Tale of the Tape — Seahawks, Falcons Should Scare the Hell Out of One Another
Atlanta brings an overwhelming offense, an improving defense, and a four-game winning streak into this divisional playoff game. Seattle brings a more balanced team, and the confidence earned from their most complete game of the season this past week. Vegas has made the Falcons 4.5 point favorites due to home field advantage and the belief that the Falcons offense is the most dominant of the six units (offense, defense, special teams for each) that will take the field Saturday. While logical, Pete Carroll and the Seahawks may have them exactly where they want them. In the six games when the Seahawks have been underdogs by more than three points since Russell Wilson joined the team, the Seahawks have covered the spread in each game and won the game five of six times. That includes winning a game in New England this year where they were 7.5 point underdogs. The truth is this is a pick’em matchup. Both teams have advantages they can exploit this weekend. Let’s examine each of them.
The way this works: Each offense will be pitted against the opposing defense and compared on an array of key statistical attributes based on their respective rank in the NFL. The tables that follow show the rank of each unit for each of these categories.
Seahawks Offense vs Falcons Defense
The Falcons offense is legitimately spectacular. They are so good that it begs the question how a team with a strength like that can finish with just an 11-5 record. The answer is in their defense. How bad has the Falcons defense been this year? Atlanta has scored 30 points or less six times this year. They are 1-5 in those games. This defense has needed the offense to be dominant to win. That formula has changed a bit in the past six weeks as the Falcons have held four of their final six opponents below 20 points. They have recorded a takeaway in eight straight games. What is more difficult to ascertain is how much level of competition contributed to that run as games against the Rams, 49ers, and downtrodden Panthers were mixed in.
Falcons fans will tell you this is a different defense than the one Seattle faced in week six. Carroll agreed with that assessment in his press conference on Tuesday. Some of those same fans will try to convince you the Falcons were missing guys like linebackers Deion Jones, De’Vondre Campbell, and Keanu Neal in that first game. They would be wrong. Those players all were on the field for that game, but guys like cornerback Jalen Collins and linebacker Paul Worrilow were not. Collins is a 6’2″ corner who figures to be a factor, but his addition is somewhat neutralized by the absence of Desmond Trufant who was there in the first game and will not be there this weekend due to injury. Worrilow is a terrific tackler, but he plays just 18% of the defensive snaps.
This is one of those situations where the season numbers tell a different story than the most recent numbers. On the year, this has been one of the five worst defenses in the league. They were 26th in yards per drive, 27th in points per drive, and 27th in overall DVOA, per FootballOutsiders.com. They were 29th in defending the run, and 24th in pass rush. And yet, they have been better in some ways as of late, and will be facing a Seahawks offense still needing to prove itself.
Seattle must come out with a killer instinct that was missing in games in Tampa and Green Bay. They have everything they need to be a prolific offense against this defense. It starts with the running game.
Falcons key advantages on defense
Vic Beasley Jr. led the NFL in sacks with 15.5. That is enough to make every Seahawks fan pull the blanket over their faces knowing the kind of struggles the Seahawks tackles have had this year. Beasley should have been trouble for Seattle the first time they played, but he was shut out by Garry Gilliam, who has been playing his best football of the year the past three weeks. You might think the change of venue would give Beasley and other pass rushers for the Falcons an advantage, but Seattle gave up more sacks at home this year (22) than on the road (20), and Beasley recorded more sacks on the road (9.5) than at home (6.0).
Don’t be surprised if the Falcons try to match Beasley up on George Fant instead. Fant has struggled with speed rushers like Beasley. It is unclear how comfortable Beasley is rushing from the right side of the line. That may force the Falcons to keep him on the left versus Gilliam.
It is also worth noting that 12 of Beasley’s 15.5 sacks came in the first half of games. He is a smaller player, who appears to wear down as the game wears on.
The Falcons defense would appear to have an advantage in rushing yards by the chart above. That largely depends on whether the Seahawks running game from the season shows up or the one we saw last week against the Lions. Anything resembling the line that plowed the way to 177 yards against the Lions would give the Falcons defense trouble. A big part of why the Falcons rank relatively well in rushing yards allowed is because teams are so often trailing their offense that they abandon the run.
A truer defensive advantage for the Falcons may be their ability to keep pass plays in front of them. That #11 ranking in opponent yards per attempt jumps out. Seattle is without Tyler Lockett, their primary deep threat. What is confounding is how the Falcons could be 11th in yards per attempt and still rank 30th in the amount of explosive passes surrendered. That paints the picture of an all-or-nothing pass defense.
Neal is their version of Kam Chancellor. He is a thumper, who hits with reckless abandon in the run game. Given the fragility of Thomas Rawls and C.J. Prosise, that is a hidden factor Seattle has to hope will not surface.
Seahawks key advantages on offense
Even though the Falcons defense has looked a lot better the past few weeks in points allowed, they have allowed over 100 yards rushing in six of their past seven games, including 208 yards rushing to the Eagles. They have also continued to give up explosive passes (30th) and rushes (27th) during that span.
Seattle exploited the Falcons linebackers repeatedly in the first matchup. They struggled in coverage against both Jimmy Graham and the Seahawks running backs. C.J. Spiller and Christine Michael found plenty of space on underneath routes. Seahawks fans know Carroll’s defense tends to struggle at times with underneath routes to running backs and tight ends. Dan Quinn’s defense is no different. The Falcons rank 26th in defending passes to running backs, per FootballOutsiders.
