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Ground games behind young QBs could decide Packers-Falcons matchup

Atlanta ran ball better than Green Bay in Week 1, but struggled to defend the run

Falcons RB Bijan Robinson
Falcons RB Bijan Robinson

GREEN BAY – No one would've predicted that the NFL's Week 1 would end with Packers QB Jordan Love (123.2) and Falcons QB Desmond Ridder (111.8) posting the two highest passer ratings across the entire league.

That said, there's almost no escaping how Sunday's Week 2 matchup between Green Bay and Atlanta at Mercedes-Benz Stadium could hinge much more on the running games of the two clubs than the quarterbacks off to those fast starts.

Looking at the Falcons first, they gained just 221 yards on offense in beating the Panthers, 24-10, but well over half of them came on the ground.

Tyler Allgeier, who rushed for 1,035 yards as a rookie last year, had 15 carries for 75 yards and two TDs, while dynamic rookie Bijan Robinson added 10 carries for 56 yards.

Robinson added six receptions for 27 yards and a TD as well, jumping off the film with the kinds of highlights that made him the No. 8 overall pick in the draft out of Texas. He's the type of player that in a past era, when running backs were valued higher, might've been the top selection in the entire draft.

"I just kept seeing him break tackles and making plays," Packers Head Coach Matt LaFleur said this week.

Add to that the return from injury of "joker" Cordarrelle Patterson – that's how the veteran returner/receiver/running back is officially listed on the team's depth chart, signifying his wild-card status as an offensive weapon – and the Falcons will never run out of a pair of fresh, powerful legs to whom Ridder can hand the ball.

"All three of them can take it to the house," defensive running game coordinator Jerry Montgomery said. "But it's the scheme they run."

That scheme is primarily the outside zone that gets the defense moving laterally while the backs look for cutback lanes to open and give them space. Gap discipline is paramount because if the backs see one defender cheat out of his gap, he'll cut off the hip of that offensive lineman and attack right there.

Both Allgeier and Robinson had runs of 20-plus yards in Week 1.

"They've all been drafted in that system," fellow defensive assistant coach Jason Rebrovich said of Atlanta's offensive line. "They've been drafted to do the things they're asked to do. They're a heavy zone team, and they run it extremely well. We have our hands full."

The flip side, though, is the Falcons surrendered 154 rushing yards to the Panthers, struggling somewhat to defend the run. Only 17 of those yards came from rookie QB Bryce Young, as backs Miles Sanders and Chuba Hubbard collectively averaged 4.9 yards per carry. (The Panthers actually outgained the Falcons by 60 yards in the 14-point loss but were undone by three turnovers.)

The Packers would love nothing more than to take advantage of that potential vulnerability, but the ground game didn't get off to a great start in Chicago.

Collectively, the non-QBs who carried the ball for Green Bay gained just 80 yards on 28 attempts, a 2.86 average. On the game's opening drive, following a clutch third-and-13 conversion, Aaron Jones had four rushes for 25 yards. But from there it was tough sledding.

"After that we were talking on the sideline, like, this should be a good day running the ball," right guard Jon Runyan said of the first possession. "Then some weird stuff happened our second, third, fourth drive, and we just really couldn't find a rhythm."

By "weird stuff," Runyan was referring to negative or zero-yard runs that put the offense behind the chains, with the Bears getting penetration on some gap scheme plays that were not the more common outside zone or inside zone runs in the Packers' arsenal.

LaFleur said the Bears got too many "free hitters" against the run, and it wasn't all on the offensive line. The perimeter blocking struggled in some instances, too.

"There were too many times … we didn't have all 11 on the same page," he said.

Added Runyan: "We weren't satisfied, definitely, with that performance. The scoreboard looked fine, but I think we only averaged like 2.8 yards per carry, and that's not really up to our standard. We're more like 4 or 5 yards."

That's what the Panthers accomplished against the Falcons, but they didn't protect the football. If the Packers can do both – with or without Jones, who's questionable with a hamstring injury – they like their chances.

"We had good effort," offensive coordinator Adam Stenavich said of the run game. "We'll just keep sticking with it, and I think we'll be all right."

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