9

October

Packers vs. Falcons Preview: 5 Things to Watch

Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers (4-0) face off with Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons (2-2) in Week 5 of the NFL season on Sunday Night Football.

The basics 

When: 7:20 CDT; Sunday, Oct. 9, 2011

Where: Georgia Dome; Atlanta, GA

TV: NBC; Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth with the call, Michelle Tafoya on the sidelines

Radio: 620 AM WTMJ (Milwaukee), Packers Radio Network, Westwood One Radio, NFL Sunday Drive (Sirius Radio)

Series: Packers lead, 14-13 (Falcons won the last regular season game, 20-17, in Atlanta on Nov. 28, 2010)

Five things to watch

1. The beat goes on

For being defending Super Bowl champions and one of just two 4-0 teams left in the NFL, Packers fans sure find ways to look upon the team pessimistically. Yes, the defense has been shaky and needs to improve. But sit back and enjoy what you’re seeing on the offensive side of the ball, because it’s been one of the best starts to a season in Packers’ history. Where to start? The Packers are No. 1 in the NFL in scoring with 149 points (37.0/game), which is also the most points the team has ever scored through four games. They are on pace for a record 592 points. Sunday’s 49 points, coupled with the 42 points in Week 1, marked the first time in franchise history that the Packers have ever scored 40 or more points twice in the first four weeks. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is first in the NFL in passer rating (124.6) and completion percentage (73.0), and each would be NFL records if he continued that pace. He’s second in passing touchdowns (12) and yards per attempt (9.40). If Rodgers stayed on this pace through 16 games, he would throw for 5,300 yards and 48 touchdowns, which would shatter the franchise records of 4,458 (Lynn Dickey, 1983) and 39 (Brett Favre, 1996). That’s a lot of numbers to throw at you, but there needs to be an appreciation level for what the offense is doing in 2011. And just think; they face a defense on Sunday night that made just two additions (Ray Edwards, Kelvin Hayden) and have really struggled at times this season. The Packers offense has earned the spotlight of the entire league, and they’ll get another chance in primetime to show what kind of force they can be in 2011. (Stats courtesy of Packers.com)

2. Stopping the Burner

The Falcons offense has changed with the addition of vertical threat Julio Jones, but it still runs through 247-pound Michael Turner. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey is still an “old school” playcaller, as he likes to pound the football with Turner to open up the downfield passing game. While it’s certainly not a given, Turner is also a solid predictor of whether or not the Falcons win football games. When the Falcons have been at their best this season, they’ve given the ball to Turner consistently. In Atlanta’s two wins, Turner went over 20 carries and the Falcons averaged almost 33 points a game. However, in the two games he saw the ball less than 20 times, the Falcons lost each and averaged just under 13 points. It dates back further than just this season, too. The Falcons lost four total games in 2010, and Turner was held under 100 in all four, including the Packers 48-21 win in which Turner had just 39 yards on 10 carries.  In the Packers 20-17 loss in Atlanta during the regular season, Turner went for 110 yards on 23 carries and a score. Since coming over to Atlanta from the Chargers before the 2008 season, the Falcons have lost just two games when Turner has went over the century mark, and they both came during an injury plagued 2009 season. It’s not an exact science, but the figures show that the Packers significantly increase their chances of winning Sunday night if Turner is kept in check. The NFL’s No. 2 rushing defense (71 yards/game) needs another strong performance.

3. Hobbled secondary

Lost in the myriad of problems defending the pass this season has been the health of the secondary, which lost Nick Collins and still doesn’t have Pro Bowl cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams at 100 percent. Williams is the most concerning, as he’s admitted the limitations that his shoulder injury has caused him since returning last week against Denver. Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton attacked him relentlessly in the early goings and Williams seemed to avoid contact with that shoulder. Now, the Packers must face maybe the most physically dominating receiving duo in the NFL in Roddy White (6-0, 215) and Julio Jones (6-3, 220). Can Woodson and Williams handle that challenge? We’re going to learn a lot about both their health moving forward and the overall well-being of the pass defense after seeing them take on the Falcons. If the Packers continue to lose those individual matchups, there’s going to be an old fashioned shootout in Atlanta on Sunday night.

