Atlanta Offers Perfect Test For Carroll

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Ten months ago, an 11-2 Atlanta Falcons team strolled into Qwest Field to face a reeling 6-7 Seahawks team that had lost five of their last seven games. It looked like a mismatch on paper, but was far from it on the field. Seattle struck first on a 12-play, 80 yard drive, capped by a 1-yard touchdown run by Marshawn Lynch. The teams battled back-and-forth and were tied 10-10 with only two minutes to go in the first half. Atlanta managed to get a touchdown right before half to go up 17-10. The Seahawks defense was solid. The running game had a healthy 4.3 average per carry, but the game turned into a blowout on three second half turnovers by Seahawks quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck. Pete Carroll eventually pulled Hasselbeck and brought in Charlie Whitehurst. There may be no better platform for Carroll to make his case for a game manager at quarterback than the rematch against Atlanta this week.

It could be argued that the additions of Red Bryant, Leroy Hill, Kam Chancellor and Brandon Browner make this defense better than the one that held Atlanta to only 4.8 yards per pass, and 2.6 yards per run and 266 total yards in last year’s game. Roddy White bullied Kelly Jennings on a number of key 3rd down conversions. Browner may make other mistakes, but White will not be able to muscle his way to success on Sunday. The Falcons are heavily reliant on Michael Turner and the running game to setup their passing attack. Tampa Bay stoned them last week, holding them to 30 yards rushing. That’s a Bucs defense that ranks 17th in the NFL in opponents yards per carry, compared to a 4th ranked Seahawks run defense. Matt Ryan has not started the season very well, and barely has more touchdowns than interceptions. He came into last years game playing at a much higher level, and still finished with only 174 yards passing and 5.0 yards per attempt. Add it all up, and there is reason to believe the Seahawks defense can at least match last year’s effort against the Atlanta offense.

Carroll has been preaching taking care of the football since he got here. He now has a quarterback whose only two interceptions have come on Hail Mary passes at the end of halves. Tarvaris Jackson continues to get skewered by most fans who are more interested in fireworks than limited mistakes. The prevailing opinion is that playing conservatively, “playing not to lose,” is not the way to win games in the NFL. A quarterback, the thinking goes, that throws for 25 touchdowns and 17 interceptions is preferable to one that throws for 14 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. Carroll doesn’t much care which way the prevailing wind is blowing. His top priority is limiting turnovers on offense and creating them on defense. Looking at last year’s Atlanta game provides some support for that logic. Hasselbeck got pulled in the second half with only 83 yards passing. There isn’t a record of how many of those yards came in the first half, but it is safe to assume it was less than 83. All of the three Seahawks turnovers happened in that second half. That means you had a quarterback who had thrown for less than 83 yards in a full half of football, with no turnovers, tied 10-10 with 2 minutes to go in the first half. That’s a pretty compelling case for how a strong defense, a decent running game and a conservative quarterback can allow a David to compete with a Goliath.

Carroll now has a quarterback that is protecting the ball and a stronger defense. The running game is comparable to the 31st-ranked group from last season. His opponent is a struggling 1-2 instead of a dominating 11-2. If there was ever a chance to demonstrate the effectiveness of Carroll’s coaching philosophy, it would be this week. Doing better than a 34-18 loss at home is a pretty low bar. It will be fascinating to see if this conservative offense can clear it.