ATLANTA — It is an annual truism of the NFL: Defenses are ahead of offenses early in the season. The fine tuning required for perfectly timed passes is not completed in a few half-hearted preseason games. In the first two weeks of this season, the situation has been particularly acute. This week, 19 teams failed to score 21 points.
The shock is that the Green Bay Packers barely escaped that group, falling 34-23 to the Atlanta Falcons, who emphasized offensive execution this week to devastating effect. The Packers were riddled with injuries Sunday night — both starting offensive tackles were backups, receiver Jordy Nelson went out of the game early with a quadriceps injury and Randall Cobb had a shoulder injury later — so the points they managed is a testament to Aaron Rodgers‘ ability to create something out of not much. But the fast, aggressive defense Dan Quinn has craved since his arrival was on full display, too, harassing Rodgers, slamming him to the ground, and mostly bottling up his weapons, providing a small counterpoint to the constant reminders of a certain big lead the Falcons couldn’t hold in February.
The Falcons might never be able to live down their Super Bowl implosion — and they almost certainly will never stop hearing about it — but the defense that swarmed the Packers seems intent on burying questions about the psychological scars that game might have left. What they could not do to Tom Brady in the second half, they did to Rodgers early and often. It was not quite as lopsided as the 44-21 thrashing the Falcons put on the Packers in the NFC Championship Game, but the rematch still proved a point: The Packers have not closed the gap with the Falcons, at least not on the Falcons‘ home field. Whatever deep-seated burdens the Falcons still bear from the Super Bowl, they might be able to exorcise with the weekly ministrations of long touchdown drives and field-tipping defensive plays.
In a 97-second stretch that spanned the end of the first half and the start of the second, the game turned completely on two tangos between Rodgers and Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant. On the first, with 54 seconds left in the second quarter, Rodgers threw deep down the right sideline, where Trufant, his back to the play, caught the ball over his shoulder like a receiver. At that point, the Packers trailed by just 10. Four plays later, they were going into the locker room down 17.
Then, with fans barely returned from the concession stands on the second play of the third quarter, Rodgers was rocked by a huge hit to his upper chest by linebacker Vic Beasley. Rodgers’ pass went backward, making it a fumble. Trufant scooped it up and returned it 15 yards for another touchdown, completing the 14-point swing.
On the next drive, with plenty of time remaining for a comeback, the Packers had first-and-goal from the 13 when Rodgers was sacked for a 12-yard loss by defensive end Adrian Clayborn. They settled for a field goal.
“We knew we were going to get challenged,” Quinn said. “It was going to be all night kind of battles. That type of effort and strain. They had to really battle.”
The defense was able to tee off on Rodgers because the Falcons had jumped to such a big lead quickly that it was clear the Packers would have to pass their way out of a hole. The Falcons scored on five of their first seven possessions, racing to a 34-10 lead, correcting the slight offensive flaws they detected after a closer-than-expected six-point victory in Week 1 over the Bears. It was a point of emphasis in practice this week and the return of precision was obvious immediately, when the Falcons went 86 yards on nine crisp plays, a combination of runs — mostly by Devonta Freeman — and Matt Ryan passes.
“We thought our effort was on point last week,” Quinn said. “Could we take our execution up a notch?”
Apparentely so. Incorporating new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian into the Falcons fold will be a storyline that will follow the Falcons throughout this season, as they seek to distance themselves from the catastrophic decisions that cost them a Super Bowl. The Falcons and Panthers are, remarkably, the only two 2-0 teams in the NFC right now (the Lions, at 1-0, play the Giants on Monday night), but while the Panthers are leaning on their defense for their victories, the Falcons seem to be playing the kind of complementary football that the points-challenged teams in the league haven’t yet attained.
When Ryan was asked — again — about using games like this to further pack away the Super Bowl memories, he sighed a little before answering. The Super Bowl might never be too far in the distance, but the Falcons seem intent on building a wall of new wins to make it harder to stare at.
“I don’t think about it too much,” Ryan said. “I think everybody else does because the question keeps coming up. But for us, we focused on playing Week 1 against Chicago, getting better this offseason, we tried to answer it that way. But it kind of seems like nobody believed you when you were saying it. But it’s felt that way in our building, for sure. Were we disappointed with how it ended? Absolutely. But we got past it. We started working on becoming the best 2017 football team we can be. We’re two games into it. Mission accomplished on those first two games.”
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.