Wide receivers play in an interesting role in football games. Much like time bombs, you can hear them ticking, you know what their capabilities, so you try to stay away and not make it “go off”. A receiver can go the whole game without making one catch. He can run route after route without any targets, and still have an enormous impact on the game just by his presence alone. Just look at Randy Moss in his prime. One receiver can cause defenses to shift and double cover, leaving gaping holes on the field.
The NFL seems to be stretching more toward a passing league, and the Packers seem to have effortlessly mastered this trend, which is one of the key reasons they dominated the Falcons last year in the play-offs, and went on to win the glory as Super Bowl Champions. In order to run such an offense, you must have dynamic, impact players who can get the ball quick and get up field. Both the Packers and the Falcons have these types of players, but we will see Sunday night how each team puts them to use.
When you compare the Falcons receiving core with the Packers, it is like comparing two different knives from the set and style.
If you pick up two steak knives and cut into a New York strip, don’t they perform the same task in the same manner? Look at Greg Jennings and Roddy White; Both excellent route running veterans with glue-like hands (minus the fact that Roddy White is leading the NFL in drops with five) who can slice through defenses and can stretch the field, yet can also work as possession receivers. It is no coincidence that Roddy White and Greg Jennings are back to back on the receptions leaderboard in the NFL, ranking second (Roddy White-26 rec.) and fourth (Greg Jennings-25 rec.) respectively. Roddy, however, has been hampered a bit this season due to a deep thigh bruise. Anyone who has dealt with this injury knows that it only takes time to heal. Unfortunately it is one of those injuries that tends to linger on for weeks, but if White can gain the explosion back, that bomb could finally take out the Packers.
Looking at the other side of the offense, the Packers line up normally with Donald Driver as their second receiver. He is hampered by a knee injury, so we could see anyone from Jordy Nelson to James Jones lining up in this spot. That said, the Falcons line up with their highly touted rookie Julio Jones as their second receiver. Last week in the Seattle victory we finally saw what Jones was truly capable of. Although not the best route runner yet, he tore into the Seahawks defense with 127 yards on 11 receptions, highlighted by his 45 yard snag to kick off the second half. Jones has one of the largest upsides in the league (one of the reasons the Falcons gave up so much to get him), and last week was hopefully just a preview of that. Don’t count on Jones giving you an Oscar winning performance against the Packers, but anticipate him playing a large role, if not the lead.
Although I think the wide outs will play get their touches, I think the game is won or lost in the middle of the field. These two teams field two of the best tight ends in football: Future first ballot Hall-of-Famer Tony Gonzalez and the Packers magnetic handed brick, Jermichael Finley. Gonzalez has been torching the NFL for 15 years now. His unique ability to post people up downfield has allowed him to dunk many a ball through the goal posts. Finley, on the other hand, uses his superior size and receiver-like quickness to do his damage. He will be a big test for our linebackers and safeties to match up with, but it will be great practice for when we have to match up with the dreaded Saints and their Goliath tight-end Jimmy Graham.
I believe the true test comes when matching up with the slot position. A few years back we drafted a fantastic receiver out of the University of Louisville by the name of Harry Douglass. With his Wes Welker like speed and shiftiness, he took the NFL by storm by returning kicks and making big gains by finding the holes in the secondary, just like he did in college. He was able to be that safety receiver that Matt Ryan could turn to and rely on when he needed help. He was Ryan’s “easy button” when the Falcons needed a pivotal play. The Packers however have found their own “easy button”; A rookie out of the University of Kentucky named Randall Cobb. Cobb has shown his punch. On opening night, he embarrassed the Saints not once, but twice for touchdowns. One of the touchdowns was a 108 yard kick return that punched the Saints right in the gut, causing them to lose their breath, momentum, and eventually the game. Douglass and Cobb should have so much in common this year, however so far they don’t. Cobb has only seven receptions this year, but those seven receptions total 148 yards and 1 touchdown. That is just over 21 yards per catch! Douglass on the other hand has nine receptions for just 64 yards, yet he is our fourth leading receiver (12 receptions under Gonzalez who is third). We need Douglass to be the player he was before his injury. We need him to step into that “easy button” role again to take some of the pressure off of the offensive line, the running game, and most importantly, Matt Ryan.
Looking at the personnel, these teams seem very even at wide receiver. The Falcons have put a lot of stock into the passing game this year, counting on the evolution of Matt Ryan but also the expansion of their playbook. If the offensive line can keep Ryan on his feet and comfortable Sunday night, look for the Falcons receivers to explode in this heated revenge game.