Yesterday, I started previewing the NFC Championship Game between the Packers and Falcons by taking an (admittedly, pointless) look at where each team had advantages at each position on offense. Today, I’ll look at the defense.
First, analyzing a defense’s strengths and weaknesses is always harder than an offenses. Defenses act as a single unit more than offenses and they are also usually more reactionary (run-pass options aside). Because an offense can decide whether a particular play is a pass or run and where the ball is going, every individual player has a specific job on that play that they know before the ball is snapped. On defense, each player’s job may change depending on if the play is a run or pass and where particular offensive players go.
That’s a long way of saying that individual defensive players are generally more reliant on the talent around them and therefore, more difficult to evaluate. But onward we march, regardless!
Interior Defensive Line
Falcons: Jonathan Babineaux, Grady Jarrett, Courtney Upshaw
Packers: Mike Daniels, Letroy Guion, Kenny Clark, Dean Lowry
Mike Daniels may be the strongest player in the NFL – at least it seems that way. Watch Tyron Smith try to cut block him, only to have Daniels shove him away and make the tackle. That’s the signature move of four-time Pro-Bowler, 2016 All-Pro left tackle, possibly-the-best-lineman-in-the-league Tyron Smith. In fact, Pro Football Focus named Smith’s cut block as the seventh most unstoppable force in the league before the season. Apparently, Daniels’ two-hand shove is a even less “stoppable”.
Banineaux is a fine player himself, but he doesn’t have the game-wrecking ability that Daniels does. The Falcons are extremely athletic all over their defense, but the Packers are better on the nose.
Falcons: Vic Beasley, Brooks Reed, Tyson Jackson, Dwight Freeney
Packers: Nick Perry, Julius Peppers, Clay Matthews, Datone Jones
Beasley led the league in sacks this season and has taken a huge leap forward in his second year. He’s the best player on the Falcons defense and they could be relying on him to get the Packers offense off the field with a sack or forced fumble. And he might do just that! Buuuuuut, he’s cooled off a bit. He’s accrued just three solo tackles and one sack over his last three games and last week had just two assisted tackles. I think he’ll be a great NFL player, but at this point, I think he’s still able to be game-planned out of a big game.
Nick Perry is the Packers’ answer on defense. He’s probably not as good as Beasley, but the Packers run much deeper here. Where the Packers can put edge rushers all over the field with Perry, Clay Matthews, ageless Julius Peppers, and Datone Jones, the Falcons follow Beasley with Brooks Reed (Clay Matthews-lite), Tyson Jackson, and ageless-but-not-quite-as-much Dwight Freeney.
Falcons: Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell
Packers: Jake Ryan, Blake Martinez, Joe Thomas
Man, this is a young group. Ryan is the only one of the four starters (Jones, Cambell, Ryan, and Martinez) who isn’t a rookie, and he’s just a second-year player with almost exclusively special teams experience. Thomas comes in as a nickel player and is usually effective, but nobody here is someone the opposing offense should worry too much about.
Falcons: Robert Alford, Brian Poole, Ricardo Allen, Keanu Neal, Jalen Collins,
Packers: LaDarius Gunter, Demarious Randall, Micah Hyde, Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix, Morgan Burnett, Kentrell Brice, Josh Hawkins
While the Packers list of guys here is unfortunately long, the Falcons only played five different players in the secondary last week. Brice was fine after Burnett went down with an injury, but the Packers really need him back healthy this week and it’s still unclear if they’ll get that. Green Bay has suffered from injuries and terrible cornerback play all season, but Clinton-Dix and Burnett have been the main reason the pass defense has been arguably passable (pun intended).
LaDarius Gunter has faced off with Odell Beckham Jr. and Dez Bryant already this playoffs and now he’ll get another top-tier wideout in Julio Jones. He worked out Odell well and wasn’t terrible against Bryant, despite the big wideout’s impressive stat line. If Gunter can slow down Jones even a little bit, that’s a huge win for the Packers.
Micah Hyde’s playmaking abilities are the Packers’ Vic Beasley equivalent, insofar as he could stop one or two Falcons drives and that could be enough to win, with how both offenses are playing.
Despite all that, the Falcons have more consistent corners and safety play that’s just as class as what the Packers provide. With all the injuries the Packers are nursing in the secondary, as well as their receiving corps, I could see Allen and Neal having particularly good games.