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I took a poll on Twitter a few days ago asking Seahawks fans how they were feeling about this game against the Falcons. The results were interesting.

 

Almost 1 of every 3 fans were either not looking forward to the game or dreading it.  Open up the Seattle Times today and 3 of 4 reporters picked the Falcons with beat the Seahawks. Listen to my podcast with Softy on Friday, and you hear that I am expecting a Seahawks loss tonight. Yet, here the team sits at 6-3, with a chance to take over first place in the division and remain in striking distance of the top spot in the NFC. It is an odd moment in Seahawks history, but it feels like a significant one.

Seattle has won five of their last six games. They have gained 425 yards or more in four of those games, and have allowed less than 300 yards in four games as well. Just two teams have scored over 18 points against the Seahawks all season. They are undefeated in their division, and know the only other contender for the crown has to come to Seattle later this year. Paul Richardson is having a breakout year. Jimmy Graham is catching touchdowns left and right. Doug Baldwin is one of the top four or five receivers in the game. Germain Ifedi has been a serviceable right tackle when total disaster was expected. Left tackle may finally be occupied by a viable option in Duane Brown. Russell Wilson is second in the NFL in passing yards. Seattle is 7th in the NFL in total offense, just ahead of their opponent tonight. The Seahawks own the best Monday Night Football winning percentage of any team in the NFL, and are 15-1 in prime time games at home in the Pete Carroll era. So why the glum outlook?

There are at least a few reasons.

Injuries on defense put more pressure on offense

Richard Sherman is out for the year. Kam Chancellor is likely out at least that long. Jarran Reed may be out as well. Those are three of your best defenders (yes, Reed has been either your best defensive lineman or second best). All three play a critical role in run defense. Sherman is known for his coverage skills, but is underappreciated for his run support. ProFootballFocus has him as the second best corner in the NFL against the run. He has made countless plays along the edge keeping a short run from becoming a very long one. Chancellor was rated as the second best run defender at safety by PFF, and the 7th best safety overall.

Filling in for Sherman will be Jeremy Lane to start with. Lane is not a very good player in my estimation. He is rarely in tight coverage, and even more rarely makes an impact play. He has two interceptions in his career, and both came in 2015. His season-high for passes defensed is just six. He has forced only one fumble. Opponents will tell you everything you need to know by who they target. It won’t be the rookie Shaquill Griffin or the relatively unknown slot corner, Justin Coleman. It will be the guy Coleman beat out.

That is why I strongly prefer Byron Maxwell to reclaim his role as a starting corner over Lane. Maxwell is far from perfect in coverage, but he has a far higher propensity for making plays. He has 10 interceptions in his career, and at least two every season since 2013 (not including this one). He has had between 10 and 15 passes defensed in each of those seasons.

Most impressively, Maxwell has forced 10 fumbles since 2012, the most of any active cornerback in the NFL.

You know Maxwell is going to get exposed at times, but at least there is the potential for a turnover. Maxwell is also better in run support. Lane has durability problems, so even if the coaches don’t immediately see Maxwell is the better option, Lane will probably give way due to injury. We will learn pretty quickly how that side of the field is going to hold up against Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and crew.

If Sherman was a 9 or 10 out of 10 at corner, the best Seattle can hope for is a 7/10 in someone like Maxwell. More likely, they are looking at a 5 or 6 level player.

Chancellor was also a 9 out of 10 player at safety, but there is more reason for optimism in his replacements. Bradley McDougald has been a starter before and should be a reliable 7/10 type player. Delano Hill is a promising rookie as well. Given McDougald is on a one-year deal, it would be wise to start finding snaps for Hill.

Even the most optimistic projections, though, would include some amount of regression by the defense, both against the pass and against the run. Atlanta has not been the juggernaut on offense they were a year ago, but they are solid at almost every position.

Seattle goes from having almost no weaknesses on defense, to at least one clear one at corner. A quality offense like the Falcons can exploit those kind of flaws.

A realistic expectation is a defense that was allowing 18.3 points per game is going to slide back to allowing 20-22 points per game. That means an offense that is averaging around 21 points per game (Seattle is officially averaging 23.4 ppg, but that includes defensive scores) will need to step up to score more points and be more consistent or we are looking at a .500 team.

Atlanta’s defense is better than people realize

I admit that I was sleeping on the Falcons defense before digging in this past week. They have not allowed more than 26 points all year, and three of the four teams to score more than 20 points against them were led by Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Matthew Stafford. The other was Tyrod Taylor, so there is some hope in there, but they just managed 23 points. When you look at their player performance, it becomes clear why they have been this good and consistent.

There have been very few injuries, and the players they have at every level have been playing well. People have heard the name Adrian Clayborn because of his six sacks last week, but Vic Beasley led the NFL in sacks a year ago, and first round pick Takkarist McKinley is dangerous as well. Grady Jarrett and Dontari Poe are solid against the run. Linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell are excellent in coverage and solid tacklers in the run game. Keanu Neal is a Chancellor-like safety, and all three cornerbacks are decent-to-good.

