Week 6 looks like a classic case of Strength versus Strength on the surface, with an Atlanta Falcons’ Offense that is on a roll coming into town to square off against a Seattle Seahawks Defense that has been widely regarded for the last several seasons as one of the best in the NFL. Truth be told, that really is what we have to look forward to seeing. The Falcons currently sit at 1st in the NFL in Offensive DVOA, ranking in 2nd in both the pass and the run. Seattle is currently 1st in the NFL in Defensive DVOA, ranking 1st against the pass and 4th against the run. Both teams are fairly middling so far on the other side of the ball (Atlanta is 26th in Defensive DVOA, Seattle 17th in Offensive DVOA).
However the matchup just isn’t that simple. This week, the breakdown in individual matchups between pass catchers and pass defenders is What to Watch. We all know Richard Sherman is one of the best and Julio Jones is nearly unstoppable when he is healthy and on his game, but there are many layers to this competition. Let’s start peeling those back.
Since we are talking the passing game, let’s take a quick look at Matt Ryan and the new look Atlanta Offensive Line. Ryan is in the middle of a career resurgence after a very down 2015, as he currently ranks as the most efficient passer in the NFL with a 69% completion rate and 12 Touchdowns against just 2 Interceptions. Combine that with over 9 yards per attempt and we have a very well performing QB. Part of this is most certainly due to a Falcon’s Offensive Line that went out and picked up Alex Mack to cap off a rebuild that brought them from perennially one of the worst position groups in the NFL to firmly in the middle of the pack. I know that isn’t glowing praise, but as any Seahawks fan ought to know the different between terrible and okay on the line is a HUGE one. That line is 19th in pass blocking, but perhaps just as importantly they are 9th in run blocking, allowing for a balance to the Offense that the team has struggled to achieve.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, it is time to stand back and admire Julio Jones. I know he is the hated enemy this week, but this man is a pleasure to see play the game of football. Jones has 41 catches for 517 yards so far, well on his way to another 1,000 yard season. However, he has been rather all or nothing in 2016. He’s had games with 300 (!) yards and 106 yards receiving, but alos games with 66, 29, and 16 yards. Teams know that he is the big threat on the outside, and they are game planning against him. The other receivers aren’t really helping him a lot with Mohamed Sanu being a bit banged up this year and only going over 50 yards once, while Justin Hardy has been all but silent.
Where the Falcons have a real advantage to press isn’t even from a receiver. They may not get a lot out of their Tight Ends (Jacob Tamme only has 158 yards on the season, and Austin Hooper just 6 catches), but they have one of the best pass catching Runningbacks in the NFL with Tevin Coleman along with Devonta Freeman, who is also well above average in that role. Both players have a catch rate over 80%, and have combined for 420 yards receiving on the year. The team showed the ability to really exploit a defense with these players in Week 5 against Denver, where Tevin Coleman went off for 132 yards receiving with several long catches. This isn’t a one game wonder either, as he’s also snagged 95 yards in Week 1 against Tampa Bay and 47 against New Orleans in Week 3. Coleman and Freeman have combined to go over 100 yards receiving in 3 games this year, which changes the way a Defense has to play. That type of pass catching effort on underneath routes coming out of the backfield forces the team to play up, which allows a deep threat like Julio Jones to take the top off.
A look forward here is going to begin with a look back. In Week 4 the Seahawks faced a New York Jets squad that featured an elite Wide Receiver (Brandon Marshall), a solid second receiver (Quincy Enunwa), and a pair of pass catching Runningbacks (Matt Forte, Bilal Powell). Now, the Jets had next to nothing in terms of Tight End production, but the parallels are there to be seen. Brandon Marshall caught 4 of 12 targets for 89 yards and a TD, and Enunwa caught 6 targets for 60 yards. Now, Jones is likely better than Marshall, but Sanu is not the same difficult matchup as Enunwa. I’d look for a similar day out of Jones (70-100 yards, maybe a TD), but I don’t think Sanu can make as many 1st Down type catches as Enunwa did. Statistics over the year back this up, as Seattle ranks 4th in the NFL at defending Number 1 Wide Receivers (8.6 passes for 70.6 yards per game), and are solidly in the middle against Number 2’s (4.7 passes for 41.1 yards). This is the part of the game that is Strengths vs Strengths, and as Richard Sherman showed in Week 4 – if you want to throw at him he will eventually burn you every time. There is a reason most teams barely even look in his general direction.
Where I become worried is that Bilal Powell and Matt Forte combined for 8 catches and 70 yards. This is with a much less accurate QB in the form of Ryan Fitzpatrick, and when Powell was on the field we knew they weren’t running the ball (unlike Coleman and Freeman who can both run). This is a Strength vs Weakness area for Seattle. The Falcons are one of the best in the NFL at passing to their Runningbacks, and the Seahawks are 25th in the NFL at defending Runningbacks catching the ball (6.1 passes for 47.7 yards per game). If trends continue, this could be the source of multiple touchdowns for the Falcons and really push up the score of this game. Even if Seattle defends them well, it would be a shock to see the backs combine for less than 50 yards on the game.
What may make this more interesting though is Mike Morgan’s trip to the IR. With their starting OLB out and the plethora of Defensive Backs the team chose to keep, that could lead to an increase in Nickel and Dime formations where Safeties are working more in Linebacker roles. Kam Chancellor and Kelcie McCray are a luxury in this situation as they are both above average sized DB’s, along with DeShawn Shead as a very big corner. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot more sets with all 3 of those players on the field at the same time on passing downs, which puts us in the much more comfortable position of seeing Shead or Kelcie defending Coleman or Freeman as opposed to Cassius Marsh or KJ Wright. If this shift does take place, this would dramatically rework the dynamics of this defensive situation as it would be much harder for the backs to get a step on their defenders.
No matter what Defensive Set the Seahawks play, the most important thing will be containment. For the most part, this Seahawks D has been excellent at swarming to the ball and making the tackles. Atlanta will throw to the backs, and they will get some yardage. It is up to the Defense to minimize those yards after the catch. If you see a lot of West Coast 3-6 yard passes to Coleman and Freeman that end with good tackling in space, the Falcon’s Offense will be stunted and struggle to score more than a few touchdowns. If those Runningbacks get loose and start making 1st Downs and long runs, it could turn into a long day and the Seattle Offense would be forced to score 4 or more Touchdowns for the team to find a win.