In their Week 12 meeting at the Georgia Dome, the Green Bay Packers held the Atlanta Falcons well below their season averages in points (20), yards (294) and first downs (19). Packed within the game, however, was a revealing strategy that directly impacted the Falcons' victory.
Quarterback Matt Ryan threw only four incompletions in the entire game, the result of a concerted attempt to exploit the Packers' short-range defense. Of his 28 attempts, 21 traveled 10 yards or fewer in the air, according to ESPN Stats & Information. As the chart shows, Ryan was nearly perfect on those passes.
Add those numbers to a powerful performance from tailback Michael Turner, who ran for 110 yards on 23 carries, and you see the Falcons won with a conservative but highly efficient approach. It paid off particularly on their final drive, when Ryan completed four passes -- for a total of 20 yards -- to get in position for Matt Bryant's game-winning 47-yard field goal.
Packers players have expressed disappointment in their tackling during that game, and this week coach Mike McCarthy said "it was clearly one of our worst" tackling efforts of the season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Turner averaged 5.8 yards per carry even when the Packers dropped eight (or more) defenders into the box.
"We didn't tackle very well," McCarthy said. "They ran the ball extremely well with their big people on the field. That's something we need to do a better job of."
You could blame the Packers' tackling in that particular game, but overall that has not been a big issue for them this season. So did the Falcons simply overpower them? You could certainly make that argument, at least in the running game. With Turner churning out yards no matter what defensive alignment he faced, Ryan didn't have to take many risks.
"They won last time and were successful doing it," Packers defensive end Ryan Pickett told reporters in Green Bay this week. "You would think they would do something similar. We're looking forward to it. We'll be much better this time than we were last [time]."
It's unrealistic to believe the Falcons will take that exact game plan into Saturday night's affair. All games stand on their own merits. Regardless, it will be interesting to see what Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers will do to prevent Ryan from settling into another comfort zone.
In Week 12, Capers sent at least five pass-rushers on nearly 40 percent of Ryan's dropbacks. But he completed 10 of 12 passes in those situations, and for the season, Ryan threw 14 touchdown passes and only four interceptions when opponents sent extra pressure against him.
We've spent some time this week discussing the balance of the Packers' offense, the carrot fate has dangled in front of them and their past issues with instant replay at the Georgia Dome. But to me, herein lies the Packers' biggest challenge in Saturday night's game. It's hard to imagine them winning if Ryan coolly deals the way he did in Week 12.