Where are you watching the game this Sunday night? Nik Kovac and Keith Gaustad will be providing live play by play and color commentary from the famous backroom stage at Linneman’s, with all video action on a screen as big as the wall. Jim Linneman himself, as always, will be in the sound booth.
For the third time since last Halloween the Green Bay Packers will be in downtown Atlanta. During the previous eight quarters of football, the Packers and the Atlanta Falcons combined kicked just nine punts.
And scored 17 touchdowns.
Both teams defended the Atlanta turf about as well as General Joseph Johnston in the summer of 1864.
Neither defense was much good against anybody last year, as both were in the bottom third of most defensive rankings for the season.
So that means the front offices in Georgia and Wisconsin made wholesale changes to improve that side of the ball, right? No, it doesn’t. Each team will only have one new defensive starter on Sunday: beefy Dontari Poe for the Falcons, and rangy Davon House for the Packers.
Last Sunday, the Falcon defense ended the drama at Soldier Field with a game-deciding sack, but only after two different Bears did them the favor of dropping the winning touchdown on consecutive snaps with seconds to go. The Bears…
Here are the names and jersey numbers of Falcons to watch on Sunday night:
Even though #44 Vic Beasley led the NFL in sacks last season and is the nominal starter at left end, he is not the focal point of this defense. The 246-pounder is a high-effort guy who isn’t big enough to beat tackles, but is fast and aware enough to catch scrambling quarterbacks. He did this again when Mike Glennon stepped up in the pocket last week. Without even touching the right tackle or guard, he zagged in front of them once he saw (but they didn’t) the QB’s happy feet behind them.
The other starting end is 256-pound #50 Brooks Reed, who picked up an easy sack on Sunday when he switched from the left to the right side and the Bears forgot to block him. The Bears still suck.
Inside the ends the poundage goes way up. Three-hundred-forty-six-pound nose tackle #92 Dontari Poe took $8 million for a one-year deal to leave the Chiefs, and next to him is 305-pound #97 Grady Jarrett, who will line up over the weak-side guard on most plays. The Falcons also offered $3 million guaranteed this offseason so #95 Jack Crawford would leave Dallas and rotate in at tackle.
New coordinator Marquand Manuel (who played safety for the Packers back in 2006) rotates in a total of nine guys for the four line spots. In the game last October, it was Beasley’s 280-pound backup #99 Adrian Claybourn who gave Aaron Rodgers the most trouble. This Sunday, I expect it will be rookie #98 Takkarist McKinley. The Falcons traded their first and second round picks to go up and get the 250-pounder who runs faster than Ladarius Gunter and benches more reps than Kyle Murphy. In his limited snaps on Sunday, he walked back the left tackle several times with pure and sudden power.
Behind the beef up front the Falcons get really skinny and really young. The two starters at middle linebacker are #59 De’Vondre Campbell, who stretches 234 pounds across his 6’3″ inch frame, and #45 Deion Jones, who is smaller (6’1″, 222) than many safeties. They also regularly play safety #22 Keanu Neal (6’0″, 211) as a nitro package linebacker. All three of these guys were drafted 16 months ago in the first four rounds, and they have the speed that such youth and pedigree imply.
The starting corners were drafted in the first two rounds five drafts ago, and both have been paid handsomely to hang around. #23 Robert Alford was given $9.5 million per year two offseasons ago, and #21 Desmond Trufant almost $14 million per year this offseason. Neither of them are worth that much.
The Falcon offense was historically good last season, scoring 33.8 points per game (7th most ever), earning their quarterback, #2 Matt Ryan, the league MVP award. In truth, the two most valuable players on this offense are wide receiver #11 Julio Jones and running back #24 Devonta Freeman.
Jones is an all-world talent without compare in the league. Freeman is now the highest-paid running back in the league after threatening a holdout. He’s not worth quite that honor, but his jump cuts inside and his speed to the edge are unique. Both Freeman and his backup #26 Tevin Coleman are also serious threats in the passing game. #12 Mohamed Sanu is a cagey veteran possession receiver who torched the Packers in both games last season, and #18 Taylor Gabriel is little used but always a threat to go deep, which puts pressure on the safeties even when he’s not the target.
