The Green Bay Packers have shown tremendous resiliency during an injury-plagued year when many experts predicted they would go to the Super Bowl.
The Packers still have the talent to make it to the Super Bowl, and their depth represents not only superb scouting but also great practice coaching.
On Saturday they play the Atlanta Falcons, a team that defeated the Packers earlier in the year by sticking to a discipline scheme and brilliantly using play-by-play adjustments to win during the last minute of the game.
With minutes remaining in close games, the Falcons have proven to be unstoppable while the Packers have continuously struggled to win close games during Mike McCarthy’s tenure as coach.
As a result, it is extremely important for the Packers to control the clock and the game on Saturday if they hope to win.
Listed below are five things the Packers must do to win the Divisional matchup on Saturday:
Take Risks Early
The Packers are not only playing in the Georgia Dome, but they are also playing a team that consistently wins close games—quite the opposite of the Packers under Coach Mike McCarthy. Attacking the Falcons early may not only quiet the fans, but it may also force Atlanta Coach Mike Smith to adjust his game plan and leave the Falcons vulnerable.
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Kick for the Touchback; Punt Short and High
The Packers would be 13-3 if they had even average special teams-coverage. With all that depth, the Packers have the players so it boils down to poor special teams coaching. Special teams coverage has been the dagger in most of the Packers losses this season, and the playoffs are not the right time to try and get it together. It would be better for the Packers to count on their defense to stop teams than to give up significant field position on coverage.
Play Charles Woodson Up
The Packers are comfortable having Tramon Williams cover Roddy White and should be able to handle any other wide receiver the Falcons have on the field. Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez was the difference maker during their last meeting despite applying decent pressure on Atlanta QB Matt Ryan.
Ryan is a cerebral QB but doesn’t necessarily have the arm strength or accuracy to successfully throw into close coverage. Woodson is a disciplined tackler who is also capable of blitzing and outside containment. Having Woodson play “blanket” coverage on Gonzalez during third downs would force Ryan to take more chances in the passing game, thus lowering his completion percentage. This would also force Atlanta to recognize both Woodson and Mathews as legitimate threats on the left side.
On key running plays, Woodson could slide over to the right and provide outside containment which would free up LB A.J. Hawk to pursue running plays between the guard and tackle. A lack of outside containment and proper tackling position allowed Turner to convert several key third downs and score a touchdown the last time these two teams met.
Manage the Clock, West Coast Style
After losing to the Redskins and Dolphins, the Packers went on a four-game winning streak by going back to the basics—short, chain moving passes that control the clock. McCarthy drafted big receivers like James Jones and Jordy Nelson based on the commitment to use the West Coast-style offense and hope that his receivers can break some tackles.
Slowly, McCarthy has gone back to four wide receiver sets and 10-plus yard passes which proved to be difficult without a running game. The exception was New England and the Packers offense did exceptionally well.
Rookie RB James Starks may have provided hope against the Eagles, but the Eagles defense has been mediocre at best against the run. The Falcons are a disciplined and well-coached team that will be ready for Starks. The Packers can keep the Falcons defense off-balance by using quick, short passes to open up the running game and eventually throw the long ball.
Coach McCarthy must be at the top of his game to manage the Packers and the clock. He is going against one of the best coaches in the business, Mike Smith, who has a knack for getting the ball in Matt Ryan’s hands during the last minute of the game.
McCarthy must use his second-half timeouts wisely—preferably saving them for the last two minutes of the game. The Packers defense must cover the short yardage passes to Gonzalez or Turner if the game is close in the final minutes, not play soft prevent. Smith is one of the best game coaches in football and always wants to “strike last” by patiently using clock management to gain first downs until the Falcons are in scoring range.