That's what made the Packers' poor tackling in a couple of costly instances in Atlanta all the more disheartening, because the Packers installed a daily "team tackling" period in practice as far back as spring workouts and carried it through training camp and the regular season. It's still a part of the three-day practice week (Wednesday through Friday) at this stage of the season.
But on two crucial third downs Sunday against the Falcons, the Packers' tackling fundamentals deserted them. And in both situations, Atlanta went on to drive for their two touchdowns in the game.
The first instance came late in the second quarter. With the score tied at 3, the Falcons faced third-and-19 from their own 48-yard line. The Packers rushed only three and dropped eight into coverage, the idea being they would give up the short pass, come up and make the tackle well short of the first down, and force a punt. It's the type of defensive call coordinator Dom Capers has employed with great results all season.
When the coverage downfield prompted Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan to dump the ball off to his left to fullback Ovie Mughelli, it looked as though it would work again. But both cornerback Charles Woodson and safety Charlie Peprah had clear shots at Mughelli as he made his way up the sideline and whiffed. Not until safety Nick Collins knocked Mughelli out of bounds was he stopped, but by then he had gained 16 yards.
Passing on what would have been a 54-yard field goal, the Falcons decided to go for it on fourth-and-3, converted with a completion to tight end Tony Gonzalez, and five plays later were in the end zone to take a 10-3 halftime lead.
"I think if we make that tackle for 10 yards, then they're punting the football rather than going for it," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "We just have to do a better job of leverage, inside-out, outside-in, and getting them on the ground in that situation."
The other situation was in the third quarter. The Packers had just tied the game at 10 and the Falcons faced third-and-9 from their own 21. Against good coverage downfield, Ryan again took the checkdown throw to running back Jason Snelling.
Linebacker Frank Zombo had the first shot at Snelling for what would have been a 4- or 5-yard gain, but he slipped right off of him, and linebackers Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk couldn't get Snelling down until he had gained 10 yards and moved the chains.
So instead of punting from inside their own 30 in a tie game, the Falcons kept a drive alive that ended up lasting 14 plays and nearly 8 minutes. Michael Turner's fourth-and-goal run from the 1 on the second snap of the fourth quarter put Atlanta back in front 17-10.
"You take those two situations, those are two situations you work your tail off to get them in third-and-9, get them into third-and-19, and you can't let them convert it or get to where they can go for it on fourth down," Capers said.
"We weren't as sharp. Some things we've been very, very sharp and very disciplined. That's what makes for a good defense, and we had a few of those errors show up yesterday that hadn't showed up in the last three weeks. But I also think we were playing a good offensive football team, and we knew going in that this was going to be our greatest challenge."
Challenges like the Falcons make for the worst times to have fundamental lapses, and that definitely cost the Packers on Sunday.
"We do tackling drills three days a week," McCarthy said. "That's something we installed back in the spring. No different than our ball-security drills. We expect and demand to take care of the football, take the football away, and we expect to tackle as a football team, both defensively and throughout the special teams, well week in and week out.
"We did not do that to the level that we've been doing it here over the last month."
Atlanta's long kickoff return late in the fourth quarter that set up the game-winning field goal resulted from a combination of breakdowns, according to special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum.
First, the Packers' backside coverage players did not get any penetration through the Atlanta blockers, allowing returner Eric Weems to stick with the return the Falcons had called – a middle return. Then, there was a poor gap fit by one of Green Bay's coverage players, helping to give Weems a seam.
"He tried to shoot the gap on the left side, and I think he could have done a better job reading the play and understanding it was a middle return and folding over the top," Slocum said.
And finally, there was another tackling error. Matt Wilhelm ended up grabbing Weems' facemask as he dragged him down at the 36-yard line, tacking on 15 yards and putting the Falcons across midfield to start their final drive.
"I don't think we needed to facemask to tackle," Slocum said. "I think he should have angle-tackled low."
Slocum said Mason Crosby's kickoff, which went 4 yards deep in the end zone with solid hang time, was what he was looking for in that situation. It just wasn't covered properly.
Nothing to go on
McCarthy reiterated on Monday that he had no information, either from a replay or from the field, that would have prompted him to consider challenging Gonzalez's fourth-down reception in the second quarter that led to Atlanta's go-ahead touchdown.
Gonzalez made a diving grab over the middle for a 6-yard gain, but replays showed he probably trapped the ball under his body. Only the delay in the TV broadcast within the Georgia Dome was significant enough that by the time the coaches in the booth saw a replay, the next play had been run.
McCarthy also said that the Falcons weren't hustling to the line to get the next play off, nor had he seen anything with his own eyes to indicate Gonzalez's catch was questionable. Of course, the Georgia Dome video screens didn't show the play, either, which is common practice on close calls that go the home team's way.
"It's part of our game," McCarthy said. "I think it does fall into the category of home-field advantage sometimes. There was really no information to make me believe that was not a catch."
Speaking of replays…
The Packers-Falcons game will be re-broadcast as one of NFL Network's "NFL Replay" games at 8:15 p.m. CT on Tuesday. "NFL Replay" is a condensed, 75-minute version of the game that includes bonus NFL Films camera angles, plus post-game comments from players and coaches.
A semifinalist, again
Green Bay linebackers coach Kevin Greene is once again one of 26 semifinalists for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. This is the fourth straight year Greene has advanced from the preliminary list of more than 100 nominees to the semifinalist stage.
During his 15-year career at outside linebacker for four different teams, Greene posted 160 sacks, most ever by a linebacker and third in league history behind Bruce Smith and Reggie White. He was a five-time Pro Bowler and two-time first-team All-Pro pick by The Associated Press.
The list of 26 semifinalists will be pared to 15 finalists in January. The Hall of Fame's Class of 2011 will be determined on Super Bowl weekend.
McCarthy already has ruled out linebacker Brandon Chillar (shoulder) and tight end Spencer Havner (hamstring) for this week's game, and he didn't sound optimistic about the chances for cornerback Pat Lee (ankle) either.
In addition, receiver Greg Jennings has a foot sprain and is expected to miss some practice time this week, though McCarthy didn't make it sound as though his status for this week's game was in jeopardy. Running back Dimitri Nance sustained a concussion and will have to pass the mandated post-concussion tests before he can return to the practice field.
If Nance is out for any extended time, it could mean rookie running back James Starks has a chance to be active on gameday for the first time. McCarthy hinted as much on Monday, and it will be interesting to see if Starks gets any snaps in practice this week other than on the scout team, which has served as the majority of his full-contact work.
"I like his competitiveness," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "He's a big-bodied guy who's got some quickness. He really catches the ball. It looks like he has some natural hands. We're not sure with the live bullets with the pass protection. That's something you're not totally sure about. But I think he's making some nice progress.
"He runs a little high at this point in time, but he's very young. I think he's got some instincts that are hard to coach, hard to drill into somebody."
Starks hasn't played a game in nearly two full years, having missed his entire senior collegiate season at Buffalo with a shoulder injury and then missing all of training camp this past summer with a hamstring injury.