Both of the tight ends are slow and neither can block. But #81 Austin Hooper is tough to tackle, and #80 Levine Toilolo is freakishly tall (6’8″), which makes any defense nervous near the goal line.
All five of their offensive lineman were healthy for all 19 games last year, and this season four of them return. The one who didn’t is right guard, and last Sunday #71 Wes Schweitzer was a turnstile against the Bears’ Akiem Hicks. That tape is making Mike Daniels salivate.
HOW THE PACKERS MATCH UP
This offensive line will be a real test for Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark. If they can penetrate and two-gap as much as they did against Seattle, then we’ll know this defense might be good. Atlanta is weak at right guard but strong at center. #51 Alex Mack calls their protections and he is poring over our Seahawks tape as you read this. If he can’t scheme a way to stop our defensive tackles, look out league!
Of course, the biggest test will be their passing game, where someone always seems to be running wide open on a crossing or underneath route. There are two reasons to think the Packers can change that this time:
1.) Atlanta’s offensive mastermind, Kyle Shanahan, left to take the head job in San Francisco. His replacement, Steve Sarkisian, couldn’t even fill in successfully for Lane Kiffin at Alabama last January against Clemson. Before that, he was fired by USC for showing up drunk to practice in 2015. It’s possible the schematic magic that allowed even lead-blocking fullbacks to catch passes for 31 yards against us is gone.
2.) Ladarius Gunter and Micah Hyde are no longer Packers, and Damarius Randall and Quentin Rollins now have healthy groins so they can move suddenly and laterally. Our secondary was either painfully slow last year (Gunter and Hyde) or literally in pain with every step (Randall and Rollins). Adding House and Kevin King and surgically repairing the others could make all the difference.
On offense, this is a game Aaron Rodgers has been waiting for since 44-21 happened last January. He played the second half of that game like an angry, wounded animal—while leading three consecutive touchdown drives—and I expect the emotions and the scars are still raw. Watching Brett Hundley hand off to Christine Michael as the clock ticked down is an image still burning bright in his photographic memory.
Our bevy of receiving options can certainly beat these safeties on most plays, and probably the corners, too, sometimes. If Ty Montgomery can squeeze past the upfront beef, he is stronger than anybody he will confront on the second and third levels.
Deion Jones ended our first drive last January with a well-timed A gap blitz. Unless the Falcons have some more tricks like that up their sleeve, the Packers offense should be able to burn their way through Georgia without even waiting for supply lines.
THE BITTER SOUTH
The Civil War is back in the headlines over 160 years after what seemed like the final surrender at the time. Confederate statues and flags are still littered across the defeated South, and even the victorious North now has proud pockets of sympathizers for the Old South.
We all know—on both sides—what this is fundamentally about: the undistant legacy of slavery and unrepentant white supremacy.
The city of Atlanta has been at the intersection of social justice and institutional racism since before it was a city. In 1843 it was merely the terminus of the Western & Atlantic Railroad, coming down from the mountains, and before that it was nowhere.
Just 21 years later it was burned to the ground—except for five churches—and this was the strategic pivot upon which the Civil War was won.
Booker T. Washington announced the “Atlanta Compromise” in 1895 (the same year the first football arrived in Green Bay), during which he agreed to segregation and discrimination in exchange for access to education. W.E.B du Bois would accept no such accommodation. In 1906 he stood with a rifle on his downtown Atlanta porch to protect his wife and children from a white lynch mob that would kill over two dozen.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was born and raised in Atlanta, and his offices during the Civil Rights Movement were just a few blocks from where the Falcons shiny new stadium now sits.
In 1973 Atlanta elected Maynard Jackson, Jr. the first black mayor of a major southern city. Jackson was the great-great-great grandson of a Georgia state legislator, because that man raped his great-great-great grandmother on an antebellum plantation.
It is almost impossible to believe that we have neighbors in this country who are not horrified by this history. And yet it is obvious there are so many of them. If you would like to see a southern voice for justice in 2017, go to this link.
The Bitter Southerner is a publication and website attempting to inspire a better southerner. Perhaps that will also inspire us. The North is much too bitter lately.