The season-high six takeaways against the Giants played as big a role as anything in a 45-17 romp from which the Packers haven’t looked back.
Another effort like that Saturday night in the NFC Divisional playoffs would almost certainly guarantee Green Bay’s season would continue. But, this is the playoffs, and there are reasons the Giants didn’t qualify, their league-leading 42 giveaways chief among them.
“No one is just going to turn the ball over, especially this time of the year,” nose tackle B.J. Raji said. “The four best teams in the NFC are still playing and no one is just going to give them to you.”
Least of all this Atlanta team the Packers are facing. Of the traits that make these 13-3 Falcons fit the definition of a fundamentally sound, disciplined football team – the same characteristics Head Coach Mike McCarthy preaches to his Packers – their protection of the football may be most important.
Atlanta turned the ball over just 17 times in 16 games in 2010, fewest in the NFC and third fewest in the NFL behind New England (10) and Kansas City (14). Quarterback Matt Ryan threw a paltry nine interceptions – with two in a game only twice – and lost three fumbles. The rest of the offensive players accounted for just five giveaways.
Moreover, Ryan’s three lost fumbles all came in the first six games of the season, and he hasn’t lost one since. In fact, he’s only been charged with one fumble, which Atlanta recovered, in the last 10 contests.
That’s simply the way this offense operates. They won’t beat themselves.
“I think it all starts in practice,” Ryan said. “We talk about all the time practicing good ball-security habits and emphasizing technique during the week so that when we get to Sunday, … we’re not out there playing scared about turning the ball over. We just feel like we’ve got very good habits and protecting the football comes naturally.
“I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been successful. We work really hard on it during the week, but we allow ourselves to go out there and play when Sunday rolls around.”
The Falcons’ paucity of turnovers is a major reason they’ve been so successful in close games this season. At one point, they had won seven consecutive games decided by seven points or less, including four by four or less.
Not surprisingly, that string ended in Week 16 with a costly turnover, when normally sure-handed running back Michael Turner fumbled in a goal-to-go situation and the Falcons ultimately lost to the Saints by three. It was the same type of game-changing turnover the Packers experienced in Atlanta in Week 12, when quarterback Aaron Rodgers coughed the ball up at the goal line and Green Bay lost by a field goal.
So, conceding the fact that the Packers aren’t likely to create the turnover bonanza they did against the more careless Giants, how does the defense – which ranked fourth in the NFC and sixth in the NFL this season with 32 takeaways – go about taking the ball away those one or two crucial times on Saturday night that could turn the tide and make the difference?
“You have to force them,” Raji said. “Get pressure. First of all, you have to stop the run on first down. Last game we didn’t do a good job of that. We didn’t tackle very well. So Matt was in a more comfortable situation the majority of the third downs.”
Defensive end Cullen Jenkins echoed Raji’s thoughts earlier this week, explaining that by stopping the run on early downs, the Packers can shrink the Falcons’ playbook on third downs and come after Ryan. But if the sticks are in Atlanta’s favor, that playbook is “wide open,” Jenkins said.
In the first Packers-Falcons meeting, Ryan needed 4 or fewer yards to convert on six of the 12 third downs, and those down-and-distance situations limit a defense’s creativity and ability to force things. The Falcons only converted four of their 12 third downs in the game, but they didn’t turn the ball over, and Ryan was an ultra-efficient 24-of-28 on his passes.
“We need to get some people in his face,” linebacker Erik Walden said. “Poor tackling kind of contributed to his completion percentage. So as long as we stop the run and tackle well, that will allow us to put some pressure on Ryan and get him off the spot, and hopefully he’ll make some bad decisions.”
Ryan doesn’t do that often, but in trying to make that happen, the Packers are taking the right approach. They realize it can be the one or two plays leading up to a potential turnover – the stops that set up the down-and-distance in your favor – that can create the opportunity.
Put another way, the Packers shouldn’t do anything out of the ordinary just to try to force a turnover, because that often leads to mistakes that can rupture into big plays. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers talked about sticking to the defensive fundamentals the team practices, which include strip drills and tip drills, and just being ready when an opportunity arises to, in his words, “steal” a series or two from the offense.
“You can’t get frustrated,” Capers said. “You have to keep coming, keep lining up and playing, and hopefully sooner or later we’ll get our chance and we have to make it.”
Anyone questioning the wisdom of that need only look back to the Packers’ game at New England in Week 15. As mentioned, the Patriots had the fewest turnovers in the league this season with just 10, yet the Packers stuck to their defensive plan and had their hands on three potential interceptions. Unfortunately, neither Charles Woodson nor Sam Shields nor Walden was able to haul those in.
That was one of only two games this season in which the Packers’ defense didn’t generate a turnover, with the first Atlanta meeting being the other, of course. The Packers have gone 8-3 since a 3-3 start, and two of the three losses since mid-October have been those two zero-turnover affairs.
“There have been times where people had the opportunity and kind of let it slip,” linebacker Desmond Bishop said. “With (Ryan), they don’t come often, so when they do come, you have to definitely take advantage of it.”
If the Packers can, even if it’s just once or twice and not a half-dozen times, it could be enough to allow them to take the next step.
“It would be huge,” Jenkins said. “Especially in the playoffs where you’re playing against good teams, anytime you can get a turnover and possibly get a score or set up a score for your offense, that’s huge.
“We’re going to stay with our focus like it’s been all season, trying to turn the ball over. Hopefully we’ll be able to get some.”
Additional coverage - Jan. 13