GREEN BAY – The Falcons revived their defense down the stretch this season in much the same way the Packers did.
By taking the ball away.
Since their Week 11 bye, the Falcons’ defense has generated 13 turnovers in the last seven games, including last week’s divisional playoff vs. Seattle. That win, combined with Green Bay’s victory in Dallas, has set up Atlanta to host Sunday’s NFC title game against the Packers.
The turnover surge has been a huge factor in allowing only two of their last seven opponents to top 20 points after some much rougher defensive outings earlier in the season, including against Green Bay in a last-minute, 33-32 victory in Week 8.
“We’re much closer to the style and vision we’d like to play, playing with that kind of speed and intensity and tackling,” Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn said in a conference call with Green Bay media on Wednesday. “It came from experience. We needed more turns together, and the communication has picked up.”
Top pass-rusher Vic Beasley has certainly played his part, leading the league with 15½ sacks to go along with six forced fumbles.
While the Falcons now have to cope with the loss of interior defensive lineman Adrian Clayborn (bicep, injured reserve) much the same way they overcame top cornerback Desmond Trufant’s season-ending injury in November, Beasley is the biggest guy they lean on.
“He is still developing, and there’s so much to gain and so much to learn as a pass-rusher that I think he’s just getting started on,” Quinn said of Beasley, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2015 draft. “There’s another spot that he’s going to go to, and in terms of the work ethic to find a way, to find an edge, he’s captured that.”
Forcing those turnovers from the Packers won’t be easy, though. In their current eight-game winning streak, the Packers have turned the ball over just twice.
The Falcons don’t give it away much, either, as likely MVP QB Matt Ryan has thrown just seven interceptions this season, which is either half or less than half of his single-season totals each of the last four years.
“He has not backed off that intent of trying to find ways to improve,” Quinn said of Ryan. “It’s kind of filtered all the way through our team.
“He has a really clear vision of where to go with the ball. That connection with the receivers has been strong. They’re on the same page for sure in terms of the route depths, the alignments, the motions. We shift and motion quite a bit.”
While plenty of attention will be paid to star receiver Julio Jones and the backfield tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and for good reason, the newest weapon in Ryan’s arsenal is speedy slot receiver Taylor Gabriel.
Ryan hit Gabriel over the top for a 47-yard TD in the first Packers-Falcons meeting back on Oct. 30. It was Gabriel’s first score and the first time this season he surpassed 50 receiving yards in a game, finishing with three catches for 68 yards.
Since then, he has found the end zone five more times and topped 50 yards six times in nine games.
“Taylor has become a bigger part of what we’ve done,” Ryan said during his conference call. “He’s made a ton of plays for us the second half of the season. We’ve got a full complement of guys. Having the guys around him get him one-on-ones has really helped as well.”
The Falcons had two turning points in their season. One was after Week 1, a disappointing home loss to division rival Tampa Bay. They responded with four straight wins, including three on the road.
Then, after a one-point home loss to Kansas City in Week 13, Quinn said his team became “more connected, and our defense started to gain some confidence.”
That sounds a lot like their opponent on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
“Both teams are a much better version of themselves,” Quinn said, comparing the Packers and Falcons to the earlier meeting, “which totally makes sense for this time of year to be clicking exactly as they are.”