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Written by NFL1000 Defensive End Scout Justis Mosqueda
No NFL player has had more total touchdowns and fewer turnovers than 2016 Aaron Rodgers in the regular season other than 2011 Aaron Rodgers, who won the NFL’s MVP award. One major reason for the Green Bay quarterback’s success is the fact that his bookends play at a high level.
According to NFL1000’s grading system, left tackle David Bakhtiari was the league’s fourth-best blindside tackle, while Bryan Bulaga was the second-ranked right tackle in the NFL for this season. With that in mind, it’s no surprise why the Packers often use five men in pass protection, giving Rodgers as many targets as blockers while he scrambles around to buy time.
In many ways, the way Green Bay is blocking up front isn’t too different from when Johnny Manziel was running around at Texas A&M with Jake Matthews, a first-round tackle who now plays with the Atlanta Falcons, and Luke Joeckel, who was the second overall pick in the 2013 draft, shutting down edge pressure for him. Even at a nuanced position like offensive tackle, it’s hard to beat pure talent, especially with a mobile quarterback.
Last week, in the divisional round, the Dallas Cowboys figured out a way to give themselves an advantage in the passing game: send a slot blitz. A blitzing cornerback or overhang defender was a better athlete than Rodgers, as opposed to the 250-plus-pound defensive linemen who are usually tasked with bringing him down.
It worked, as Nathan Jahnke of Pro Football Focus noted that his yards per attempt dropped almost six full yards when he was blitzed against the Cowboys. Dallas plays a two-high safety defense, though, under defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, who was one of the architects of the Tampa 2 defense from his days with the Buccaneers.
This week, the Packers will be facing the Atlanta Falcons, who are totally different in that aspect, as head coach Dan Quinn comes from the Seattle Seahawks coaching tree, which features a love of Cover 3 looks out of a single-high safety defense. With only one high safety, it’s hard to disguise a safety blitz well, without giving up huge leverage to wideouts.
Single-high and Cover 3-heavy schemes are built for a line up-and-play approach, which doesn’t help Atlanta if it wants to exploit the slot blitz. For the most part, it’s going to the Falcons’ four horses against Green Bay’s five pass protectors this game.
That’s concerning, as the team really has only used five pass-rushers on the edge for significant reps this season. Two, Derrick Shelby and Adrian Clayborn, who ranked as the 26th 4-3 defensive end league-wide in the NFL1000 project, are now on injured reserve, as one Clayborn injury seems to just lead up to another.
Vic Beasley, who led the NFL in sacks, is the big name on this Falcons defensive line, but only having Brooks Reed, the 39th-ranked 4-3 defensive end in the NFL1000 project, and Dwight Freeney, a soon-to-be 37-year-old who is already playing on a limited basis, is concerning, should the Packers wear on the Atlanta defense in a shootout.
Unless the Falcons change up what they want to execute from an X’s-and-O’s standpoint, expect to wonder “Where’s Beasley?” this week as protection slides his way, forcing one of just two Atlanta non-starters, who have five combined sacks on the season, to make plays on Rodgers before he fires his laser into their secondary.