Should Prosise make a healthy return, he could be a huge factor in this game. The Falcons have never faced him and he has been a difference maker in every game he has managed to play. Graham was a big problem for the Falcons in the first game, and should be again.
Seattle could also put significantly greater pressure on the Falcons run defense than they did in the first game when Wilson was just three weeks removed from spraining his MCL and was still wearing the bulkiest of the knee braces. There was no read-option in that game. There was also no Rawls and no Marcel Reece. Seattle ran off the right side of their line in that game most effectively, apparently targeting Beasley, who is undersized. The Falcons ranked dead last in defending runs to that side of the field. They were 27th in defending runs up the middle. That is where Justin Britt and the strength of the Seahawks line resides.
Despite having the NFL’s leader in sacks, the Falcons pass rush is pretty awful. They are near the bottom of the league in sack rate. Teams that are unable to exploit the Seahawks pass protection have a heck of a time beating the Seahawks.
The Seahawks must protect the football. They are 7-0-1 when committing zero turnovers. One of those games was the first matchup between these two teams.
Seattle struggled in the red zone late in the year, but had a great 3-4 showing against the Lions. The Falcons defense ranks dead last in red zone defense. Touchdowns instead of field goals for the Seahawks will be a major deciding factor in the outcome.
The last thing worth knowing is that two of the best game Wilson has ever played came in Atlanta. He has a passer rating of 119 in the Georgia Dome.
Falcons Offense vs Seahawks Defense
It is not often that the Seahawks defense appears outgunned. This is one of those times. Appearances can be deceiving. The Falcons offense struggled mightily in the first game against Seattle. They had one explosive quarter, but scored just three points and gained just over 100 yards in the other three. Matt Ryan was hit repeatedly, and the Falcons offensive line was far worse than the Seahawks offensive line in that game.
Seattle will be missing Earl Thomas, who was a huge part of the win, but they will be gaining Kam Chancellor, Frank Clark, Michael Morgan, and Michael Bennett, who left halfway through the third quarter with a knee injury. The Seahawks defense played as clean and consistent of a game as we have witnessed all year against the Lions. They can play that well this week and still give up 25 points to this dynamic Falcons offense.
Atlanta has played seven games against Top 15 scoring defenses this year. They are 3-4 in those games, but they still scored 27.9 points per contest. They played three games against Top 15 yardage defenses, and still averaged 25 points per game and 349 yards. Seahawks fans need to understand that holding this team under 30 points is the goal and a damn good accomplishment. It is highly unlikely the Seahawks can win this game if they cannot score at least 27 points themselves, and more likely in the 30s.
Falcons key advantages on offense
No offense is more explosive than the Falcons. They are tops in the league in explosive passes and 8th in explosive rushes. They make all those big plays without turning the ball over (1st in turnovers). They make those plays without turning the ball over and by being highly efficient (3rd in completion percentage). They do not have anything that could be called a weakness on this side of the ball, just degrees of strength.
Julio Jones rightfully gets most of the publicity, but Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel are more likely to be keys to the game for Atlanta. They will face DeShawn Shead and Jeremy Lane. Ryan frequently targeted Shead in the first game, winning a decent share. He will look to exploit the absence of Thomas as Steven Terrell has been fooled on deep throws since stepping in. The combination of that weakness with the Falcons strength in deep passes is where the Falcons hold their greatest advantage. It would be a surprise if the Seahawks are able to limit Atlanta’s big plays via coverage.
Playing at home should put Ryan in better position to make adjustments at the line than when he was fighting the noise in Seattle. That could also help the offensive line, who struggled against the pass rush.
Seahawks key advantages on defense
The Seahawks are on an absolute tear defending third downs. Opponents are converting less than 19% of their third downs over the last four games. The Falcons only converted 27% (3-11) of their third downs in the first matchup.
It starts with the Seahawks top-ranked run defense (by yards per carry). Atlanta finished the year ranked 5th in yards per run, but were overwhelmed in Seattle where they finished with just 52 yards rushing and 2.9 yards per carry.
The Falcons offense was held under 3.5 yards per carry three times this year. They were 1-2 in those games. Their only win came against the Rams who had five turnovers. Seattle held the Falcons to 2.9 yards per run in the first game between these teams this year.
Seattle also took control of the game with their pass rush. Cliff Avril outclassed the Falcons right tackle, and Bennett gave left tackle Jake Matthews fits. Jarran Reed bullied guard Andy Levitre. Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright blitzed on 50% of the Falcons throws and hit Ryan repeatedly. That all happened without Clark. Seattle has a great chance to win this game if they are able to generate similar pressure this weekend. That is one place where the Falcons struggled a bit, ranking 24th in the NFL in sack rate.
Seahawks kicking vs Falcons returning
Falcons kicking vs Seahawks returning
Devin Hester returns to Atlanta, where he played for a few seasons. He was a non-factor in his first game with Seattle, which was all the Seahawks needed. Better to be a non-factor than to be a negative factor. Atlanta has a good punt coverage team, but are vulnerable in the kick return game. On the flip side, the Falcons punt returns are quite good, and Jon Ryan has not been great most of the year. He had a solid game last week.
Seattle missed an extra point and a 29-yard field goal in the first game. Points will be precious for Seattle against this Falcons offense. Seahawks fans have to hope the kicking game can reemerge as a reliable aspect of team play.