The Packers' Pass Rush Will Decide the NFC Championship

The Atlanta Falcons' offense didn't have many flaws this year, but their one weakness was an area where the Green Bay Packers excelled. Could the Packers' pass rush carry them to the Super Bowl?

If you come at the king, you best not miss. And the Green Bay Packers have no choice but to do exactly that.

The Atlanta Falcons scorched the Earth this year as a passing offense, setting record after record and propping Matt Ryan up to an MVP-level season. The Packers, meanwhile, were 23rd against the pass, according to numberFire's schedule-adjusted metrics. This is about as big of a mismatch as you can possibly get.

This is what the Packers are up against in the NFC conference championship Sunday with the winner advancing to the Super Bowl. They're going to have find some way to stop this beast if they want to snag a victory.

David had a slingshot and a stone in his defeat of Goliath. Team USA hockey never could have knocked off the hated Iceland if not for Russ Tyler's vaunted and totally realistic knuckle puck in the pinnacle of American cinema, D2: The Mighty Ducks. The underdogs need some sort of advantage that can help them limit the opposing unit if they want to shock the world.

The Packers may not have a knuckle puck, but they've got Julius Peppers and a group of bad dudes who can get to the quarterback in a hurry. That could be just enough.

Let's take a deeper look at the Packers' pass rush with the help of numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP), the metric we use to track the efficiency of both teams and players. For this specifically, we'll be looking at a metric called Sack NEP per drop back, which shows the expected points each offense lost due to sacks throughout the season on a per-drop-back basis. If a team has issues keeping their quarterback upright while facing an opponent that excels getting after the quarterback, it could lead to some serious trouble.

Is this just the secret weapon the Packers need to take down their Iceland? Let's check it out.

A Ferocious Rush

The Packers may not have this reputation nationally, but their pass-rushing numbers for 2016 were truly solid. They measured up with the best defenses in the league.

Overall, the Packers were fourth in Sack NEP per drop back defensively. Opposing teams lost 74.77 expected points due to sacks on the season, and their 6.70% sack rate ranked seventh. They got sacks, and they got them at big enough times to curtail drives on a regular basis.

This wouldn't be a huge factor in this specific game if the Falcons had an offensive line able to stop such an attack. While they've got one of the better units, they did at least show some minor weaknesses here.

The Falcons finished the season with the 20th-best Sack NEP per drop back, a huge deviation from their overall offensive brilliance elsewhere. Ryan thrashed opponents with his arm, but there were times where he wasn't able to tap into that because he was left on his back.

This table should illustrate that. Ryan led the league this year in Passing NEP per drop back both when you include sacks and when you exclude them. The middle column shows his Passing NEP per drop back numbers under both conditions, and the column on the right shows his gap over second place. Even though he still led when you include sacks, that gap shrank quickly.

CircumstancesPassing NEP per Drop BackGap Ahead of 2nd Place
Excluding Sacks0.510.10
Including Sacks0.370.01

Ryan without sacks was the patron saint of precision, blessing the world with his unparalleled Gucciness. When you can get to him, though, he becomes far more human, and that's exactly the opening the Packers need.

Luckily for us, we have a 17-game sample to see how Ryan performed when facing teams similar to the Packers. The Falcons faced the Carolina Panthers twice and had one bout apiece with the Packers, Denver Broncos, Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles, all of which ranked in the top six in Sack NEP per drop back. If Ryan struggled there, it could amplify the hope for the Packers, and -- to an extent -- that's how things went down.

Ryan Against Similar Pass Rushes

Let's split this up into two separate groups. Here are Ryan's splits this season based on whether or not he was facing a top-tier pass rush. The split against elite pass rushes includes six games while the other split includes 11 as we'll also toss in last week's divisional round victory over the Seattle Seahawks.

SplitPassing NEP/Drop BackSuccess RateSack NEP/Drop BackSack Rate
Against Top Pass Rushes0.3250.93%-0.107.41%
Against Others0.4259.84%-0.106.08%

There is a pretty big difference here between the two samples. Granted, most of the teams with top-tier pass rushes are also going to be better overall against the pass, but this type of unit does at least bring Ryan back to Earth.

It is worth stating how good Ryan was even when facing top units. If we take just his numbers against the elite pass rushes, he would have ranked second in the league in Passing NEP per drop back behind just Tom Brady, and his Success Rate would have been sixth. No matter how you slice it, Ryan was a dominant force this year, and the Packers are going to have a load on their hands no matter how often they get to him.

Against the Packers specifically, Ryan absolutely shredded in Week 8. He had 17.03 Passing NEP on 37 drop backs, and the Packers got to him just twice. The Packers, though, played that game without linebacker Clay Matthews and cornerback Damarious Randall, both of whom should be active this week. The Falcons add Tevin Coleman (who missed the earlier matchup) back to the offense, meaning both units are different now than they were then and making it difficult to draw any substantive conclusions.

A Blueprint for Success

Based on all of this, one thing is abundantly clear: if the Packers can put pressure on Ryan Sunday, they'll at least give themselves a chance defensively. If not, then it could be a long day.

Ryan was the best passer in the league this year whether we include sacks or not. At the same time, the team was below average in expected points lost on sacks, and this brought Ryan much closer to the pack than he was otherwise. If you want to limit him -- especially with Green Bay's secondary -- you need peeps in his grill.

The Packers are a bit of a different animal from other top-end pass rushes that Ryan faced in that their deficiencies in the secondary masked the heat they brought with the pass rush. This could make the scenario a bit different for Ryan than what he faced against teams like Denver and Arizona, and it does hurt the Packers' chances of truly shutting this offense down.

Regardless of how things shake out, at the very least, the Packers know what they need to do. They need to get to Ryan early and often, exploiting the one weakness this offense showed the entire year. This will likely wind up being the big key to this showdown, and it could single-handedly determine who winds up representing the conference in Super Bowl LI.