The way he's playing right now, it appears there's no stopping Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
It's hard to know if Rodgers, whose 2010 Packers team went 10-6, will be permanently the best quarterback in the league or in a zone that few quarterbacks have ever witnessed, let alone experienced.
Either way, Rodgers is the key to Green Bay's offense and while he may be difficult to stop, the Falcons defense has to at least try. Head coach Mike Smith said Wednesday that it's the kind of preparation week that keeps him at work a little later than usual.
"In terms of the players that they have available to get the ball to, they're loaded," Smith said. "Their wide receiver core and their tight ends are very explosive and Aaron (Rodgers) does an outstanding job getting it in their hands. So you've got to try to figure out ways they're going to try to attack you and then you've got to turn around and try to figure out how you're going to slow them down because right now they're the number one team in the League in scoring. They do a great job on third down keeping drives alive."
Smith said defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder will continue to tweak the defensive scheme to handle all the playmakers the Packers have at Rodgers' disposal all the way up to game time.
One of the things Atlanta hopes to do is get pressure on Rodgers, something they've struggled to do against other quarterbacks this season. So much of Green Bay's offense is based on tempo and timing between the quarterback and his receivers. Atlanta hopes to harass Rodgers and disrupt the flow they try to create when the ball is in their hands.
But as they saw in last season's playoff game, Rodgers is more elusive than given credit for. If the Falcons fail to wrap up a sack on Rodgers he's athletic enough to flee and gain yards with his feet. Last week he rushed for two touchdowns against the Broncos. Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said when running to him, you still have to do it with caution because he has a few moves in him.
"You've got to go after him with some control but you've got to be violent as well," Weatherspoon said. "We look forward to getting out there this week, going against our guys, getting a feel for it and this week try to put it together."
Unlike the last loss, the Falcons have to finish the drill. "Almosts" won't count this week against Rodgers, who specializes in getting the ball out quickly.
"We had chances last year but we couldn't capitalize on it," safety Thomas DeCoud said. "Just making sure we finish those chances and get him uncomfortable in the pocket."
Re-Route:The Packers are impressively multiple in what they can bring to the table on offense. The ball begins in Rodgers hands but he's got as many as six proven playmakers the ball can go to.
Two of the playmakers weren't present when the Falcons faced the Packers twice last season. Tight end Jermichael Finley and rookie wide receiver Randall Cobb will be suiting up on Sunday for Green Bay. Finley missed much of last season with a knee injury and so far this season he's shown he's a dangerous and athletic threat with speed out of the tight end position.
Cobb, a rookie out of Kentucky, showed his potential impact in the first game of the season, catching a 32-yard touchdown catch and returning a kick 108 yards for a touchdown. On the season Cobb has only seven catches, but he's averaging 21.1 yards per catch.
Both Cobb and Finley have stood out to Smith in his film study.
Smith described Finley as "integral" to what Green Bay does on offense and a player that creates matchup issues at tight end.
"He's a guy that has great vision, good speed and he's not only a guy that they're using as a return man," Smith said of Cobb. "They're also using him in the offense as well and they'll run some four and five wide receiver sets at times."
Just as the Falcons want to play physical with Rodgers they want to do the same to the receivers. The secondary hopes by bumping Packers receivers around in their routes they can interrupt the timing needed in Green Bay's offense. Additionally they make create some concern about entering certain parts of the field. It's a philosophy that is key to Atlanta's defensive identity.
"We always have an emphasis on re-route because we're a Cover-2 team," DeCoud said. "It's not going to change, we want to beat up receivers and make sure they can't get free runs up the field. It makes our jobs easier as safeties and it makes the linebackers' jobs easier. It helps everybody across the board."
Green Bay will throw multiple formations and groupings at Atlanta, but they'll need to see through it all and stay disciplined in their zones of the field. The obvious thing is they'll need to tackle the players with the ball, but it still needs to be said.
Rodgers will complete passes and the receivers will be thinking huge gains and touchdowns on each reception. Atlanta's primary goal will be to bring down the ball carrier as quickly as possible.
"They pride themselves in yards after catch or yards after contact," DeCoud said. "We have to make sure when we go in for a tackle, they go down where we hit them. Make sure we tackle soundly and strongly."
Limiting the turnover game is a well-used phrase when it comes to talking about winning in football.
For the Falcons against the Packers, it's critical.
In last year's regular season matchup, Atlanta had zero turnovers and won the game. Green Bay's pass defense can be thrown against as their 31st ranking against the pass indicates. They're tied, however, for first with eight interceptions.
Atlanta firmly believes the turnovers in the playoff game is what hurt them the most.
"Last year is last year," Matt Ryan said. "That game's done, but one of things that we didn't do well last year was ball security. We turned the football over a couple of times, me specifically, especially in the first half and we put ourselves in a tough spot. It's difficult when you're down to be able to run the football the way you want to. I think it comes down to us protecting the football a little bit better than we did last year and that'll help us run the football."
If they can complete passes without turning it over the passing game will be aided significantly as well. If they're moving the ball through the air, the yards and the scores will come. It's only when they make mistakes that the opportunistic Packers defense can penalize you with scores of their own or flip the field for the offense.
One of the ways Green Bay's defense confuses opponents is by varying their looks and sets. They consider the 3-4 their base defense but they often operate with a 42 nickel package as well that is successful. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers is well verses in the art of confusion and brining blitzes and coverages from all over the field.
"Dom does a great job of forcing you to be on top of your game snap after snap," Ryan said. "It's a week where our preparation is going to be really important. I think guys will be really well prepared when we get there and having had experience against them twice last year, there are things to go off."
Injury Report:>The Falcons continued to have encouraging news on Thursday on the injury front. Jonathan Babineaux and Stephen Nicholas were at practice for the second straight day, in a limited capacity. Smith was encouraged with their progress and prospects moving forward.
"I would anticipate that (they have the) possibility of moving up to full participation tomorrow," Smith said.
William Moore, Michael Palmer and Roddy White were also on the limited participation list. Smith said he felt Roddy would take his normal amount of reps in Friday's practice.
Todd McClure remains on the did not practice list with a knee aggravation. Cliff Matthews is also on that list.
Chris Owens and Jason Snelling returned to full participation.
Notables did not practice players from Green Bay included Charles Woodson, Clay Matthews and Bryan Bulaga.