How Seattle can contain the vaunted Atlanta offense
If the first round of the NFL playoffs was something of a letdown, this week promises far more, and one of the most intriguing matchups of the weekend is the Seattle Seahawks traveling to take on the Atlanta Falcons.
Like seemingly every game this postseason, the two sides have already met in the regular season, with the Seahawks scraping a 26-24 win at home, but in a game that firmly declared the Falcons for real this season, and not simply a product of a weak NFC South over the first few weeks.
To go into Seattle and not just run the Seahawks close, but actually require some controversial officiating late in the game to prevent them coming back to win the game, made the point that this Falcons offense is very much legit and a force to be reckoned with. They of course proved that to be true over the remainder of the season, scoring 540 points on the year, 99 more than any other team in the league and the seventh-best figure in NFL history.
In terms of points scored, this Falcons offense is on par with the Greatest Show on Turf teams of the Rams Super Bowl era and the 1998 Minnesota Vikings.
If the Seahawks edged it in the first meeting, flipping the venue to Atlanta should give that same edge to the Falcons this time around on paper before a ball has even been touched. Seattle have one of the league’s best home-field advantages, going 7-1 in the Pacific Northwest this season but just 3-4-1 on the road (8-1 at home if you include the Wild Card victory over Detroit).
Over the past five seasons, the Seahawks have lost six games at home in the regular season and 13 on the road. Since 2012 the team has lost three playoff games, and none have come at home. In fact, over that time span they have only won on the road in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, and are .500 in neutral-field Super Bowl appearances, so it’s tough to overstate the advantage that simply moving the game gives Atlanta from the last time the two teams met.
The Falcons offense has been on fire this season, and the Seahawks will have a massive challenge to try and contain it, especially without Earl Thomas – the player that arguably makes that defensive scheme work like no other.
Impact the run
The Falcons have rushed for 1,928 yards this season, but the last time the two teams met, Devonta Freeman had just 40 yards on the ground on 12 carries, and Tevin Coleman added only 10 more from his five rushes. As a team, they averaged just 2.9 yards per carry and gained 28 of their 52 yards after contact. Seattle was able to hold the Falcons to 1.7 yards per carry less than they averaged against the rest of the league, and part of that is because every member of that defense plays a part in the run game.
Richard Sherman is one of the league’s top cover corners, but his play against the run doesn’t get nearly as much credit as his coverage skills, and represents a significant impact on opposing offenses. Seattle corners, in fact, have the top two marks in the NFL in run-stop percentage, and three of the top four from their top three corners. While many teams don’t expect their cornerbacks to be a factor in the run game in anything more than an ornamental way, the Seahawks expect theirs to man up and do the dirty work like the rest of the defense. When you add Kam Chancellor to that – a player that can act perfectly as an additional linebacker in the box – the Seahawks don’t have any free riders on the defense that aren’t paying their way in the run game.
How Julio Jones is deployed and defended in this game will be a huge determining factor. The Seahawks have broken with their tradition this season and asked Richard Sherman to track receivers more than he ever has in the past. They did exactly that against Julio Jones in the first meeting and while Sherman held up, it highlighted more what Seattle doesn’t do schematically than what they do with him.
Darrelle Revis at his best could track receivers anywhere on the field – including the slot – meaning if the Jets wanted to make sure a specific receiver was accounted for by their best cover guy, the offense couldn’t just avoid him by alignment. Patrick Peterson also covers the slot when shadowing receivers, but more and more we are seeing corners that are being asked to track receivers left to right, but won’t follow them to the slot.
That’s an issue in a league where most top receivers are perfectly at home running routes inside — if you really want to avoid that top cover guy, all you need to do is line them up in the slot and pick on the nickel corner. Against Sherman in Week 6, Jones caught three passes for 40 yards on five targets. But over the entire game he caught seven for 139 and a touchdown, picking up 99 yards on plays where they were able to avoid Sherman. The Falcons opened the game with Jones in the slot to see if they could free him from the attention of Sherman, and from the first snaps on offense they saw how to avoid Seattle’s best cover corner.
When the Minnesota Vikings defensive backs caused a stir by freelancing and ignoring Mike Zimmer’s instructions for Xavier Rhodes to track Jordy Nelson in Week 16, the bigger story was that Green Bay didn’t care. They just moved Nelson to the slot and let him tear up the rest of the Vikings coverage because Rhodes won’t follow receivers inside. Nelson picked up 18 yards against Rhodes in that game and 15 against Terence Newman, but 121 and two touchdowns against other Vikings defenders by working away from the perimeter of the defense.
Seattle presumably plans to have Sherman track Jones again in this game, but they need to come up with a better game plan to address situations where the Falcons move him in to the slot, because that was the failing of that plan the last time the two teams met.
Pass rush needs a big game
There are other players that are important in this matchup, but it’s probably asking a bit much to expect FS Steven Terrell to speed up his read and react time over the course of a week to better replicate the play of Earl Thomas. Instead, the next key area is Seattle’s pass rush, which needs to have a big game to try and slow down Matt Ryan and put him out of his comfort zone.
You don’t need to go back further than the weekend to find a game where they stood up to be counted, with Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett combining for three sacks and 11 total pressures while Frank Clark added eight additional hurries, and that’s the kind of game they need again despite facing a better offensive line.
When Ryan has been kept clean this season he has been virtually unstoppable, with a passer rating of 128.9, 5.9 points better than any other QB. He has completed 77.3 percent of his passes (best in the NFL), been accurate on 82.2 percent adjusted for drops (best in the NFL), and has thrown a touchdown on 8.6 percent of his pass attempts (by far the best in the NFL). Putting him under pressure this season isn’t having the same effect it has typically had over the rest of his career, but it does at least make him human.
He has the league’s third-best passer rating under pressure this season at 87.2, but that’s a drop of 41.7, significantly more than the league average drop for QBs this season at 33.1.
Ryan’s completion percentage drops 26.3 percent when pressured and his TD percentage to just 3.3 percent, so if the Seahawks want to slow down this offense, they need to squeeze the pocket and force him to hurry what he wants to do.
The bottom line
Seattle may find themselves in a shootout in this game, because even on the road earlier in the season the Falcons were able to put up 24 points and could have had more late on but for poor officiating. Seattle’s offense may need to help out its defense in a dynamic that doesn’t occur too often for this team, but the marquee matchup is how this much-vaunted Seattle defense will attack a Falcons offense that took it to them the first time they met.
Seattle needs to repeat the good things they did the first time around, and find a way to cover over the cracks in a plan that opened up over the course of the game. The Falcons have the advantage on paper, but this Seattle team is tough to discount.