GREEN BAY – The Packers' defense caught a break each of the last two weeks, but it may not be so lucky Monday night.
Having avoided Detroit's top receiver Kenny Golladay and New Orleans' star wideout Michael Thomas due to injuries, Green Bay's secondary is in for by far its biggest test of the young season should Atlanta's Julio Jones return to action.
All signs are pointing that way, with Jones practicing (albeit on a limited basis) the last two days while recovering from a hamstring injury. The potential combination of the seven-time Pro Bowler with the one of league's early-season leaders, Calvin Ridley, is unlike anything the Packers have been forced to defend thus far in 2020.
"Oh, it's going to be a great challenge," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. "They've got two No. 1 receivers."
That's not a hyperbolic statement. In one game together at full strength this season, the pair combined for 18 catches, 287 yards and two touchdowns in a loss to Seattle.
Jones is both a "freak" and a "Hall of Famer" in LaFleur's book, as the Packers' coach knows him well from their days together in Atlanta (2015-16). According to LaFleur, Jones' smarts as a route runner are overlooked with all the marveling about his 6-3, 220-pound frame, but his "thoughtfulness" allows him to line up anywhere on the field and produce for QB Matt Ryan.
Jones caught nine passes for 157 yards in Atlanta's Week 1 loss to Seattle before the hamstring injury slowed him significantly in Week 2 and kept him on the sideline in Week 3.
Meanwhile Ridley (6-1, 190), like Jones a first-round draft pick from Alabama, is dealing with his own injury issues (ankle/calf, limited in practice) but has topped 100 receiving yards every game this season. His 349 yards rank a close second to Arizona's DeAndre Hopkins (356), and his four touchdown catches are tied for first with Seattle's Tyler Lockett.
Drafted in 2018, seven years after Jones, Ridley posted 60-plus catches and 800-plus yards in each of his first two seasons in the league. But he's found another gear in 2020, perhaps literally and figuratively.
"You see a guy that's really fast and can get in and out of cuts," Packers defensive backs coach Jerry Gray said. "He's winning one-on-ones. He's going against top corners.
"He looks really, really explosive out of the break, so he must have had a great offseason, even with the pandemic. You have to be running that fast somewhere before you get in the season."
Put more succinctly by LaFleur: "He can flat fly."
The Falcons began last week's game against the Bears by hitting Ridley on a deep ball for 63 yards on their first play from scrimmage, and understandably the play jumped off the film at the Packers.
Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said that's a common piece of Atlanta's opening script, to "loosen up" the defense. The target could be Jones, Ridley, third-year receiver Russell Gage or even tight end Hayden Hurst, who will run the seam routes.
"Matt Ryan throws a heck of a deep ball and they've got guys that can get deep in a hurry," Pettine said. "So certainly it's nothing that's going to surprise us. There's plenty of examples of it on tape."
How the Packers decide to match up with the Falcons' big two will be interesting to follow. Based on size alone, the natural assumption would be to put the 6-3 Kevin King on Jones and the 5-10 Jaire Alexander on Ridley, but at times Pettine has left his top two corners on certain sides and just rolled with it.
The Packers could change things up throughout the game, or see if a particular matchup is working or not. The assignments for safeties Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage could be adjusted accordingly as well.
However they decide to line up, the challenge for the Packers' defensive backs could wind up being its most difficult of the season, on a national stage no less.
"Just knowing what kind of talent they have on the outside, we have to be extra careful on the back end as far as keeping an eye on where they are," Amos said.
"They have a lot of speed out there and they try to get your eyes in the backfield, try to get you in situations where they can show how fast they are. They try and get behind you."