Keys to the game: Green Bay Packers @ Atlanta Falcons

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Atlanta mixing and matching its coverages

Fundamentally, the Falcons are an execution-based defense. They don’t do an awful lot to vary their coverages. Instead, they run the same base Cover-3 concepts (with a Cover-1 variant) and use pattern-matching to vacillate between man and zone coverage.

It’s the same concept the Seattle Seahawks have used to great success, relying on great players to out-execute the opposing offense. Unfortunately for Atlanta, it doesn’t have the same kind of All-Pro talent littered at every level of the defense as Seattle. And while they do have talent, the Falcons are facing an offense that is being orchestrated by a once-in-a-lifetime player, quarterback Aaron Rodgers, in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime run.

It’s not that their style cannot be effective against Rodgers and a depleted group of skill-position players, but the Falcons will likely have more success if they deviate from their base principles and mix and match their coverages more. After all, it’s tough enough to stop Rodgers, let alone when he knows what he’s facing prior to the snap.

During the second-half of the Packers’ game agains the Dallas Cowboys, Dallas deviated from its own base concepts, abandoning zone coverages that were lit up on the Packers’ first three drives. After that, they decided to blitz more and used zone pressures that had the outside cornerbacks press receivers and carry them downfield. Rather than a regular zone blitz — where the defense plays zone coverage and blitzes extra men — Dallas manned up on the outside, while dropping a single down lineman or linebacker into a zone and replacing him with a blitzing defensive back.

Not only that, but the Cowboys incorporated a spy into their second-half gameplan: An individual defensive player who mimics the moves of the quarterback. It was an interesting tactic. Defenses rarely use a spy against Rodgers, as it reveals the coverage (man-to-man) and takes a defensive player out of the game. After all, they’re just shadowing Rodgers across the line of scrimmage.

However, it was an interesting wrinkle. And it’s certainly something the Falcons should incorporate into their plan, particularly given the talent of versatile and athletic linebacker Deion Jones. By using a spy, they’ll be able to present Rodgers with different looks, take away some of the damage he does with his legs, and perhaps clog some throwing lanes.

Dallas’ adjustments were highly effective. They conceded 21 points and 245 yards on the Packers’ first three drives before switching up the plan and allowing just 13 points and 184 yards on the following seven drives.

But perhaps no team has better defended against Rodgers this season than the Minnesota Vikings. Like the Falcons, they run a high volume of Cover-3 concepts, though they’re far more hybrid in general on the front and back ends. Their variety of fronts and coverages, and how they disguised them, caused Rodgers problems.

One way they disguised things was by crowding the line of scrimmage — using their much discussed “mug” double A-gap look. They were able to diversify their coverages and keep Rodgers guessing on who was coming and who was dropping out, with the linebacker’s speed allowing them to still get to their drop zones. Atlanta has similar speed in its linebacking corps, which would allow them to copy some of those concepts.

If the Falcons decide to stick with their base gameplan — and there’s some argument for “you dance with who brung ‘ya” — then Rodgers and Co. will need to deviate from the strategy they’ve used in recent weeks.

During Rodgers’ great run the Packers have, finally, built more rhythm and timing into the offense. They’ve done so mostly from empty formations; spreading the field and letting Rodgers go to work picking his favorite matchup. Much of the damage has come from their 12 personnel grouping — one back and two tight ends — where the running back (Ty Montgomery) and each tight end (Jared Cook and Richard Rodgers) can align in the backfield, in the slot or flexed out wide. That’s given them a personnel advantage against man coverage and allowed Rodgers to get rid of the ball quicker.

Atlanta’s defense nullifies much of that advantage. The likes of safety Keanu Neal, linebacker Deion Jones and slot corner Brian Poole are themselves matchup weapons, who have the versatility to cover a variety of positions. Their versatility allows the Falcons to stay in their base personnel grouping and feel comfortable against the run, spread formations, or multi-tight end packages.

While getting the ball out quickly is a must — or else the Packers offense tends to stagnate — Green Bay will likely use slow-developing concepts that are designed specifically to attack the Falcons’ Cover-3 looks.

Against the pattern-match coverage, teams like to use switch releases (receivers crisscrossing at the line of scrimmage) to fog up opposing cornerbacks’ route recognition, which can lead to blown coverages. They’ll also likely also use “flood” concepts: three receivers on one side of the formation with a short, intermediate, and deep route all run to one half of the field.

The Packers’ elite pass protection should provide Rodgers and the receivers time to hit some shots on the slower-developing play designs. So, the responsibility will rest on coach Dan Quinn to vary the Falcons’ coverages and present Rodgers with some fronts and looks that they’ve rarely run this season.

Can the Falcons expose Lane Taylor?

