Just like a year ago, the Pack opens its road schedule in a shiny, brand new stadium. This time around, it’s the $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz stadium in Atlanta, where the Falcons will play a home game under stars for the first time since 1991.
It’s got everything you want: a rematch of the NFC title game, a matchup of two of the past three MVPs and plenty of star power. It’s also the third meeting between these teams in less than a year–with every game in Atlanta.
This one looks to be the toughest on this year’s schedule, with the Pack playing the unusual role as an underdog. The biggest storyline is the health of the Pack’s tackles. As I write this on Friday morning, it sounds like Bryan Bulaga will miss his second game (he’s been battling the flu, along with his ankle injury). News of David Bakhtiari’s hamstring injury caught us off-guard; he suffered the injury when he did the splits on a play against the Seahawks. He’s been able to practice, though he’s been limited. We’ll hope he’s able to go and finish, or this one might not be close. With Jason Spriggs sidelined indefinitely with a hamstring injury, the Pack was forced to activate Adam Pankey as the emergency third (or second) tackle this week.
Which brings us to this week’s roster changes: out go Francois and Gunter and in come Pankey and Geronimo Allison. Think about it: the guy who was tasked with covering Julio Jones in the title game (he held him nine catches, 180 yards and two TDs) is no longer on the roster. We’ll find out Sunday night if the Pack’s D has an answer this time around. Francois became expendable when Quinton Dial signed and Montravius Adams healed up.
With the injury issues at tackle, the Pack’s offensive game plan should look a little different. I expect Ty Montgomery to get 25-30 touches. The Bears averaged 6.6 yards per carry against the Falcons D last week, a unit that’s speedy but undersized. You can pound away at them and wear them down. They also give up lots of yards to running backs as receivers. Bears rookie Tarik Cohen caught eight balls for 47 yards last week. Last season, they gave up the most yards and receptions to backs–James White was historically good against them in the Super Bowl.
Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson saw most of the targets last week, but this feels like a Davante Adams week, a guy hungry to play these guys again, after being mostly a spectator in the last meeting, thanks to an ankle injury sustained against the Cowboys. It feels like the tight ends will have to do more blocking than running routes, but we’ll see how the tackles are holding up.
The Falcons pass rush is no joke and Vic Beasley has to be salivating to potentially go up against Kyle Murphy. The young right tackle held up well after a rough start last week. Talk about a tough way to start your career. The strength of the Falcons D is its line, with Brooks Reed (two sacks last week) complementing Beasley. The unit is led by a new coordinator, former Packer Marquand Manuel, and the scheme is like Seahawks-lite: a lot of the same principles without the same level of talent.
On the other side of the ball, we’ll get a much truer sense of where the Pack’s defense is in this game. The opener gave us lots of hope, with the Seahawks running game held in check (except for one or two Wilson scrambles), the pass rush in Wilson’s face all day and very solid tackling from the linebackers and secondary. But the Seahawks notoriously start slowly offensively, were missing their best back and have one of the league’s worst offensive lines. The Falcons are as explosive as any offense in the league.
It starts up front, where center Alex Mack runs the show and leads a solid unit that features Clay’s brother Jake–that matchup is always front and center when these teams meet. The weakness is at right guard, where Wes Schweitzer appeared overmatched in his first start–Akiem Hicks beat him for a pair of sacks.
But the offense saw its leader, Kyle Shanahan, leave for a head job and the keys were handed to Steve Sarkisian, who a year ago was competing in the SEC at Alabama. His offense was lethargic in the opener against the Bears, unable to run the ball and only targeted Jones five times (he caught four, for 66 yards).
They’ll make it a point to throw at Jones early and often and we’ll get our first glimpse at whether Davon House is up to the challenge. The Pack will have to give him some safety help, but with all of the other weapons that will free someone else up to make plays. Mohammed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel are also dangerous; tight end Austin Hooper beat the Bears for an 88 yard touchdown, so he is a weapon as well.
The Pack feels they have made some defensive upgrades that will prevent them from scoring at will as they did in the two matchups last year (75 points two games). Matt Ryan has feasted on the Pack in his career, averaging 351 yards passing in the last three matchups. The key is to make him uncomfortable–knock him down a few times, get him off his spot. If Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark can approach last week’s performances, he could be forced into a couple of mistakes.
I do think that a couple of intangibles fall the Pack’s way in this one. Teams that are raising banners, getting rings or unveiling new stadiums tend to lose some focus and don’t always perform their best; not to mention, the Packers’ defense has been hearing for eight months about what happened the last time these teams met. They’re itching to show the NFL world that this is a new season.
If Bakhtiari is able to start and finish the game, I think the Pack has a great chance to spring the mild upset, with Montgomery totaling more than 150 yards from scrimmage. But in what will be a loud, raucous environment, one special teams mistake could spell doom and last week didn’t give me a ton of confidence in those units.
Falcons 23 Packers 21