GREEN BAY, Wis. — Five things to watch for in the Week 14 Sunday afternoon matchup between the Green Bay Packers (5-6-1) and Atlanta Falcons (3-9) at Lambeau Field:
1. A win without Aaron Rodgers
The Packers haven’t won a game since Oct. 27. That was also the last time that Aaron Rodgers played a full game. With a 0-4-1 record since Rodgers fractured his left collarbone, Green Bay gets another shot at earning a victory without its star quarterback.
When Rodgers was injured on the first drive in Week 9, the Packers were 5-2 and riding a four-game winning streak. At the time, it seemed clear that Green Bay would be a part of the postseason for the fifth consecutive year and could be the NFC North champion for the third year in a row. Fast forward one month to now and the Packers have a 6.7 percent chance at making it to the playoffs. That’s called the Rodgers Factor. Picking up wins without him has proven very difficult for Green Bay so far.
2. Matt Flynn throwing downfield to spread out Atlanta’s defense
The major concern when the Packers signed Matt Flynn on Nov. 12 was his arm strength. Considering that Flynn was released earlier this season by Oakland and Buffalo with reports that teams were worried about a potential elbow injury, the most telling sign would be how well he threw downfield.
Of Flynn’s 56 passing attempts so far in a Green Bay uniform this season, seven of them have been beyond 20 yards. That’s 12.5 percent of his passes. That’s almost identical to Rodgers’ breakdown this season, as Rodgers is at 12.7 percent. Though it’s a small sample size for Flynn, the two quarterbacks have taken a shot downfield on an average of one of every eight throws.
Where the difference lies, though, is that Rodgers is often facing defensive coverages that are strategizing to stop him from completing deep passes. Flynn has been facing looks with eight defensive players in the box, daring him to throw anything over their heads.
“It should be a quarterback’s dream,” Flynn said of the eight-man box looks he’s seeing. “We have to get open, I have to make throws and we just need to take advantage if we get hard boxes.”
If Flynn can connect on a few deep balls, it will also help Green Bay’s running game have more room to work with at the line of scrimmage. Eddie Lacy’s job became much more difficult since Rodgers’ injury, and Flynn’s struggles on anything longer than 20 yards has made it even tougher on the ground.
3. Protecting the QB vs. NFL’s worst pass-rushing defense
Flynn should have plenty of time to throw against the Falcons, as Atlanta has a league-low 22 sacks this season. The Falcons are also rated by ProFootballFocus.com as the NFL’s worst pass-rushing team.
Former New York Giant Osi Umenyiora leads the way for Atlanta with 6.5 sacks this season, but his 22 quarterback hurries have come on 360 pass rushes. That means Umenyiora is only getting near the QB on six percent of his pass-rushing opportunities.
Flynn was under a lot of pressure on Thanksgiving in Detroit, and a lot of it didn’t even take blitzes from the Lions. Flynn was sacked seven times and pressured a total of 13 times, even though Detroit only blitzed on eight of his dropbacks.
After allowing Rodgers to get sacked more than any quarterback in the league last season (51 times), the Packers are currently ranked 16th in sacks allowed this year. But the offensive line will have to do a much better job against the Falcons than it did against the Lions.
4. Contagious turnovers?
Green Bay has forced only 14 turnovers this season, which is the second-fewest in the NFC — coincidentally, Atlanta has been the only team worse in this category. As low as that number of turnovers is, four of them came in one game (Week 3 at Cincinnati) and another four came last week in Detroit. That means, in the Packers’ other 10 games this season, they’ve forced just six turnovers.
The motto that defensive coordinator Dom Capers and his players have stuck with all season has been that turnovers are contagious. When one happens, typically more start to happen. That was certainly true against the Bengals and Lions. Now, Green Bay needs to have what happened in Detroit carry over to this game.
Atlanta has given the ball away 21 times this season, fifth-most in the NFC. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has thrown 12 interceptions (eighth-most in the league), but he’s gotten through the past two games without adding any more to his total.
Turnovers are often the difference between winning and losing. Strangely, this season, the two games that the Packers forced four turnovers in were both losses. But that doesn’t change the overriding fact that taking the ball away from Atlanta in the cold weather at Lambeau Field on Sunday will likely play a major role in the outcome.
5. Stopping Atlanta’s 29th-ranked running game
The offseason addition of Steven Jackson has not done much for the Falcons’ running game. Injuries have slowed the 30-year-old running back in his first season in Atlanta, but don’t tell that to members of the Packers’ defense. Ryan Pickett spoke out the most this week that he and his teammates still see Jackson as an elite runner. They were likely convinced of that after watching the Falcons’ overtime win last weekend, a game in which Jackson had two rushing touchdowns and 84 yards.
The concern for Capers is, despite Atlanta being ranked No. 29 in the NFL in rushing yards, that the Falcons are rapidly improving late in the year.
“I think they’ve changed a little bit,” Capers said. “I think you saw a change in this game last week. We anticipate, obviously the way we’re playing the run right now, them coming in and trying to establish the run. Hey, we just have to do a better job. We’ve got to tackle better. These guys have good backs. We’ve got to make sure we don’t void a gap up inside. Our guys know we just haven’t done it as consistent as we need to do it. And there’s nothing more frustrating in football than when a team gets their run game going on you. That’s where the basis of our philosophy starts. The last few weeks here, we just haven’t done as good a job as we did earlier in the season.”
Green Bay was ranked third in the league in stopping the run after Week 7. It was so good that, at that pace, it would have been an all-time Packers franchise record. Then Matt Forte, LeSean McCoy, Adrian Peterson and Reggie Bush took whatever they wanted up front, dropping Green Bay to No. 26 in the NFL in run defense.
The expected cold weather Sunday will likely mean lots of carries for Jackson, and therefore lots of opportunities for the Packers to show whether they can tackle any better this week than they did a week earlier with 20 missed tackles.