GREEN BAY—Falcons General Manager Thomas Dimitroff spoke at last winter's scouting combine on the need for the Falcons to become a younger team.
"In 2008, we were the youngest team in the league, and now we're one of the oldest. We have difficult decisions to be made," Dimitroff said.
Those words were spoken just a month after the Falcons came within a play of the Super Bowl. The decision was made to give it another try, but that was lost in a sudden downturn this season and with four games remaining to be played this season, the youth movement has begun in Atlanta.
"We've became a younger team and a lot of it is based on salary cap. As you know, salary cap kind of defines how your team is put together. We became a younger football team and we've become even younger since the season started, in terms of certain positions with young guys who've had to step up. We've had some young college free agents who have shown they have the ability to be an NFL player, which is a positive. Your roster is ever-changing and the dynamics of your team changes each and every year," Falcons Head Coach Mike Smith said on Wednesday, during a conference call with Packers media.
When this Sunday's game was scheduled, it was viewed as a possible NFC title game preview. The Falcons came within a play of winning last season's NFC title game. The Packers lost in the divisional round of the playoffs to the team that would beat the Falcons, the 49ers.
Much has changed since this game was scheduled. The Falcons lost four of their first five games and then five in a row before winning in overtime at Buffalo last Sunday. The Packers, of course, are winless in their last five games and both teams will bring losing records into Lambeau Field on Sunday.
"I know we're both not having the season we'd like to have and what we anticipated having, but you have to keep going. That's what I think both teams are doing. I think you watch the tape and you see guys out there playing the game hard," Smith said.
Amidst major changes, one thing about the Falcons hasn't changed: Matt Ryan is still pitching touchdowns, 19 of them, in what has been another solid season for Ryan, despite having been sacked 30 times.
It's what has changed for the Packers that's the main issue this week: Will Aaron Rodgers step back under center for the first time since breaking his left collarbone on Nov. 4, which triggered a five-game skid that plummeted the Packers out of first place in the NFC North and put them on the verge of being eliminated from realistic playoff contention, unless they defeat the Falcons.
"We're anticipating that he's going to play this week," Smith said of Rodgers. "I know there was some information that came out yesterday that said he wasn't cleared, but he was not ruled out. We're taking that (to mean) he's playing. That's what our preparation has got to be. He can distribute the ball. He makes everybody around him so much better. He understands Mike's (Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy) offense. He gets him into the best plays. It's fun to watch him as a coach, stand over the ball and look and try to dissect what you're trying to do defensively. Then once that ball snaps, he's got the ability to extend plays. He's got such a quick release. He will be a big challenge for us on Sunday."
McCarthy, however, remained noncommittal on Wednesday, when questioned about Rodgers' potential availability.
What about the Packers' flagging defense?
"I know they've had some guys that have missed time, some of it significant time. Dom Capers is one of the best defensive coordinators in the history of the NFL," said Smith, a former defensive coordinator. "He's so unique in terms of his game planning, and each game plan is a little bit different. I still believe that on the defensive side it comes down to winning the line of scrimmage and tackling well. You have to tackle well and not give up big plays. Just like our defense, we have not done a good job tackling, nor have we been nearly as efficient as we need to on explosive plays."
At 3-9, the youth movement and an eye toward next season have already begun for the Falcons. At 5-6-1, the Packers cling to playoff hope, for at least one more week. Additional coverage - Dec. 4