Falcons vs. Packers: Takeaways from Atlanta's 22-21 Loss to Green Bay
The Atlanta Falcons dropped another game with a 22-21 loss to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. The loss halts the late-season momentum the Falcons had been building the past two weeks, while the Packers snapped their five-game winless streak.
Atlanta held a 21-10 lead at halftime but failed to score any points in the second half. A Falcons turnover at the outset of the fourth quarter allowed the Packers to take the lead. The Falcons had a trio of opportunities to retake the lead in the final seven minutes, but they were unable to capitalize on any of them.
Atlanta's record moves to 3-10, and the team will be looking to rebound next week at home against an equally struggling Washington Redskins team.
The Falcons will continue to build off several positives they can take away from Sunday's loss while trying to correct multiple negatives in preparation for next week.
More Coaching Questions for Mike Smith
Two weeks removed from another loss in which there were some lingering questions about Mike Smith's decision-making, there will be more after Sunday's loss to the Packers.
Smith opted to punt on 4th-and-2 on the Falcons' opening series with the ball at the Packers' 35-yard line. It would have made for a difficult field goal given the wintry weather conditions, but it seemed like a perfect opportunity to roll the dice and go for it if the field goal was not an option.
The Falcons settled for a punt, with a fair catch by Micah Hyde resulting in just a 25-yard punt, hardly a benefit for the team. Green Bay subsequently marched the ball down the field 90 yards on 18 plays to take a 7-0 lead.
Smith seemingly learned from that error and was aggressive late in the game, opting to go for it on 4th-and-5 with two minutes remaining in the game from Green Bay's 33-yard line.
It's hard to argue against being aggressive; going for it was the right call in both situations. Matt Bryant was short on a 52-yard field goal earlier in the fourth quarter from Green Bay's 34-yard line, suggesting that Smith was right for not opting to kick in either instance.
But he should have had more faith in his offense on the opening drive, which could have potentially started the Falcons on a better footing to begin the game. Any score there could have made the difference in the outcome.
Steven Jackson Finishing Strong
Falcons running back Steven Jackson appears to be hitting his stride down the stretch of the 2013 season after missing much of the first half of the season with a hamstring injury.
Jackson is still searching for his first 100-yard game in his first season with the Falcons, but he finished Sunday's game against the Packers with 71 yards on 15 carries. It marks Jackson's third consecutive game with 63 or more yards. That is an unspectacular benchmark, but it's the one necessary to average each week over the course of 16 to reach 1,000 yards or more.
Jackson also converted a trio of 3rd-and-shorts on runs, an area where the Falcons have routinely struggled in recent years and this season.
It makes one pine for the Falcons offense that could have been had Jackson played during that four-game stretch earlier this year when the team went 1-3.
But for now, the Falcons will hope Jackson continues to play at a high level for the remaining three games this season and pick up where he leaves off in 2014.
Any lingering doubts over Jackson's return to Atlanta next year have presumably been silenced with his solid performances.
Wide receiver Roddy White continued to get back to form with an eight-catch, 74-yard performance against the Packers.
His production the past two weeks—18 catches for 217 yards—has virtually matched his production from his previous eight (20 catches for 209 yards).
The only complaint about White's performance in Green Bay is that he failed to reach the end zone and was relatively quiet for a large portion of the second half.
After doing an excellent job moving the chains by catching five passes for 38 yards in the first half, White was held without a catch until the final play of the third quarter. The Packers seemingly adjusted, and their ability to slow down White really put the clamps on the Falcons offense in the second half.
The Falcons will to continue to find ways to keep White involved in the game next week against the Redskins.
Falcons Need More from Other Receivers
A potential second option in the passing game could be Drew Davis. He had only a single catch, but it happened to be a 36-yard touchdown.
Davis wasn't targeted at any other point in the game, and frankly the Falcons didn't get much help from any of their receivers not named Roddy White.
Even Tony Gonzalez didn't make a huge contribution against the Packers. He did catch a two-yard touchdown pass and made a key grab with the Falcons driving in the final four minutes to get into Packers territory. But he had a key drop later that drive on fourth down. Up until that point he had been relatively quiet with just three catches.
Harry Douglas also was mostly a non-factor with just a pair of catches on seven targets.
One of those missed opportunities was a drop on the penultimate play for the Falcons offense in the final seconds. Douglas was open and Ryan hit him on a perfect pass that could have put the ball inside the Packers' 40-yard line with 11 seconds to play. But the throw bounced off Douglas' chest, and the following pass to Douglas on the next play resulted in an interception.
Darius Johnson also had a quiet game with no catches and only one target.
The Falcons offense can't be a one-man show with White as the lone contributor. They went through that song and dance earlier this season with Julio Jones in the starring role, and it resulted in very few wins for the team in September. Being able to effectively spread the ball around is key for this Falcons offense.
Pass Protection Makes Strides
The Falcons delivered on their promise to give more reps for offensive tackle Ryan Schraeder this week. While Jeremy Trueblood got the start at right tackle, Schraeder saw extensive reps at that position throughout the Packer game.
