As we did in the preseason, Yahoo! Sports is taking a playbook look at the playoffs. Through the Super Bowl, we'll be reviewing what each NFL team does well, or what they might need to do better. Let's start the Divisional Round with the Atlanta Falcons, who face the Green Bay Packers at the Georgia Dome for the second time this season.
The Green Bay Packers' defense has been quite studly all season, but its one hole is a relative inability to cover tight ends. You'd assume that against the Atlanta Falcons, the Pack would see a heavy diet of Tony Gonzalez(notes), but against the Packers in the regular-season matchup between the two teams (won 20-17 by the Falcons), we saw offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey not only feature Gonzalez, but use him in some different ways.
Gonzalez caught each of his six targets in the game, but his two red-zone targets were most interesting from a formation perspective. The first (Fig. 2) came with 12 seconds left in the first half; a 4-yard touchdown that broke a 3-3 tie. In this play, the Falcons seemed to take a page from Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy and his penchant for creative red-zone formation concepts. Of course, creative isn't always good, especially on "... and goal-to-go," but this example was very effective in taking attention off Matt Ryan's(notes) primary target.
The Falcons lined up in trips right with Roddy White(notes), Harry Douglas(notes), and Michael Jenkins(notes) from left to right, and Gonzalez on the other side. Green Bay countered with a nickel defense, which also would have befitted the Falcons had they opted to go with a pitch right to Michael Turner(notes). But in this case, the plan was to get coverage off the strong side and have Gonzalez use his legendary ability to get free in tight windows. At the snap, White went straight up on Charles Woodson(notes), Douglas went toward the middle on Charlie Peprah(notes), and Jenkins took safety Sam Shields(notes) to the sideline.
Gonzalez ran a quick up-and-out look, but he broke back inside, taking a hard cut the other way. He shot between linebacker Desmond Bishop(notes) (who was dropping back from a moving blitz look) and safety Nick Collins(notes), and headed toward the goalpost. Linebacker A.J. Hawk(notes) had his eyes on the three-receiver set, which cleared the middle for the catch. This reminded me a bit of what the Steelers have been doing with their bunch formation stuff recently. They're more prone to use bunch to focus coverage and run different short-to-medium option routes to the single receiver on the other side.
I also liked what the Falcons did with Gonzalez on the first play of the fourth quarter. It was a third-and-goal from the Green Bay 1-yard line, and Gonzalez was originally lined up in the halfback position of an offset-I, with Michael Turner as the fullback. Pre-snap, Gonzo motioned outside inline tight end Justin Peelle(notes), which got Hawk, Bishop and Peprah moving to that side. Bishop seemed to focus in on Turner -- he may have been awaiting the fullback blast that would seem a smart play in that circumstance -- but Gonzalez upped the ante at the snap by running an out route at the same time that Peelle's straight route took Hawk out of the play.
From there, it was up to Bishop and Peprah to catch up to Gonzalez at the sideline. They couldn't do so for the catch, but they managed to keep him out of the end zone. But Turner scored on the next play.
The Falcons have dropped in efficiency in both rushing and stopping the run in the second half of the season, which makes this rematch unusual in one sense. After a full regular season in which they couldn't get any consistent run game together, the Packers may have the edge if James Starks(notes) can repeat his 23 carry, 123-yard performance against the Philadelphia Eagles in the wild-card round.
If that's the case, and Green Bay can finally field a balanced ground attack to go with Aaron Rodgers'(notes) ruthless efficiency, Mularkey will have to open his entire toolbox to keep his team in the game. And in that case, Gonzalez might very well be the proverbial X-Factor.