What I discovered was a very good Seahawks team that plays a style that is going to be a difficult matchup for the Falcons.
The key to Seattle’s success is their strong running game helmed by Marshawn Lynch and Tom Cable’s zone-blocking scheme. Lynch is one of the best after contact runners in the league, and the Falcons defense has struggled throughout this year with their tackling. If they aren’t swarming to the ball and Lynch gets too many one on one situations with our linebackers and safeties, the Falcons could be in for a long day.
Lynch’s running is the foundation of their offense. With it, they utilize a lot of play-action and read option with Russell Wilson. The Falcons have been fairly solid against those two, but have had their lapses. They’ve faced Carolina (twice) and Washington, both of whom utilized a lot of read option, so they will be prepared. However neither Carolina nor Washington used much of it in their early matchup. The only time the Falcons have seen a lot of it (and I suspect Seattle will use it quite a bit) was in their Week 14 loss to Carolina. During that game the Falcons did give up a pair of long touchdowns on read option on a Cam Newton run and a screen pass to DeAngelo Williams. But I feel somewhat confident that Mike Nolan may have fixed many of those kinks in the subsequent weeks.
If the Falcons can contain Lynch, it will be difficult for the Seahawks to overcome it because it might force them into playing a way they don’t want to play, which is a dropback passing game. Russell Wilson’s short stature has made it difficult for him to be your typical pocket passer at this level. He likes to get out on the move, using his legs and throwing downfield. In fact, it reminds me quite a bit of the Falcons circa 2002 with Michael Vick. It’s what makes Seattle so dangerous since Wilson is prone to breaking some long runs. The key for any defense against them will be to contain him to the pocket and force him to use his arm, not his legs. The former has not quite developed, and he still is prone to making some youthful mistakes against the blitz, similar to Vick.
Mike Nolan likely will dial up some blitzes from time to time to see if he can catch Wilson unawares and force some bad decisions. Atlanta will likely try to mix up their defensive looks, which has burned several opposing quarterbacks this year. But the problem for Nolan is that if Wilson just decides to tuck it and run, all his scheming will be for naught. And watching the Falcons against the Panthers, the times when Cam Newton wanted to run, he really had no problem doing so. That will be something the Falcons front will need to work on. They can’t be too aggressive, but they also can’t be too passive allowing Wilson too much time to throw. You want him in the pocket, but you also want him to have to make quick decisions with the football, something Wilson has not been adept at doing this year.
The Falcons rush should get help from a relatively weak Seahawks offensive line. Paul McQuistan is weak at left guard in pass protection, and Corey Peters could see some favorable matchups. They have been platooning rookie J.R. Sweezy and John Moffitt at right guard. Vance Walker and Jonathan Babineaux should get ample opportunities to win there. At right tackle, Breno Giacomini is fairly average, and Kroy Biermann and a newly recovered John Abraham should be able to win that match up. I doubt the Falcons pass rush is such that they will harass Wilson all day, but if they can get effective pressure and keep him from getting outside the pocket, it bodes very well for Atlanta.Defensively, the Seahawks present their share of problems. They have arguably the best tandem of corners in the league in Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner. At least Sherman has played at a very high level this year. Browner has been productive, but watching him on tape, I see the same player that can be susceptible to being beat by a receiver of Julio Jones’s ability. Jones worked him last year in his first breakout performance, and I expect similar results. Browner is a very good press corner, but he’s fairly stiff, and if the Falcons receivers (namely Julio) can get off the line against him, Browner will be at a severe disadvantage. Sherman will mostly draw the assignment of covering Roddy White for most of the day. He struggled at times covering Stevie Johnson against the Bills, who as I previously mentioned has a very similar skillset to White. Historically, Matt Ryan has shied away from attacking top corners like Sherman. It’ll be interesting to see what he does this week. He should have a favorable matchup with either Jones or White against Browner, but Sherman also can be beat, you just have to pick your spots. Double moves, deep comebacks, slants, crossing routes, and screens can be utilized to attack both. Sherman has played very well this year and is a good corner, but I think watching more of him, he’s relying more off an aura of invincibility than being a true shutdown corner. The simple truth is that Seattle hasn’t faced that many top-end receivers, especially ones that are also equipped with an accurate passer this year. Johnson really could have dominated that Bills-Seahawks game had Ryan Fitzpatrick not been so erratic and inaccurate.
