You’ll notice that the 3 Keys to the game for the Division Round against the Falcons looks a lot like the list or the Wild Card Round against the Lions. As a matter of fact, they look exactly the same. The reason? Well, the Atlanta Falcons are pretty much the directly better version of the Lions. With a 26-6 victory over the Lions that seems like a good thing, but it is a lot more complicated than that.
The Falcons have the same Strong Offense, Weaker Defense build that the Lions did. However, that comes with an overall much better Offense that includes a solid run game with Devonta Freeman:
1. Deep Middle
Stopping the passing game of the Atlanta Falcons without Earl Thomas is pretty much impossible. Even with Earl, it would be extremely difficult. The Falcons have the best, most efficient passing game in the NFL this year and as Nathan Santo is so fond of saying on the podcast, the only thing that can truly shut him down for a game is injury. Add to that a lot of really good complementary pieces in players like Mohammed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel, Austin Hooper, and a pair of plus pass catching backs in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and you can see why the pass game is so good. Oh, and also Matt Ryan is having his best season as an NFL Quarterback.
There are a few things that can give the Seattle Seahawks hope though. The first is that the team appears to have stopped sliding Richard Sherman around in coverage and has gone back to letting him just shut down one side of the field (see the fact that Matthew Stafford did NOTHING to Sherm’s side last week). In addition, Jeremy Lane and especially DeShawn Shead are playing their best football since the first few weeks of the season. Most importantly though, the way Seattle can handle the run game and rush the passer will help the passing defense. Atlanta’s Offensive Line is much improved from last year, but they still rank 23rd in adjusted sack rate. That means a Seattle Seahawks Defense with a healthy three headed monster of Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, and Frank Clark will either be getting home for the sack or forcing the ball out for only short passes like they did against Detroit. Furthermore, the rushing offense is fairly mediocre unless it is running behind their Center, Alex Mack. They are 4th in average yardage running in the Guard/Center gap, and 4th in running through the Guard/Tackle gap on the right side. The problem is that if you want to run those places against the Seahawks, you must do so against Ahtyba Rubin, Tony McDaniel, and Jarran Reed. Those are very large human beings who do not like it when people try to run on them and they do very mean things to those people. Seattle has the 1st ranked run defense through the Guard/Center gap are ranked 9th in the Guard/Tackle gap on the right side. If that weren’t enough, Atlanta’s Power Run and Run Stuff ranks really are not great… it is against the Linebackers and Secondary they get a lot of their yardage. Do you think they’ll bust a lot of big gains through Bobby Wagner and Kam Chancellor? Even with Kam out in the last contest the Falcons turned in one of their worst rushing performances of the season. So, even if the passing game cannot be stopped, Seattle has the tools to at least make the Falcons mostly one dimensional on Offense and further limit them by way of a very good pass rush.
2. Feature the Best Weapons
Young players are responsible for the improvement in the Defense of the Falcons, with Keanu Neal, Deion Jones, and Vic Beasley being counted among the best players on that side of the ball in Atlanta. Neal is a thumping Safety playing the Kam Chancellor role in their Defense, and we know how much young Kam was prone to being overly aggressive. Jones and Beasley feature plus speed at their position, but they have shown that their lack of size can cause them to be washed out of plays. Overall that is a bit of a theme with the Falcons right now. Dan Quinn has done a good job of improving the Defense to a bend-but-don’t-break kind of group with a lot of speed, but they have done so to an extent at the cost of size and strength. Not to mention it is all part of a youth movement.
What this means is that a more veteran and savvy Seahawks Offense has the upper hand in several areas. The Falcons will have trouble with Doug Baldwin and his ability to find the gaps in a zone Defense, however they will have issues matching up in man to man with a player like Paul Richardson and his plus speed or Jimmy Graham and his Being a Giant. That forces the team to do things like double or triple team Jimmy like the Lions did, which leaves Baldwin and Richardson one on one. Or, they can do a Linebacker under and a Safety over and just leave the middle of the field open…with a more healthy Russell Wilson getting the option to just scramble and slide at will. This doesn’t even mention that the Falcons are one of the worst teams in the NFL at defending Runningbacks in the pass game, which Collins and Rawls have shown they can be effective with…but if C.J. Prosise is able to play that goes from first down potential to big play potential. If Seattle really designs plays around their best players like Jimmy Graham and Doug Baldwin, as well as their best matchups like Paul Richardson who WILL get Defensive Pass Interferences from Robert Alford, or their Runningbacks who will get solid catches, there is no reason that the Seahawks can’t match the Falcons’ offensive production today.
3. Run That Ball
Thomas Rawls ripped off a Seahawks franchise record for rushing yards in a playoff game with 161 last week against the Detroit Lions. That is what a healthy Thomas Rawls brings. That is what this Offensive Line can do against a bad run defense. The Falcons run defense is statistically worse than the Detroit Lions’ run defense was in 2016. By the transitive property of being bad, this means Rawls could very well have himself quite the day. To add a little context, Rawls was out due to injury against the Falcons in their meeting during the regular season, but Christine Michael and Alex Collins combined for 3 rushing touchdowns. They also combined for an average of less than 4 yards per carry, but I think we can agree that this version of the Seattle rushing attack ought to be better than that version was.
Diving just a bit deeper, you can see that where the Falcons best runs line up directly against where Seattle shuts runs down the best, the same is not true for Atlanta’s Defense. The Atlanta Falcons are the 32nd and 24th in defending the run against the Guard/Tackle and runs over the end on the right side. Those are the places where Seattle has their most efficient runs, ranking 14th and 12th in the league. Part of this is Justin Britt, Germaine Ifedi, and both Bradley Sowell and Garry Gilliam (whichever is playing RT) are going to have the size and strength to out match a player like Vic Beasley which can spring the Runningback into the second level.
It isn’t a foregone conclusion that the Seattle Seahawks are going to win. This is probably their toughest matchup in the NFC. But, the Seahawks are a team that threatens everything the Falcons do as well. This is probably a close game, but if Seattle can maximize what they do best they could punch their own ticket to the NFC Championship Game.