There are many interesting match-ups to track when the Seattle Seahawks take the Georgia Dome turf against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, but the key battles will take place when Atlanta's receivers go up against Seattle's defensive backs. In Roddy White and Julio Jones, the Falcons have the best receiver duo in the NFL when it comes to beating coverage on isolation routes -- plays in which they defeat defenders with their own athleticism as opposed to specific schematic conceits. Add in ageless tight end Tony Gonzalez, speed slot receiver Harry Douglas, and running back Jacquizz Rogers making plays in the passing game, and you have an offense that is nearly impossible to stop when quarterback Matt Ryan is on his game.
That passing game starts with a philosophy under offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter that is radically different from Falcons teams of the past. Atlanta used to use the run to set up the pass, but now, it's all about the air show, especially on first down. Ryan threw the ball 237 times on that down, completing 70 percent of his passes, for 1,937 yards, 11 touchdowns, and five interceptions. In 2011, he threw on first down 195 times. So, when a defense adjusts to the Falcons' game, it must understand that subbing out on "passing downs" really doesn't mean much -- Atlanta has turned into one of those teams for which every down is a potential passing down.
To deal with that aerial attack, the Seahawks have a secondary that may very well be the NFL's best. Cornerback Richard Sherman finished first by far in Pro Football Focus' grading metrics. He allowed 40 receptions on 86 targets for 632 yards, two touchdowns, and eight interceptions on 591 pass defense snaps. Sherman is the ringleader, but fellow cornerback Brandon Browner is the one who has more experience against the Falcons -- in the Week 4 win over the Seahawks in 2011, Browner was frequently lined up against Jones, and though he allowed a deep completion, he also held Jones in check when he had inside position on deep passes, and he blew up more than his share of receiver screens. That's Browner's game -- get aggressive at the line of scrimmage, throw off the timing of the play, and cover with authority. He can't always match Jones step for step, however, and that could come back to bite Seattle. Sherman was a rookie in 2011, and he wasn't really a factor yet.
“He has great ball skills," Falcons head coach Mike Smith said of Sherman this week. "Physically, he’s a big long corner, but he’s got great ball skills with eight interceptions this season. There is going to be tight coverage and I think he does a very good job with tight coverage, and to complete balls you’re going to be very accurate.”
To deal with Gonzalez, however, is a different matter. Seattle linebackers K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner are rangy enough, but Gonzalez could turn them inside out with his speed, strength, and understanding of routes. Most of Gonzalez' receptions come on anything-and-short, and he's particularly vexing on third down.
“The same that everybody else has—nobody can cover him," Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said this week, when asked how his defense would address Gonzalez. "He’s just killed everybody for a whole career. He’s a fantastic football player. The film I’ve watched, he made six or eight catches in a game with people hanging all over him, in the end zone, in third down situations—he’s just a great, an all-time receiver. We have a really good match-up with [safety] Kam [Chancellor] being in his area, so that will be another exciting one to watch. Our guy is as big and strong as you can get and he’s ready, but nobody has ever stopped Tony. We’re hoping to contain him and not let him get crazy on us. That’s why these guys are so good—everywhere you look they’ve got a big-time player. We’ll see what happens.”
If the Seahawks play quarters concepts in which they have specific defenders in lanes for Atlanta's receivers, that might be a big help, especially with pass-rusher Chris Clemons out for the rest of the ride after suffering a torn ACL and meniscus against the Washington Redskins in the wild-card round. The Seahawks will have Bruce Irvin and Greg Scruggs as patchwork quarterback disruptors, but the NFL's primary strategy to stop Atlanta's passing game -- force Ryan to make bad decisions under pressure -- could be severely altered.
On the Seahawks' side of the ball, the main advantage is the arm and mobility of quarterback Russell Wilson, against a defense that does not do well against mobile quarterbacks. The Carolina Panthers showed the Seahawks the way with their own set of read-option packages, and as Wilson has been running it with increasing effectiveness late in the season, the Falcons' defense has been unable to stop it at all. Per Greg Cosell in this week's matchup podcast, the Falcons gave up 216 rushing yards on 28 read-option plays to quarterback Cam Newton alone. In addition, when Atlanta's safeties and linebackers bit in run-action, Newton was able to throw with little difficulty. Wilson isn't the physical specimen that Newton is, but he's a great runner and he's a more consistent pure quarterback. In conjunction with running back Marshawn Lynch, Seattle may run the option series of plays more often, and more effectively, than any NFL team outside of the Redskins team they just beat.
"They do it both in a more traditional style, and also with the quarterback having to be accounted for with the read option," Smith said. "The big thing that you have to do is you have to make sure you take good angles to the ball, and you don’t give up explosive plays. When we have not played the run well there have been explosive plays, and you got to make sure that you limit those explosive plays in the run game.”
For Smith and the Falcons, stopping that rushing attack is job one. Job 1A is staying with their assignments in the back seven when Wilson throws the ball out of those looks. For the Seahawks, it really isn't that complicated in theory -- they need to stop a pass game that challenges at every level. The extent to which they are able to do so will most likely be the deciding factor. If Ryan isn't pressured, and he's able to tire out Seattle's base defenders with a no-huddle attack, he and Smith will get their first playoff win together.
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