Falcons' run game overpowers Packers
But Rodgers is not the reason for Green Bay's 2-3 start. After five weeks, Rodgers has been a solid if unspectacular player, but the Packers have slumped due to an inability to run the ball or stop the run. This week, their defense was overpowered by Michael Turner and the Falcons' young offensive line.
The Falcons' 3-2 start is even more surprising than the Packers' struggles. Atlanta was 4-12 last season and ranked 28th in the Football Outsiders DVOA rankings. They cleaned house, jettisoning former Pro Bowlers DeAngelo Hall and Alge Crumpler. They shied away from the glitzy names in hiring Mike Smith to be their head coach. They entrusted their team to a rookie quarterback, Matt Ryan. The team screamed "rebuilding project."
On Sunday, this supposedly rebuilding team physically dominated a preseason Super Bowl contender. The Falcons' offensive line imposed its will on the Packers' beleaguered defense, which was missing defensive end Cullen Jenkins and safety Atari Bigby, two of the team's top run-stuffers. Additionally, linebacker A.J. Hawk battled a sore groin and was effectively a nonentity. The Falcons gained 176 yards on the ground despite facing eight and even nine men in the box to stop the run.
This dominating performance by Atlanta's run game would have been hard to imagine a month ago but was easy to predict given Green Bay's 2008 performance. This year's Packers are having a terrible time stopping the running game. They rank 26th in run defense DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average). Meanwhile, the Falcons are the second-best running attack in football.
That's very different from last year, when the Packers ranked eighth in run defense and the Falcons 29th in run offense. The Packers' struggles are injury-related, while the Falcons' offseason personnel changes are revitalizing the running attack. Turner is paying immediate dividends, providing big-play ability from the running back position and fighting for tough yards on a consistent basis. His signing seemed odd for a team with the excellent Jerious Norwood and a plethora of other needs, but through five weeks, Turner is earning his big paycheck.
On the offensive line, the changes have also been successful -- and less expected. The Falcons have two new starters in rookie Sam Baker at left tackle and Harvey Dahl at right guard. Baker, in particular, is playing at a very high level. He dominated the Packers' defensive end rotation. Baker missed the Carolina game, and Atlanta was held to nine points.
Meanwhile, Ryan has exceeded all reasonable expectations. According to DVOA, Ryan has been an above-average quarterback through five weeks. "Above-average" may not sound special, but it is fantastically rare for a rookie. Only four rookies since 1995 have been above average, and all those quarterbacks were surrounded by superior talent. Peyton Manning, Charlie Batch, Byron Leftwich and Ben Roethlisberger were all surrounded by Pro Bowl, if not Hall of Fame, skill players. Ryan is doing this with Turner and Roddy White as his main weapons, two players with talent but without long track records.
White had a monster first half on Sunday, portending further struggles for the Packers. To date, the Packers' pass defense has been adequate. The injury to cornerback Al Harris, however, is crippling to a team that is heavily reliant on man-to-man coverage. Second-year player Tramon Williams is the new starter, and Will Blackmon has been thrust into the role of nickel corner. Both players have some ability but are not yet ready to play at the consistent level required of a Green Bay corner. Even the remaining Pro Bowl corner, Charles Woodson, struggled at times early in the game against White.
Things could get worse before they get better. The Packers' massive decline in run defense, in large part due to injuries, means too many resources must be devoted to stopping the run. Until they can consistently stop the run with their front seven, the secondary will not have the support it needs to avoid being exploited.
The big remaining question is what these surprising starts tell us about these teams' long-term prospects. Through five games, they have both played at a similar level. The Falcons' softer schedule has them at 3-2, while the Packers sit at 2-3. The Falcons' defense is not good, and relying on an offense with a rookie quarterback is a dangerous proposition. Next week, they host the Bears and their excellent defense. If the Falcons can topple Chicago, it certainly will be time to take them seriously.
For Green Bay, three road games and a home date with Indianapolis in the next four games mean the Packers could be under .500 when they host division rival Chicago in Week 11. If Rodgers is on the field and playing the way he has to date, just remember that their struggles are about a great deal more than their quarterback play.
Ned Macey writes for FootballOutsiders.com
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