NFL Divisional Round Preview: Seahawks vs. Falcons
After shoving the Detroit Lions off of a cliff in Seattle, the Seahawks head to down to Atlanta, to face the Falcons in their divisional playoff game. One would think that the Seahawks, dealing with a dysfunctional road offense and the loss of Earl Thomas, don’t stand a chance. I… disagree. My Seahawks fandom placed comfortably aside, I am confident that this can and most likely will be a competitive game when the deciding seconds arrive. Even crazier, I think the Seahawks could somehow make their way out of Atlanta with a win. These simply aren’t the same Seahawks that barely eked out a win the last time these two teams met. Yes, Earl is gone. But for Seattle to make a win happen, they can and will need to exploit the areas where they could tilt this game in their favor:
PASS RUSH: The Falcons have Vic Beasley, Jr. He is an edge rusher with 15.5 sacks on the season. Here’s where it gets interesting; Beasley had no sacks and no hits on the quarterback when these teams last met. In fact, the only Falcons player to record a sack in that game was cornerback Desmond Trufant on a blitz (out for the season). If the Falcons fail to generate pressure again, a far more mobile Russell Wilson can make them pay dearly in this matchup.
Where the Falcons struggled to generate pressure, the Seahawks did not. It will help the Falcons’ offensive line some that they are playing at home, but they couldn’t keep their quarterback clean in Seattle, giving up four sacks and thirteen QB hits. They got pressure with a four-man rush. They got pressure with the blitz. This was in a game where the only key pass rusher to start and finish healthy was Cliff Avril. Frank Clark will be available for this one, and Michael Bennett has fresh legs. The best way to discourage a quarterback from throwing deep is with a safety who can make him pay. The second-best? An electric pass rush; Seattle may or may not be lacking the former, but if the game against Detroit was any indicator, they won’t be hurting for the latter.
RUN GAME: This may be the biggest key for the Falcons if they would like to get a win on Saturday. Falcons’ running backs combined for just 67 yards from scrimmage in Seattle, with the Seahawks linebackers doing their jobs and then some to stymie Atlanta’s rushing attack. They need to find a way to get their backs going. Not only are Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright running hot into this game, starting strong side linebacker Mike Morgan is back and ready to go. This doesn’t help matters for Atlanta.
Like the Falcons, this is most likely the biggest key for the Seahawks if they want the win, too. The offensive line and Thomas Rawls really took it to the Lions last week. C.J. Prosise may be back this week too, and fullback Marcel Reece is good to go. This is the first time the Falcons have encountered any of these players. If the offensive line can blast defenders off of the ball the way they did last week, this could be ugly. Seattle with an effective run game and a quarterback who can give zone read plays life against a malleable run defense? Troublesome.
SKILL PLAYERS: This is pretty much the only area where the Falcons don’t have much of anything to worry about here. If Julio Jones is fully healthy, Richard Sherman will have his hands full and then some. Without Earl Thomas in the secondary, you can count on Matt Ryan to take a number of chances on pushing the ball downfield. Nobody’s asking Steven Terrell to BE Earl Thomas. Wouldn’t hurt for him to try, though. That aside, the other Falcons receivers have the means to keep Seattle’s defensive backs honest. Disciplined play will, of course, be a major need here (especially since coverage busts were responsible for two touchdowns when these teams met in Seattle).
Seattle may not have as difficult a time here as it appears. Doug Baldwin was not much of a factor previously, but with Falcons’ top cornerback Desmond Trufant lost for the season, he may have an easier time getting going now. Paul Richardson has been on fire. The Falcons couldn’t cover Jimmy Graham. Briefly flashing back to the pass rush section of this preview, if the Falcons struggle to get pressure with a four-man rush, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell should have fun dialing up plays to keep a variety of Seahawks running backs, tight ends, and wide receivers involved in the pass game.
Not to be forgotten, safety Kam Chancellor is playing some of the best football of his career. I say all of that to say this: this game is hardly a foregone conclusion. Can Seattle win? Absolutely. Will it be easy? Hell no. This quietly has the makings of a great game. Let’s see what happens.