Green Bay’s offensive line is the best in pass protection in the league. For me, Pittsburgh has the best overall line, but their greatest area of concern comes at a tackle spot. The same is true for Dallas, who tries to conceal its right tackle by consistently giving help. The Packers, on the other hand, are different. They have two of the best tackles in the league in David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga, and are happy to let each of them sit on islands for the majority of any game.

Having two tackles who can be left on their own allows the Packers to widen their splits. And when you pair that with Bakhtiari and Bulaga’s explosive pass sets, they’re able to widen the pocket, creating more room for Rodgers to operate. Below is a good example from earlier in the year against the Detroit Lions. You can see the size of tackle-guard split, how far Bakhtiari kicks out to hit his landing spot, and the width of the pocket on a quick dropback.

Bakhtiari is particularly fun to watch. Interestingly, he has developed a “late hands” style in which he doesn’t reveal or use his hands until the latest possible moment. The tackle position, by its nature, is reactionary. By using his hands so late Bakhtiari is attempting to mitigate some of that. The results speak for themselves.

Green Bay’s concern comes inside, where left guard Lane Taylor is the line’s only weakness. In the first Falcons-Packers matchup, he was worked over by Adrian Claiborne 1-on-1 and was left confused against a variety of the Falcons’ stunts and twists.

No team in the league runs more games up front than Atlanta. Without gap exchanges like stunts and twists they’re unable to create a pass rush. As good as end Vic Beasley has been in his second year in the league, he isn’t a guy who can consistently beat down a tackle 1-on-1. Instead, he wins through design, using his rare quickness to loop around his interior teammates and get to the hole before opposing linemen can process what’s happening.

That’s where the Falcons are at a disadvantage on Sunday. Not only do the Packers have four top-level pass protectors individually, they work as a cohesive unit to pass off any stunts, and they process blitzes and exchanges as well as is possible. Atlanta’s best hope to pressure Rodgers then, is to isolate and attack Taylor.

Although Claiborne beat him consistently in the first matchup, the plan should be to align Grady Jarrett across from the guard. Jarrett is Atlanta’s best interior player and one of the most under-appreciated players in the NFL. He has rare short-area quickness, is powerful at the point of attack, and works beautifully in tandem with Beasley to open up lanes to the quarterback.

His task is usually to get across the face of opposing lineman and force another lineman to give help, freeing up an alley for a teammate to loop in behind. That’s where his quickness comes into play. Often, an interior player will be slower out of the blocks, allowing Jarrett to get across his face mask, forcing a tackle to help out. While sacks like the one below belong to Beasley, they’re really created by the Jarrett-Beasley duo.

Flipping Jarrett and Beasley to the other side of the formation would be a smart play. It’s not that they can’t be successful working against Bulaga and TJ Lang, but it would ensure one of the Falcons’ two best rushers gets a 1-on-1 matchup with the Packers’ weakest link.

If they’re unable to expose Taylor, or he just has a good game, pressuring Rodgers is going to be difficult. The only other way Rodgers has been consistently pressured is from frontside slot pressures. Dallas dialed up a bunch last Sunday, and they’ve been effective throughout the season — most notably a wonderful slant-crash design from Vic Fangio and the Chicago Bears.

Other than that, most pressures conceded come from Rogers holding onto the ball too long, players losing individual battles, or receivers being unable to separate from coverage on quick dropbacks.

Can the Packers defend the run from their nickel package?

The Packers’ fears of having their linebackers exposed in space or forced to redirect against a diverse run scheme led them to play the run against Dallas out of their nickel package.

In some ways it was an acknowledgement that even if they went heavy they’d have trouble, and it would be best to be geared up against the pass and play-action rather than having bad players on the field. They were also impacted by the injury of Morgan Burnett, who’s one of their pivotal players against the run and had been playing pseudo-linebacker in their dime package. Again, it allowed them to keep linebackers off the field.

Atlanta’s zone-run scheme demands the defense to move laterally before thundering downhill. To stop it, linebackers have to be athletic and have the ability to diagnose and attack. That’s where the Packers are lacking. And with two top-ten backs, both of whom make players miss in space for fun, it’s a great looking matchup for offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s offense.

Like last Sunday, I don’t expect the Packers to take any particularly precautions against the ground game. As always, they’ll use some bear fronts — covering all three interior offensive lineman — to try and penetrate gaps and take away center Alex Mack’s ability to climb to the second level or reach out on a linebacker. But they’ll likely stay in their nickel package and hope they can hold up.

If they’re able to stay in nickel and don’t get run off the field, they’ll have a chance to defend the Falcons in obvious passing situations. If not, they’ll have no shot against Atlanta’s variety of weapons.

Originally published at www.all22.com on January 20, 2017.

Senior Football Analyst at Cox Media’s sports vertical’s: All-22 (NFL) and SEC Country.