potent opponent because too many starters were hurt.
Eddie Lacy’s Yardage
Earlier in March, the Packers were reportedly within inches of signing veteran running back Steven Jackson. This brought about much jubilation, if you were judging by the traffic on Twitter during those few days leading up to his signing with Atlanta. He chose the Falcons and has had a season filled with subpar play and health. Despite having missed four games this season, Jackson still leads the Falcons in rushing with just 339 yards. He has just three rushing touchdowns on the year.
With Jackson out of play, the Packers drafted Eddie Lacy in the second round. Lacy has been everything that Packer fans hoped Jackson would have been. Lacy is also a rookie and hopefully has several more years of solid play ahead of him in a Packers uniform.
Lacy has been a bright spot for the Packers over this winless streak of five games. Lacy has 376 rushing yards and three touchdowns during that span. However, on two occasions, Lacy has been held under 30 yards. Last week’s game against the Lions was his worst of the season, gaining just 16 yards on 10 carries.
Obviously the offensive line is a big key in a running back’s production, but the Packers have to get Lacy going early on. Success in the run game will help the Packers control the clock and rest the defense. The past three weeks seem to be a lot of “run, run, pass” and very predictably at that.
I’m not suggesting that Lacy become a one-man show like Adrian Peterson in Minnesota. The two aren’t even comparable. But hopefully Lacy is watching some film. On a few occasions, he has missed some cutback lanes that could have sprung for big gains. The Falcons aren’t the Lions in terms of run defense or their defensive front so I would expect Lacy to get some better looks in this game than he did last week.
Lacy has been a bruising runner all season long and it has paid dividends. Late in the most recent game against the Vikings, Lacy was hit behind the line of scrimmage for what seemed like a sure stop but kept his legs moving and churned out a key first down that kept a scoring drive alive. The Packers have not had that kind of ability in a back in quite some time and without it, we may be talking about a 5-7 Packers team instead of 5-6-1.
Many have wondered, over the past few weeks, if Lacy would get worn down with all of the carries and workload that he has been given. With the Packers’ season hanging in the balance and a possible ending near, now is not the time to worry about wear and tear. In the past few seasons, now was about that time that the team started to evaluate practice load and game reps. This year and this week especially, they need to ride Lacy until the wheels fall off.
Run The No-Huddle With Flynn
Flynn came in and ran a successful no-huddle against the Vikings. The Packers didn’t lose. Last week, they ran zero no-huddle and lost. I’m hardly suggesting that the no-huddle is a cure all, but against a struggling defense, it can be a back breaker. Atlanta comes in likely feeling deflated. Deflated players get tired faster.
The longer the offense can stay on the field, the better for the Packers all around. The defense rests, the chances of scoring (that thing where the ball carrier takes the ball in the end zone. You remember that, right?) are better, and the chances of the other team scoring are exponentially less.
Quicker snaps and throws will also help in pass protection. With a possible patchwork offensive line on Sunday, the Packers need to do everything they can to keep the quarterback (I’ll just come out and say it, Flynn) on his feet and upright.
Flynn seemed more mobile during his first stint with the team and since his return, does not appear to be moving outside of the pocket as much. Whether this is a function of play calling or Flynn’s inability to see a 6’0-something and 330 pound guy barreling towards him, it is not helping the offense. While Flynn isn’t Rodgers, when the Packers quarterbacks roll out, some good things tend to happen. Green Bay’s receivers are some of the best at improvising and finding a crease in the coverage to sit down in and pick up yardage.
Pressure Ryan All Day
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has been sacked 30 times already this season. His previous high was 28 times last season. The Buffalo Bills got to Ryan six times in last week’s Falcons overtime win.
Mike Neal missed practice time this week but the good news is that both starting outside linebackers for the Packers will be healthy and ready to go this week. Clay Matthews and Nick Perry have combined for 10 of the team’s 38 sacks, but keep in mind that both have also missed several games due to injury.
Inside linebacker A.J. Hawk has five sacks on the year as well. Green Bay has not had an issue getting to the opposing quarterback like they have had in the past few seasons. It’s the downs where they do not generate pressure that are hurting the Packers defense.
At this point, the Packers just need something positive to build on. I’m not suggesting that defensive coordinator Dom Capers abandon the entire defensive game plan, but dialing up some more pressure and taking a few more chances could go a long way. With Jackson and receiver Roddy White returning from injury, the Packers can’t allow Ryan too much time to find an open guy, because he will. All opposing quarterbacks have against the Packers this season. Every time.
Again, I’m not saying the Packers should get too cute, but finding out what they have in some of these young guys in terms of blitzing ability would be a good thing to know heading into the future.
The no-brainer of the week. I seem to have one weekly but then again, the Packers aren’t doing the obvious things to win games so one deserves the other. Last week against the Lions, the Packers offense put up a measly three points. Were it not for a defensive touchdown, those would have been the only points on the board for Green Bay.
The lack of scoring without Rodgers at quarterback is quite alarming. 26 points is the most that Green Bay has scored in any game without him. That game ended in a tie.
If the Packers defense is going to continue giving up big plays and allow teams to drive at will, the offense needs to put up more points. The lack of success in converting first downs is keeping Green Bay out of the red zone, where they have offensively struggled most of this season, even with Rodgers.
It’s likely that the Packers are going to need a big play or two in this game and ideally, that result in a score. The current offense isn’t capable of driving the needed 80 yards and punching it in. On that topic, questions remain about Flynn’s arm and whether he is still dealing with elbow issues. His arm was never a cannon to begin with, but if Atlanta’s defense knows he isn’t throwing deep, they can more easily zone cover and then potentially turn a guy loose to blitz.
The Packers just need a win. They have for the past month. Hopefully no new injuries turn up in Friday’s simple walkthrough but still, we will all be glued to the updates just in case, won’t we? Sigh.
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: