The Past: Let’s not beat around the bush, the last meeting between the Packers and Falcons was pug fugly. Without Aaron Rodgers, Matt Flynn managed to not lose the game but he certainly didn’t help matters with a fumble and an interception; add to that some questionable tackling on the defense and it looked like the Packers were helping the Falcons win the game. However, the Falcons had plans of their own and managed to play even worse resulting in interception by none other than Jarrett Bush to narrowly squeak the Packers by 22-12. However in recent history, some of the most exciting Packers games have been against the Packers, notably in 2010, the Packers just barely lost to the Falcons during the regular season followed by a complete dismantling of the Falcons in the playoffs where Aaron Rodgers played maybe his finest game in his storied career.
The Present: The Falcons, despite being in the playoff hunt due to an atrocious NFC South division, are not a good team and it’s not for a lack of skill players. Matt Ryan clearly has regressed in these two last years but is still one of the better quarterbacks in the league. While the Falcons will no longer be with the services of Tony Gonzalez, Julio Jones and Roddy White make one of the more dangerous wide receiver combos in the league. Much like Gonzales was a potential target of the Packers in free agency, running back Steven Jackson was also rumored to be courted by Packers general manager Ted Thompson but ultimately decided to sign with Atlanta; in response the Packers drafted Eddie Lacy a couple months later and I would suspect the Packers front office and fans are still happy about that one.
Atlanta actually has a pretty decent offense, ranked 12th by Football Outsiders; they’re better at passing the ball with Ryan, White and Jones, good for 8th in the league but also have a respectable running game which ranks 15th in the league. The biggest concern for the Packers will be to limit the amount of big plays in the running game and hanging tight with the running game; while Jackson may not be as powerful as he once was, the Packers must be fully cognizant that Jackson and Lacy are of the same mold and just like opposing defenses have trouble bringing down Lacy, so too will they have issues getting Jackson to the ground.
The biggest weakness the Falcons have is on defense, where they are ranked dead last according to Football Outsiders. If you thought the Packers running defense was bad (ranked 23rd at -3.3%) well the Falcons are taking it to a whole other level, where they are tied for 31st with a DVOA of +3.2% (For all of you unfamiliar with Football Outsiders DVOA, positive DVOA is good for offense and negative DVOA is good for defense). On pass defense they aren’t much better again coming in at 31st with a DVOA of 25.4% (the Packers have an average pass defense of 3.7% while the league leading 49ers have a -13.8% DVOA). Going up against a high powered Packers offense as primed for the playoffs as this years squad is and frankly the Packers should be able to pick and choose who they want to attack and when. The Falcons probably won’t require as much trickeration like what Mike McCarthy had to scheme against Bill Belichick; simply put the Packer offense is flat out better than the Falcons defense.
The Future: The Falcons have always been one of the more aggressive front offices in the NFL, bringing in big names such as Steven Jackson and trading a staggering 5 picks for the right to draft wide receiver Julio Jones; while Jones has been a stellar player in his short career, considering the Redskins decision to trade 8 picks for their franchise quarterback, it seems a little bit of a over buy trading so much for a “shiny hood ornament” (Yes I know RGIII is becoming the second coming of Ryan Leaf but the value of the trade remains the same). As with an aggressive front office, the Falcons will never have that much free cap space; this year the Falcons have just over $3 million left, which is plenty for any injury replacement signings or unforeseen circumstances but in reality probably isn’t enough to work a mid season extension.
Matt Ryan, Justin Blalock and Roddy White make up the Falcons highest paid players followed by Julio Jones and Paul Soliai but overall the Falcons roster is composed of mid-tier contract players who don’t break the bank but also don’t offer the same value as rookies. The Falcons also have a lot to consider in terms of free agency; this years big free agent was Osi Umenyiora, who will be a free agent in 2015 followed by Sean Weatherspoon. After that in 2016 is Julio Jones, who will likely become one of the highest paid wide receivers in the NFL and Steven Jackson, who will be 33 and might finally have too much wear on his tires to justify a resigning.
Onto the the Falcons draft their first round pick was Jake Matthews, cousin of the Packers own Clay Matthews, who will have one of the more interesting battles this coming week. Unfortunately, Jake Matthews is the worst offensive tackle according to Profootball Focus, even beating out Matt Khalil for that honor (and he’s the worst by a long shot). While Matthews has been below average in terms of run blocking, he’s been an absolute disaster in pass protection and one can only hope that it’s rookie mistakes that are the cause of his troubles. Next up was Ra’Sheed Hageman, another player rumored to be on the Packers list of 1st round picks and Hageman hasn’t been playing all that well either on the limited number of snaps that he’s received. The Falcons followed that up with hometown player Dezman Southward, whose basically had the same amount of success as Hageman in about the same number of snaps. The Falcons 4th round pick Prince Shembo might be playing the best of all the rookies at the moment. Outside of that, it appears as if the Falcons 6th and 7th round picks of CB Ricardo Allen and three LBs (Marquis Spruill, Yawain Smallwood and Tyler Starr) have yet to play a down——————
Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.