Does Seattle have what it takes to do what only four teams have done all year, and score more than 20 points against Atlanta? Would 23 points be enough, or will they have to do what only one team has done and score more than that against the Falcons?

The Seahawks have scored 12, 46, 41, and 14 at home this year. Talk about feast or famine. This will be the best defense the Seahawks have faced this season in terms of yards allowed. The Falcons rank 8th (which is better than Seattle, by the way). The next-closest defense Seattle has gone up against is the Titans at 14th, and then the Rams at 16th. The only better defense they have played in terms of points allowed was the Rams, and Seattle scored just 16 points in that game even though the defense created five turnovers.

Brown may not be ready to go at left tackle, which would mean Matt Tobin would go against Clayborn. Anecdotally, Wilson has had trouble in games where it rains, and that is the forecast as of now.

You can see why there is some pessimism about this contest. That presents an opportunity for delight, though, should the team outperform expectations. There are a few storylines to watch on that front.

 

Mike Davis: The People’s Choice

Many fans have been clamoring for Mike Davis to get a shot at the running back spot since Chris Carson went down and the duo of Thomas Rawls and Eddie Lacy have struggled. He will finally get his chance tonight. There is reason to be optimistic about what he can do. Davis is a no-nonsense runner with some speed and power. He runs as hard as J.D. McKissic, but does so with more weight behind him.

Davis does not need to be Marshawn Lynch or Curt Warner to be an improvement over what Seattle has gotten at that position lately. Consistently getting back to the line of scrimmage would be a start. Gaining three yards instead of zero would be even better. Here’s to hoping the coaches don’t overthink this and rely too heavily on Lacy. It is time to see what they have in Davis. I expect Rawls to be a healthy scratch tonight. If he is active, don’t expect him to get any carries.

 

Embracing the passing game

If you listen closely to Carroll over the past week, there are some hints that he is ready to let go of trying to establish the run and rely more heavily on the passing game. Given that Wilson is already at a career-high pace in pass attempts, you might ask why this would be any different. The guess here is that Carroll will allow Darrell Bevell to call more pass plays early in the game and move more to quick game passing that is not reliant on the run game.

We may see more up-tempo, and a lot more shotgun. The Seahawks offense has been at its best this season when relying on Wilson and his receiving targets. It is far from a sure thing with the offensive line inconsistencies and Wilson’s own challenges with being the same player making the same throws game in, game out, but this could be a mindset change that gets that group going.

 

Warming up the pass rush

The Seahawks need their pass rush to make up for the losses in the secondary. That is not out of the question. The Falcons have a weaker right side of their line, and the Seahawks rush has been getting progressively better with the additions of Dwight Freeney and Dion Jordan. They need to be extremely disruptive to counteract the coverage issues.

Over the past three games, the Seahawks are second in the NFL in sack percentage (10.7%). That’s including a game at Arizona when they only had 2 sacks and a 4.1% sack rate. In their last two home games, the Seahawks have 11 sacks (5 vs Houston, 6 vs Washington). Their sack rates were 14.3% and 16.2% in those games.

Those guys are getting more and more confident. Not only are Freeney and Jordan adding to the mix, Frank Clark and Sheldon Richardson are playing better. Reed has been good when he has played, and Nazair Jones has been disruptive as well. With Marcus Smith due back tonight, this could be the most complete pass rushing group the team has had all season.

Atlanta has only given up more than 2 sacks once all season. Disruptive pressure could be a major factor.

 

A chance to learn

A loss tonight would not end the Seahawks playoffs hopes or doom them to mediocrity. Brown and Luke Joeckel both may not play and their return could make a big difference for the offense. McDougald, Hill, and Maxwell should all get better and more comfortable as they get more reps. Given the tiebreaker advantage the Seahawks have over the Rams, they need that team to lose only one other game, even with a Seahawks loss to Atlanta, in order for Seattle to control their own destiny in the division. That said, a win would certainly write a different script.

Beating a quality team like the Falcons with the offensive challenges Seattle has faced and the injuries they are dealing with on defense would imply a new type of Seahawks team is emerging. It would be one that can lean more on its quarterback and the offense, and rely less on a dominant defense. It would be a defense that relies more on their front seven than their secondary.

Heading into this game, the feeling is Seattle may be on the precipice of a painful fall. One cannot know exhilaration, though, without the threat of devastation. We learn together tonight whether this team can lean on new shoulders in new ways.

