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Key Lessons Learned From First Atlanta Game

Those who do not learn from history, of course, are doomed to repeat it. That’s why the Packers are focusing on two key breakdowns that cost them a three-point loss in Atlanta in late November as they prepare for Saturday night’s rematch in the NFC Divisional playoffs.


Of the two major shortcomings in that Week 12 meeting, one fell on each side of the ball. On defense, it was poor tackling fundamentals that allowed the Falcons to keep their two touchdown drives alive. On offense, it was a failure to execute consistently in the red zone.

Here's a closer look at each of those:

The tackling
Head Coach Mike McCarthy called the first Atlanta game "clearly one of our worst" tackling games of the season.

Two plays involving missed tackles were especially costly on a pair of third-and-longs. On the first, with the Falcons facing third-and-19 late in the first half, quarterback Matt Ryan dumped the ball off in the left flat to fullback Ovie Mughelli, just like any defense would want in that down-and-distance. Except that two players missed tackles in the open field and the 252-pound Mughelli rumbled for 16 yards, moving well across midfield. So rather than having to punt, the Falcons were in position to go for it on fourth-and-3. They converted and scored a touchdown right before halftime for a 10-3 lead.

Then in the third quarter, right after the Packers had tied the game at 10, the Falcons had third-and-9 from their own 21. Again, the Packers dropped into coverage, and again Ryan dumped the ball to a back, this time Jason Snelling. But a missed tackle allowed the 223-pound Snelling to get up a head of steam, and he powered through two more tacklers for the first down. Atlanta's drive continued for 11 more plays and resulted in another touchdown.

Avoiding a repeat of those mistakes will require the defense to play under control, but without losing its aggressiveness.

"I think you're more mentally aware of it," linebacker Desmond Bishop said of fixing tackling problems. "Sometimes your fundamentals can slip a little bit if you're not conscious of it. I think just making a conscious effort at practice to come up with the proper technique, and in the game just know that it's important you use your technique, or the type of back that we're playing against can easily break a tackle."

That back Bishop is referring to specifically would be Michael Turner, whose 5-foot-10, 244-pound frame contains perhaps the strongest lower body of any back in the league. He has topped 1,300 yards rushing twice in the last three years, and he bulled his way to 110 yards on 23 carries in the first Packers-Falcons meeting.

The red zone
The Packers couldn't help lamenting their missed chances in close during that first trip to the Georgia Dome.

In the first quarter, the offense faced third-and-1 at the Atlanta 4, but running back Dimitri Nance was stuffed for no gain and the Packers had to settle for a short field goal.

Then in the second quarter, the offense had driven 83 yards, all the way to first-and-goal at the 2. But after an incomplete pass (when tight end Andrew Quarless and fullback Quinn Johnson ran routes too close together in the end zone), Rodgers was stopped on an audibled quick-snap sneak at the 1, and then he fumbled on a called sneak on third down, with the Falcons recovering in the end zone.

The offense came back to convert two red-zone possessions into touchdowns in the second half, but scoring only three points on two promising drives in the first half hurt the team's chances severely.

"In the red zone, I think we had 17 points in four possessions I believe, and that's just not going to cut it against a good team like this," Rodgers said. "They're going to control the ball, Matt's going to limit his mistakes, and they're going to run the ball with Michael Turner. Our defense needs to get off the field and we need to sustain those drives and put them in the end zone for seven."

Atlanta's ball-control offense does factor into the urgency in the red zone. The Falcons ranked third in the league in time of possession this season (32:15) and they won the battle in the first game (31:40 to 28:20).

On top of that, the Packers ranked first (with 30) and the Falcons tied for second in the league (with 28) this season in total number of 5-minute drives, according to STATS. So it's possible the rematch could go much like the first game, when the Packers had just seven legitimate possessions in the contest, not including two that began at the end of each half with less than 10 seconds on the clock.

That will put a premium on maximizing the production on any drives that reach scoring territory.

"It's the amount of possessions we're going to get against them is the problem," guard Daryn Colledge said. "Their offense does so well keeping us off the field that they don't give us a lot of chances. So if we don't capitalize on the chances we do get, that's where we're going to have problems."

Last week the Packers converted all three of their red-zone opportunities in the Wild Card round at Philadelphia into touchdowns. But that was against the worst red-zone defense in the NFL in 15 years, as the Eagles allowed an atrocious touchdown percentage of 76.7 this season.

The Falcons are a little stingier, though not stout at 54.8 percent for a No. 22 ranking. But the Packers found out they don't give in easily.

"Especially when you get down in the red zone, and they play coverage, you're going to have to get up and you're going to have to beat them," said receiver Jordy Nelson, who made the 10-yard TD catch on fourth-and-goal that tied the first game with 56 seconds left.

"They won't beat themselves. As simple as that seems, it's tough to beat a team that way. If they're not giving up the long touchdown or anything, it's hard to go 10, 12 plays. But we did it last week, and we're going to have to do it again."

Additional coverage - Jan. 11

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