1) How much will the offense miss wide receiver Allen Lazard?
More than it should, and that’s because GM Brian Gutekunst did so little to upgrade the talent at the position. Going into the season with Malik Taylor (0 career catches) and Darrius Shepherd (1 career catch) as the fourth and fifth wide receivers always made the Packers vulnerable should an injury or two occur. Even if Pro Bowler Davante Adams (hamstring) plays tonight – a very big if – the offense will still have Shepherd in a role that’s too big for his limited skill set. And while his increased snaps didn’t hurt the offense last Sunday night in New Orleans, a lack of talent always gets exposed over time. Lazard will also be missed in the run game. He’s quietly developed into one of the best blocking wide receivers in the league.
2) How much will the defense miss inside linebacker Christian Kirkey?
Very little. In fact, this could be the rare injury that actually makes a team better. Kirksey played poorly in the first two and a half games, but the Packers had $13 million reasons to keep him in the starting lineup. Now, Krys Barnes and Ty Summers will get more snaps. Will the two youngsters make mental mistakes? Absolutely, but they also have the chance to get better each week, and that wasn’t going to happen with the seven-year veteran Kirksey. With Barnes, Summers, and the return of Kamal Martin from IR, the inside linebacker position might not be a weakness heading into December for the first time in a decade. Unless, of course, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine forces Kirksey back into the starting lineup – which I expect he’ll do.
3) How will the Packers defend Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley?
Assuming both injured wide receivers play, the defense will face quite a challenge. Will Pettine use his best cornerback (Jaire Alexander) on the 6-foot-4 Jones, or will he go with his bigger cornerback (Kevin King)? Or will he just let Alexander and King line up against whichever receiver shows up on their side of the field? If I were the defensive coordinator, I’d try hard to keep the stiffish King away from the explosive Ridley as much as possible. And while King would also have his hands full with Jones, that’s probably a better matchup, especially if the five-time All-Pro and future Hall of Famer is slowed a bit by his sore hamstring.
It’s tough making a pick without knowing the status of Adams, nose tackle Kenny Clark, and linebacker Rashan Gary, but even if they all play, I have a feeling this will be a tougher than expected game for the Packers. The winless Falcons will be desperate, and they’ll receive a significant break playing in a pleasantly cool and very empty Lambeau Field.
If Jones and Ridley play, it’ll be imperative that the Packers get pressure on immobile quarterback Matt Ryan. Otherwise, the former MVP could pick the defense apart. Not only are Jones and Ridley special, but No. 3 receiver Russell Gage and athletic tight end Hayden Hurst could be tough matchups in the middle of the field. Besides a very disruptive night from Za’Darius Smith, the best way to slow the Falcons down will be to control the ball on offense. Expect a steady dose of Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams and a lot of short passes.
Regardless of who plays and who doesn’t, this figures to be a high-scoring contest. These teams have combined for 241 points in their last four games. The Packers are clearly better, but they could be caught looking back at their big win over New Orleans and ahead to their bye. Something tells me to take the seven points and get ready for a nail-biter. ATLANTA 36-34 (Season record: 3-0 straight-up/2-1 vs. the spread)