Ask the average Falcons (and non-Seahawks) fan about what happened the first time they played the Seahawks this year, and they will tell you their team was robbed of a win by the officials failing to call pass interference on Richard Sherman on the final play. Ask the same question to a Seahawks fan and they will likely talk about Sherman blowing up at coaches and teammates on the sideline. While those two issues dominated sports talk following the game, neither should play a role this coming Saturday in the rematch. There were, however, numerous lessons to be learned from that game once the sensationalistic aspects are peeled away.
1. The Seahawks defense dominated the Falcons offense for three quarters
The final score was quite close (26-24), but much of the game was not. Atlanta scored three points and gained just 108 yards (2.6 yards per play) in the first, second, and fourth quarter combined. Matt Ryan 14-25 (56%) for 115 yards with 0 TDs, 1 INTs, and a passer rating of 51.3 in those quarters. Don’t worry, we won’t ignore that third quarter throughout this rewind, but the domination of the Seahawks defense against the Falcons offense for 75% of the game jumped off the screen.
Seattle outscored Atlanta 26-3 and outgained them 303-108 in yardage during those quarters, and generally looked like the better team.
2. Blown coverages contributed significantly to Falcons third quarter explosion
Atlanta came out fighting after halftime, taking each of their three possessions down the field for touchdowns. That included what ended up being a 99-yard drive. They totalled a ludicrous 21 points and 252 yards in that one quarter. Ryan was 13-17 (76.5%) for 220 yards with 3 TDs, 0 INTs and a 157.5 rating. Julio Jones had 115 yards receiving in just that quarter. It was the kind of turnaround rarely seen in the NFL, especially on the road.
Kyle Shanahan, Ryan, and crew deserve respect for altering their game plan at the half. It was clear that the Falcons would have closed the gap no matter how well the Seahawks played in that quarter, but it is not clear they would have scored touchdowns on each drive. Two of the three touchdowns were the result of blown coverages by the Seahawks. Sherman was playing one coverage and Kelcie McCray (who was playing for Kam Chancellor) was in another. That left Jones and Levine Toilolo running by themselves down the sideline.
Credit Ryan for finding both players and hitting them in stride. Credit Shanahan for motioning out players that contributed to the communication issues that caused the breakdown. Be careful, however, about assuming what happened in that quarter was repeatable.
3. Seahawks pass rush overwhelmed Falcons line, especially on the edges
Frank Clark did not play in this game, and Michael Bennett left with 6 minutes to go in the third quarter with a knee injury. That did not stop the Seahawks from punishing Ryan repeatedly. Seattle hit Ryan 13 times on the day, and sacked him four times. It was especially dominant in the first half. Cliff Avril terrorized right tackle Ryan Schraeder. He was far too fast for Schraeder around the corner and finished with 2 sacks and 2 quarterback hits. Bennett had five hits before exiting. He was giving left tackle Jake Matthews fits. Even rookie Jarran Reed made life difficult for guard Andy Levitre, beating him for a sack.
Ryan was visibly frustrated by the amount of pressure he was facing and the hits he was taking. He was forced to throw most of his passes early or just throw them away. Even in his sterling third quarter, there were often guys barreling toward him.
The Falcons offensive line is one of the lightest, by average weight, in the NFL. They have performed well all season, but were thrashed by a Seahawks line that was without two of their best players for a lot of the game. Seattle has all three of their top pass rushers healthy heading into this rematch, which has to be the top concern for the Falcons.
4. Kris Richard dialed up blitz after blitz
Not all of that pressure was caused by the defensive line. Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright were sent on numerous blitzes by defensive coordinator Kris Richard. It may have been the most I have ever seen a Pete Carroll defense blitz in a game. Ryan was blitzed on 50% of his dropbacks, per ProFootballFocus.com. He had a 93.6 rating on those plays and a 113.9 rating when he was not blitzed. Do not assume that the Seahawks will send that many blitzes in the rematch. Those types of plays are most often effective when the opposing offense has not been preparing for them. Atlanta has had two weeks to get ready for this game, and had to assume they would play Seattle.
They have watched those blitzes a thousand times by now and should be better equipped to identify them and avoid leaving players unblocked. That does not mean Richard will abandon it completely, and should he see some early wins, he is more likely to unleash the hounds again. What we will not know until Saturday is how much of the Seahawks success on blitzes was due to missed assignments (correctable) versus physical mismatches (far less correctable).
5. Crowd noise was an x-factor
Pre-snap penalties like false starts or delay of game are often cited as evidence for the kind of role the Seahawks crowd plays in their home games. Those have lessened as teams have gotten better at silent counts. What is a constant, regardless of opponent preparation, is the interference the noise causes at the line of scrimmage when a quarterback wants to change the play or adjust protection. There is no way to be certain how much that contributed to the Falcons offensive struggles for most of the game, but we can be certain that Ryan will in a far better situation to make adjustments at the line this weekend.
6. Vic Beasley Jr. and the Falcons managed zero pass pressure
Falcons linebacker Vic Beasley Jr. led the NFL with 15.5 sacks this year. Every lazy analyst in the world is going to be writing that he is going to have a field day against the Seahawks offensive line this weekend. Would 3 tackles 0 sacks and 0 quarterback hits qualify as a field day? That is what Beasley managed in the first game against this Seahawks line. He was coming off a 3.5 sack performance against the Broncos, and went on to record 2.0 sacks against the Chargers the next week and 1.0 sack against Green Bay the week after that. The only team to hold him without a sack or even a QB hit was Seattle during that four-week stretch.
