Offense with Arthur Smith is not fun. It’s not fun for fantasy players, who have to watch top-10 draft picks run clear-out routes. It’s not fun for Drake London, who did not register a catch in Week 1. And it’s not fun for defensive fronts, who are subjected to 60 minutes of extreme physicality between the hashes. The third-year Atlanta Falcons head coach has made it clear he isn’t going to change. And now that he has the personnel to fully run his ground-heavy scheme, he’s leaning into it more than ever.
After dismantling the Carolina Panthers with a two-headed monster of Bijan Robinson and Tyler Allgeier, the Falcons will test their mettle against the Packers’ defense in Week 2. Green Bay is coming off an impressive performance on both sides of the ball, surpassing expectations by a significant margin. If the Chicago Bears could’ve had it their way, they would have leaned on Justin Fields‘s legs and a backfield committee led by Khalil Herbert. However, a large deficit forced them to turn to the passing game. Given Desmond Ridder’s limitations as a passer, such is likely the blueprint for another Packers victory.
In 2017, the Packers marched into Mercedes-Benz Stadium to play for a chance at a Super Bowl. Aaron Rodgers had dragged his team to the NFC Championship Game once again, but there was no answer for Atlanta’s league-leading offense, no matter what he did. Dan Quinn’s administration was operating as the antithesis of Arthur Smith’s new scheme. Matt Ryan aired the ball out nearly every play, and almost every time he found future Hall of Famer Julio Jones, who Ladarius Gunter (undrafted, 4.6 40 time) covered. Jones finished with nine catches for 180 yards and two scores.
It was just two years later that Rodgers led the Packers back to the semifinals, only to have their defense dismantled in the opposite fashion. Raheem Mostert rushed for 220 yards and four touchdowns. There was simply no answer for the level of physicality that Kyle Shanahan’s offense could administer.
Since Brian Gutekunst took over as GM, he has injected Joe Barry’s unit with first-round pick after first-round pick. Expectations have slowly crept up each year. But without Rodgers to save them, this is the year that they have to step up and become the team’s strength. The absolute mauling at Soldier Field was rife with flashes of what they can accomplish this season. De’Vondre Campbell and Quay Walker were laying the wood. Jaire Alexander held D.J. Moore to two innocuous catches. Lukas Van Ness chased down Fields, Rashan Gary dominated in his limited snaps, and Rasul Douglas violently blew up screen pass after screen pass.
The defense has come a long way from the helplessness they displayed in those two pivotal games. Alexander’s ascension to every top-five corners list essentially guarantees that no receiver will put up a stat line like Jones did that fateful day. Additionally, his ability to guard London on an island will allow Barry to train more personnel to Robinson, Allgeier, and the ground game. It’s an excellent test of whether Green Bay has finally made the leap from a soft, permeable defense to a group of bruisers. It’s also a dream matchup for Quay, aside from the fact that he’s recovering from a concussion. It’s hard to remember saying that about a Packers linebacker in recent years.
After Aaron Jones sat out of practice on Friday, the offense is being threatened with another challenge. He and Christian Watson have officially been ruled questionable for Sunday. Without Watson in Chicago, Jordan Love relied heavily on Jones, who churned out 4.6 yards per carry and took a pair of short passes for 86 yards and a score. It was a group effort, with Romeo Doubs, Jayden Reed, and Luke Musgrave contributing. However, Jones was undoubtedly the star of the show.
If Jones is unable to go, which appears to be the likely outcome, A.J. Dillon will take over as the primary ball carrier. Dillon received quite a bit of criticism after his carries were noticeably less helpful than Jones’, and his limitations were evident when LaFleur called lateral runs like sweep and toss plays. He’s a physical runner who can bear a large workload, but it will fall on Reed or undrafted rookie Emanuel Wilson to provide some dynamism.
The market has been back and forth with this game, as both teams have been -2 favorites at some point in the last 48 hours. As it stands, the moneyline is looking very similar to last week, with the Packers as slight underdogs. Most importantly, Vegas has Green Bay’s team total at 19.5 – partially due to injury, and partially due to how much it would take for Atlanta to repeat the defensive disasterclass that the Bears put forth. The defense is going to have to do a lot for the Packers to win, and it’s going to take nothing more, and nothing less, than elite physicality.