Seattle’s safeties are good between Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, presenting a similar dynamic as Thomas DeCoud (fast, rangy ballhawk) and William Moore (physical, run-defending enforcer) do in Atlanta. I think you can attack their safeties by spreading the field, and forcing those guys to match up in man coverage against slot receivers and tight ends. The Patriots were able to get the ball to both Hernandez and Gronkowkski with a number of short/intermediate throws. That should play well to the strengths of Tony Gonzalez, who is not a vertical threat. The Falcons would also be smart to mix in several looks of either White or Jones manning the slot as well to get a favorable matchup against a weak Seahawk nickel corner in Marcus Trufant. It will certainly help if Harry Douglas is also not an afterthought or no-show this week.
Seattle has a good group of linebackers, but they don’t really pop on film, but they do play solidly and consistently. But I think the Falcons can attack them in coverage with a player like Gonzalez. I also think they can struggle to get off blocks and match up against quicker backs. C.J. Spiller and Alfred Morris fared well against the Seahawks run front due to their quickness. Seattle relies on size up the middle to bolster their run defense. Combined, Brandon Mebane, Red Bryant, and Alan Branch are a few dozen pounds shy of 1000. The Falcons don’t have the interior up front to really expect to get much push against them. That will make it very difficult for a player of Michael Turner’s skillset to get enough room to be effective. Instead, the Falcons should look to mix in a much heavier dose of Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling, who have shown much more pep in their step. Even still the Falcons shouldn’t be expected to have a ton of rushing success, but it could be enough to keep some semblance of balance offensively. Attacking the edges of Seattle’s run defense plays not only to the strength of the Falcons runners, but also to the weakness of the Seahawks.Seattle has been very good against the pass, and bolstered by their solid pass rush and strong secondary play has not given up many big plays. Their pass rush however took a huge hit with the loss of Chris Clemons last week to injury. Clemons was their primary pass rusher, and his absence from the game gives Atlanta a huge boost offensively. The Seahawks also lost Jason Jones, their third down interior pass rush specialist. His replacement, Clinton McDonald is basically an oversized version of Chauncey Davis. Rookie right guard Peter Konz who has struggled as a starter this year should be able to fare well against him. That leaves the majority of Seattle’s pass rush to be provided by undersized Bruce Irvin. While Irvin has flashed good ability, he’s not shown himself to be the dominant pass rusher that can take over a game without help from Clemons. He’ll be likely to face a lot more double teams and chips going up against Tyson Clabo at right tackle. He will also be expected to play more snaps on run downs, which could wear him down significantly to make him a much less effective pass rusher.
If the Seahawks struggle to get pressure against the Falcons, that plays well into the Falcons strengths. Offensively, the Falcons have struggled throughout the year with giving up pressure. When teams get effective pressure, it makes their offense very ineffective. Because Ryan no longer has the time in the pocket to throw down the field and thus they become a dink and dunk offense that can’t run the ball effectively. That doesn’t describe a team that has one of the best offenses in the league, that description mirrors many of the teams that will be picking in the Top 10 in this April’s draft.
I think the Falcons can get the Seahawks off-balance by spreading the field and utilizing a lot of no-huddle to tire out those big guys in the middle. If the Falcons can build an early lead, it makes it harder for the Seahawks to utilize Lynch as the game progresses. Similar to the Michael Turner of yesteryear, Lynch preys on teams in the second halves of games once they are worn down.
While the Seahawks are a good team, they can be beat if the Falcons play their style of football. That’s what this game will boil down to, which team is better able to play the style of football that has led to their success in 2012. The Seahawks want to run and be explosive on offense, while the Falcons tend to be a bit more methodical, but mix in some explosive plays here and there. The Falcons are front-runners and should look to get off to a fast start. While they’ve made some valiant comebacks this year, most of those have come against bad teams. The Seahawks are not a bad team, and if the Falcons are forced to come from behind, the Seahawks have the tools in place to prevent that from happening. Essentially, the team that plays the best in the first quarter probably will wind up being the winner of this game.