When Beasley is unable to generate pass pressure, there is nobody on the Falcons to pick up the slack. Atlanta finished with one sack, and that came on a cornerback blitz from Desmond Trufant. Russell Wilson had plenty of time to throw throughout the game. He was under pressure on just 11 of his 42 dropbacks, per PFF.
Beasley squared off against right tackle Garry Gilliam most of the game. It would not be surprising to see him flip to the other side to test George Fant this time around.
7. Jimmy Graham terrorized the Falcons defense
Tight end Jimmy Graham finished with 6 catches on 9 targets for 89 yards against the Falcons in the first game. Those are not the most gaudy numbers, but the ease with which Graham piled up those numbers stood out. Atlanta struggled to find a player to put on Graham, and he often found holes in their zone on seam routes. The Falcons tried linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell with little success. How the Falcons try to deal with him this weekend could lead to a big game for other Seahawks receivers.
8. Doug Baldwin was not a big factor
The Seahawks leading receiver saw just five targets and finished with four catches for 31 yards. A number of the receptions came on quick screens. Baldwin could be the primary beneficiary of how the Falcons choose to defend Graham.
9. Jermaine Kearse had a nice game
He only had three catches for 35 yards, but Jermaine Kearse made important catches and looked comfortable against this secondary. He looked more physical than the Falcons corners. Tyler Lockett was in the midst of battling a knee sprain and played a very small role in the offense. Paul Richardson was not targeted, but should play a larger role this time around. One thing to watch will be the replacement of Desmond Trufant with Jalen Collins. Trufant is out with injury, and Collins did not play in the first game. Collins is 6’2″ and represents a different type of athlete on the outside than what Seattle saw in the last game.
10. C.J. Spiller gave the Falcons fits, C.J. Prosise next?
Spiller finished the game with the second-most targets (6) behind Graham. He dropped one, but caught three others for 38 yards, including a 24-yarder. Falcons linebackers really struggled in coverage, leaving underneath throws open for decent gains. The Falcons have never faced Prosise, who is a much more dynamic weapon than Spiller at this point in his career.
11. Wilson’s injuries seemed to influence play calls
Wilson was in the midst of dealing with his high ankle sprain and his MCL sprain during this game. He looked pretty comfortable overall, but Darrell Bevell appeared to be dialing up a lot of quick throws to reduce the chances of Wilson taking a hit. He finished 25/37 for 270 yards, but just four of those completions were greater than 15 yards.
There was also no read-option in this game. Wilson ran the ball 6 times for 7 yards, but most (all?) of those were scrambles. The return of Thomas Rawls (who was injured) and at least the threat of a running Wilson could greatly change the complexion of the matchup compared to the first game.
That could be good for Seattle if the running game is able to get more untracked, but it could also be good for the Falcons if Seattle tries to take deeper throws that take more time and allow a guy like Beasley a chance to create more pressure.
12. Devonta Freeman was frustrated and Tevin Coleman was a ghost
Ryan and Jones get most of the attention in the Falcons explosive offense, and for good reason, but Atlanta is heavily reliant on their running game to put up their big numbers. Seattle absolutely suffocated the dynamic backfield duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. The pair had just come off a game against the Broncos where they totalled 288 yards of offense. They finished with just 67 total yards against the Seahawks.
Freeman spent much of the game visibly frustrated by the lack of running room. He had 40 yards on 12 carries, but 18 of those yards came on one play. He averaged 2.5 yards per run on his other 11 attempts. Coleman was worse at 10 yards on 5 carries.
13. Earl Thomas was a major factor, but so was the lack of Kam Chancellor
The Seahawks dynamo of a safety was a force in this game. He separated at least three receivers from the football with jarring hits. There is no doubt the Falcons will be relieved to not see #29 in the secondary this time around. The question, though, is whether the absence of Thomas will be more damaging in the rematch than the absence of Chancellor was in the first game. Communication issues with his replacement, Kelcie McCray, contributed directly to 14 of the Falcons 24 points.
14. Mohamed Sanu was arguably as problematic as Julio Jones
Jones definitely had the big numbers, but it was Sanu who bailed out Ryan a number of times with clutch catches in tight windows. His twisting, falling, stretching snag on the first drive of the second half came when Ryan was about to get planted yet again by an oncoming Seahawks rusher. Had he not made that play, the drive could have faltered. Instead, it seemed to galvanize the team and give Ryan the confidence he needed to keep delivering in the face of the onslaught.
15. Personnel differences stood out
Chancellor, Clark, Rawls, Prosise, Mike Morgan, and George Fant did not play against the Falcons the first time. Bennett missed a lot of time with the injury. All should play this weekend. Thomas did play, but will not this time around.
Atlanta did not play linebacker Paul Worrilow and Collins at corner. Speedy receiver Taylor Gabriel did play, but was knocked out by Thomas. All should start this weekend. Trufant started, but will not play. Defensive tackle Derrick Shelby played a decent amount and played well in the first game, but is out for this weekend.
Those changes will represent tectonic shifts for the Seahawks. They are less significant for the Falcons, but Collins, Worrilow and Gabriel add up to meaningful additions.