 

9 Responses

  1. Uncle Bob

    Were I a twitter participant I likely would have been in the “looking forward….”, but not necessarily optimistic about a Seahawk victory. I don’t accept the doom and gloom mentality out there, especially about the defensive backfield. We have decent depth available to step up and be good enough to get the job done if they don’t make an unusual number of errors. My real concern is more injuries as we don’t have proven depth to go deeper on the back ups beyond the front D-line. We can hope that Atlanta buys the negative meme and will be over confident, but I suspect they’re too well coached for that to be too much of a hope.

    I’ve long questioned the quality of offensive coaching/scheming, not that it’s bad (the popular whine), but that it’s only middlin’, good enough to be a top half contender, but not championship grade consistently. Hope comes from various examples over time, e.g. the Patriots game last year, but those don’t happen often enough to be taken for granted. To flesh out my main complaint that the Cable/Bevell combo doesn’t work for basic management reasons I’ll point out that neither has full control of the offensive scheming. Bevell is constrained by what decisions Cable makes about the running backs and linemen, and since Cable has the additional title of “Assistant Head Coach” he likely doesn’t have veto power (or maybe only believes he doesn’t) over his choices/calls. PC may have all manner of rationalizations for why he thinks that’s a satisfactory decision/alignment, but I think it’s counter productive. It’s not likely to change, certainly not mid season, so we should continue to get the uncertainty we’ve become (grudgingly) accustomed to.

    I would love to see them do what Pittsburgh did last Thursday on their opening drive. Despite having one of the best running backs in the league, they play actioned themselves through the air to an opening drive score, and then stayed in the lead for the balance of the game. Wouldn’t that be a refreshing change of pace for the Seahawks? Since the O-line needs help to counter a stout front rush, there needs to be a healthy dose (not consistent though) of creative plays; sweeps, short crossing routes, etc. to cause the Atlanta D-line to pause a might every so often. Give our defense a chance to spend some time on the side lines. If we give the Atlanta defense a chance to rest 2/3 of the game like we did with our other losses, we don’t stand a chance.

    There’s enough player talent on the Seahawks to pull off a win…………if their given enough leadership.

    Reply
    • Doug

      I like your take Uncle Bob, and want to pick up on the need to get creative on Offense. Something they can try that I saw Minnesota using vs LA to negate Donald in particular–quick screens and not the WR/bubbles that we see the Seahawks use. Tunnel screens used judiciously do help to slow down a pass rush, and it’s something that we just haven’t seen much of from the Seahawks. I would like to see a jet sweep or two also.

      Fingers crossed that some semblance of a running game will appear tonight. If the Falcons have to respect the run it helps in so many ways to make Russ effective in running the offense.

      I am expecting a good game for the Seahawks tonight–if not a win, a close loss with lots of promising signs.

      Reply
      • Christine Hansen

        I’m with you guys. I think there is plenty of promise the Hawks will pull this off and win.
        The sooner they get Maxwell out there the better.
        Seems to me a third of people in general are more cautious and a bit less optimist. I’m fired up!

      • Uncle Bob

        Good observation on Donald, last night at the end of the game I thought to myself…”Donald didn’t get many call outs in this game……….hmmmm”. If they had a scheme to control the best DT in the game, it’s something to learn from. It just shows, good scheming can accomplish almost anything with good players on either side of the ball.

    • Colin D Lundstrom

      The real anguish and anxiety about tonight is the expectation of bad things because we just don’t know when we’ll see brilliance and excellence.

      This offense is capable of excellence. It’s capable of pulling off 4-5 TDs. But will they be consistent. Will they take the mantle?

      Reply
  2. Chris Wheatley

    Well, losing Shaq and Davis didn’t help, but Atlanta has a good offensive line and Seattle has a bad one, and that was the key to this game

    Reply
  3. Hawkman

    We have learned two things ( one many times over). Pete Carrol has learned Nothing. He made the same idiotic move on the non FG kick in the first half back in 2012 , came back and bit him then and probably ( along with the bad flag on Baldwins non-catch) cost the Hawks at least an opportunity to either win or go to OT in this game ! Then there is the O-line and the absolute Horrid play by Obuishi(sp) but even more so by Ifiedi. He ( Ifiedi ) is a bust , he cannot play RT , that is for sure , and he was mediocre last year at RG. Tom Cable can no longer ( or shouldn’t) have any input on The O-line choices and maybe should go as coach ! There has been no to little improvement in two years! ENOUGH ! One more thing , It is Extremely obvious why they tried to include Jeremy Lane in the trade , he cannot cover , been saying that since before they gave him a contract extension !

    Reply
  4. BSeattle

    As far as the cornerback position, I agree that Griffin and Maxwell are the two best outside options.
    One problem, however, is that Griffin has been “trained” on the right side, and that is Maxwell’s natural side, as well. In fact, I believe that Maxwell failed, trying to play the left side, after he left as a free agent.
    So, do you move Griffin to the side he hasn’t played at all… or play Maxwell at his weaker position?

    Reply

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