It started with a 13 play, 80 yard touchdown drive. Followed by a field goal. Followed by a touchdown pass. Followed by another touchdown pass. Followed by yet another touchdown pass, this one a backbreaking 73 yarder.
That’s how the NFC championship game started just under eight months ago. With 31 consecutive Falcon points. While the Packers offense seemingly couldn’t get out of its own way, the Green Bay defense was getting beaten like a stubborn mule. I don’t know about you, but I’ve pushed those memories to the farthest recesses of my brain that I possibly can. Let the last thought of the 2016 season be the strike to Jared Cook that made believers of us all, rather than the outclassing that followed it the next week.
This Sunday, just one meaningful Packer game and 238 days removed from the worst championship game loss in franchise history, the Packers, and their defense, have the chance to redeem themselves. To use the words of Aaron Rodgers in the aftermath of last season, Green Bay didn’t rebuild, they reloaded. Stocked with some new secondary pieces and a new defensive swagger, the Packers came out strong against the Seahawks. But against what was the best offense in football just a season ago, Week 2 could be a different story. Here’s what to watch for with the defense this week.
There’s no mistake about it, the Packers’ secondary is vastly improved this year. Entering the NFC Championship, Ladarius Gunter was the top corner who was tasked with stopping the all-world Julio Jones. Now? Gunter isn’t even on the roster, and the secondary is at full health. If the Packers can hold Jones to less than 100 yards and just one touchdown, rather than the 180 yards and two touchdowns he put up in January, they’ll be in good shape. To be fair, Atlanta has more weapons than just Julio, but the Packers will be up to the task this time around. Expect Matt Ryan to have to work for his yards this week, rather than cutting through like a warm steak knife through butter.
This may come as a shock to some folks, but the running game may be more of a concern for the Pack than the passing game. For as good as the defense looked in Week 1, CJ Prosise exposed a lack of top flight speed around the outside. With quality backs in the form of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, the defense could get seriously gashed if either back makes it through the initial wave of defenders on an outside run, especially given the amount of defensive attention that will assuredly be devoted to pass protection on every play.
The pass rush is the most important factor for the Packers this week, by a large margin too. Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, and Mike Daniels will need to shoulder the load and harass Matt Ryan constantly. If he’s given time, like he was in January, the game will turn into a shootout fast, which will be tough for even the likes of Aaron Rodgers to win on the road.
On the whole, there’s no question, the advantage lies with the Falcons offense in this matchup. However, the question isn’t about the Packers ability to shut them down, it’s about their ability to limit them. Anything less than 24 points should be seen as a victory for the defense in a game that we very much should expect to win. Anything more than that and we may be looking at a liability of a defense once again.