4. Big Test for Newhouse

Starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga couldn’t go at practice on Friday, and coach Mike McCarthy ruled him out later that day for Sunday’s game. The Packers will again turn to second-year player Marshall Newhouse, who will make his second career NFL start Sunday night. Even after an eye-opening preseason and training camp, Newhouse has looked better than expected filling in on the right side after Bulaga’s knee injury. Newhouse might face his biggest test against the Falcons, however. While the Bears are a pressure defense off the edge and the Broncos can throw both Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller at you, the Falcons have two equally talented rushers in Edwards and John Abraham. A former Minnesota Viking, Edwards has four sacks in six career games against the Packers and can pressure the pocket. You’ll remember Abraham for throwing on Rodgers’ belt after a second half sack as the Packers were routing the Falcons, but he’s owner to 105 career sacks and has one in each of his three career games against Green Bay. Both will present Newhouse with unique challenges, and you can’t underestimate what the Georgia Dome crowd and the bright lights of a nationally televised game can do to  young tackle’s psyche. An effective and continual pass rush has been one of the only factors that has slowed the Packers offense since Rodgers took over in ’08. The Falcons’ defensive lives might rest of Abraham and Edwards beating Newhouse consistently Sunday night.

5. Bad blood?

Don’t you just get the feeling that Sunday is going to be an emotionally-charged contest for both sides? The Falcons have limped to a 2-2 start and can’t afford to fall to 2-3, and they certainly want to wash out the taste of last season’s playoff exit at the hands of the Packers. If that doesn’t cause a sense of urgency for a football team, I’m not sure what will. Along those same lines, you can get the sense that the Packers have felt disrespected from members of the Falcons roster. Roddy White had the loudest mouth, stating in the preseason that the Falcons were “a better team” last season despite the 27-point shellacking they took at home. “Bulletin board material” is a hyperbole most times it’s used, but it might apply here. The Packers don’t have to prove anything to the rest of the NFL after winning the Super Bowl, but there might be a lingering feeling about showing something to the Falcons after the comments. And while it might still be in its infancy, I see a rivalry brewing between these Packers and Falcons. No, it’s not Packers-Cowboys of the 90′s yet. But both are always going to be in the NFC playoff hunt with Rodgers and Ryan under center, and primetime games like this only add to the fire.

And one last thing: I wouldn’t overlook the Favre talk for Rodgers’ play on Sunday night. He’s got a little Michael Jordan in him that way—he always has his ears open listening to that kind of talk for motivation. Rodgers might not express it in the same way Jordan did, but it drives him. He’ll take and use any added edge he can get. That’s a scary thought for a guy that’s already playing the way he is.

Prediction: Packers 34, Falcons 13

For the rest of the AllGreenBayPackers.com staff picks, click here

Until Aaron Rodgers shows a chink in his armor, it’s simply unwise to pick against the Packers, who have won 10 straight games dating back to Week 16 last season. I know I’ve already thrown a lot of numbers at you, but try to wrap your head around Rodgers’ stats during that 10-game stretch: 3,052 yards, 26 passing touchdowns, five interceptions, four rushing touchdowns and a passer rating of 117.6. That’s historically impressive any way you slice it. And what factors are there to point to that show his streak of play could come to an end on Sunday night? Rodgers is facing a secondary that’s largely unchanged from the one he burned to the ground in January, and he adds weapons in Jermichael Finley, Ryan Grant and Randall Cobb to that mix. The advantage heavily points in the Packers direction in that matchup.

13 points probably seems terribly low for the Falcons, but I think Sunday night is when the pass defense, and the pass rush especially, looks more like the 2010 version than 2011. Matt Ryan has been hit over and over this season because of an offensive line that has looked shaky at best. The Packers will continue that trend and rattle “Matty Ice” in his own house for the second straight game. Only a couple of mistakes on the right side from Marshall Newhouse keeps the Packers offense out of the 40-point range.

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Zach Kruse is a 23-year-old sports journalist with a passion for the Green Bay Packers. He currently lives in Wisconsin and is working on his journalism degree, while also covering prep sports for The Dunn Co. News.

You can read more of Zach's Packers articles on AllGreenBayPackers.com.

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