The Falcons have shuffled around their offensive line in recent weeks in their attempts to find the best five-man unit. It appears the right side is mostly in flux with Lamar Holmes, Justin Blalock and Joe Hawley seemingly settled at left tackle, left guard and center respectively.
Trueblood is a free agent at the end of the year and has been a journeyman in recent years, making it a very low possibility that he is a factor in the Falcons' plans next season.
The longer a look the Falcons can take at Schraeder now, the better.
Schraeder seemingly held his own, but he gave up a critical sack at the start of the fourth quarter that resulted in a fumble and recovery by the Packers. The Packers followed it up with a touchdown that gave them the 22-21 lead.
It's part of the growing pains that one can expect with a young offensive tackle, particularly an undrafted rookie like Schraeder who has only been playing football for a handful of years.
But for the most part, Schraeder's presence led to a relatively good day for the Falcons front, which kept Ryan clean for most of the game and allowed him time to find targets. Continuing to get Schraeder extended reps in the coming weeks against premium competition like Ryan Kerrigan, Ahmad Brooks and Greg Hardy could be pivotal to deciding his future in Atlanta.
Pass Rush Shows Up…Finally!
After a week when the Falcons pass rush was virtually nonexistent, they were able to bounce back this week and put some much-needed pressure on Packers quarterback Matt Flynn.
Flynn was dropped for five sacks and hit five times, which helped limit Green Bay's offensive output.
The Falcons were effective at getting to Flynn because of some well-scripted blitzes. William Moore came free off the edge to get a blindside hit on Flynn that resulted in a turnover and led to Falcons points in the first half.
Paul Worrilow was officially credited with 1.5 sacks, but he took part in three sacks, tag-teaming with Jonathan Massaquoi and Corey Peters on two separate plays, and also getting a sack of his own on an unblocked blitz.
Massaquoi finished with 1.5 sacks thanks to another play when he was able to beat the right tackle with an counter move. Peters got full credit for the sack which he shared with Worrilow.
The pressure helped the Falcons get off the field on third downs, with one of those sacks coming on a third down to force the Packers to settle for a field goal. Another backed Green Bay up on a second down, which made for a very long 3rd-and-12, leading to another stop.
The Falcons' third-down defense has been atrocious in 2013, and some of those struggles can rest on the team's inability to generate pressure in critical situations. Sunday's loss to Green Bay could represent a change to the status quo if the team is able to keep that up for the remainder of the season.
Weatherspoon Provides Boost to Defense
After missing several games due to a foot injury that landed him on short-term injured reserve, Sean Weatherspoon is starting to round back into form as one of the league's premier outside linebackers.
The highlight of Weatherspoon's game against the Packers was his 71-yard touchdown return on a pick-six. The interception came off a deflected pass by Paul Worrilow, ricocheting off his foot and into the hands of Weatherspoon, who weaved his way downfield for the score.
The play represented the sort of opportunistic and inspired play that was normal from the Falcons defense a year ago and has been sorely missing for most of this season.
The return of Weatherspoon to the lineup has seemingly lit a fire under the Falcons defense, which was able to create a pair of turnovers for the second week in a row. The boost received from Weatherspoon's leadership and passion should give the Falcons defense a chance to finish the season on a brighter note.
Tackling and Run Defense Must Improve
For many teams, the cold weather could have been an excuse for many of the missed tackles by the Falcons.
But for Atlanta, missed tackles have been commonplace even in the ideal artificial environment of the Georgia Dome.
The Falcons allowed 100 or more yards rushing for the 10th consecutive game with the 112-yard effort by the Packers offense on Sunday. Given that they were allowing an average of 168.8 yards over the previous nine games, relatively speaking, that is an improvement.
But if the Falcons contained Eddie Lacy and the Packers' rushing attack, it likely had as much to do with Lacy suffering an injury just before halftime as it did with any improvements made by the defense.
Next week, the Falcons won't get any slack as they face another physical back in Alfred Morris for the Washington Redskins. In fact, the Falcons won't have any breaks with upcoming games against the San Francisco 49ers and Carolina Panthers to close out the season. We will get to see if the Falcons' run defense is really making strides to finish the season.
Young Players in Secondary Step Up
If Sunday's loss to Green Bay is any indicator, Atlanta is prepping for a youth movement in the secondary next year.
Left cornerback Asante Samuel did not play, as he gave way to rookie Robert Alford. Thomas DeCoud suffered a concussion early in the game, and the team asked rookie Zeke Motta to step in at free safety.
The results were mixed. Alford got beaten a few times, including on a 46-yard catch by Jordy Nelson. Motta made some nice plays against the run, but he also got beaten by Andrew Quarless on a touchdown pass. Alford's play won't be too much of a deterrent from the Falcons turning the keys over to him next season as a starter, since he's been productive for much of his first year in Atlanta.
Motta's status is a bit more up in the air. Thomas DeCoud's contract is structured so that it might prompt the Falcons to part ways with him next spring after a disappointing 2013 season. If DeCoud is rested for another week due to the league's concussion protocol, it could give Motta another opportunity to showcase himself against Washington.
On the other side of the field, rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant finished only his second game this season without a pass breakup. But that was mostly because the Packers seemed to be avoiding him, thus reflecting Trufant's continued development into one of the better young cover corners in the league.