I’m about to reveal a bias, something that’s admittedly not in my best interests as an NFL writer: I’ll be wildly cheering in support of the Falcons this weekend.
I’m not being selfish in doing so, and there’s no deeply-rooted personal motivation here. No, even though I may be drawing the devil’s fiery breath from the depths of Seattle, I’m willing to embrace that scorn to protect all of you. What do you need protection from, you ask? I’m not sure we, as organized, civil people, can withstand another offseason of hackneyed NFL panel-guy discussion about Matt Ryan’s inability to win “the big one”.
That will persist even if Julio Jones and Roddy White are stymied by Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman (quite possible). It’ll persist even if Michael Turner continues showing the speed of a snail that’s pushing another larger snail, that’s in turn inexplicably pushing another even much larger snail, forming a snail chain to nowhere. It’ll persist even if the Falcons’ 21st ranked run defense is gashed by Marshawn Lynch, the third-best rusher this season with 1,590 yards, and he had 132 yards on 20 carries last week against the Redskins with a touchdown (that’s 6.6 YPC, with the overall yardage a Seahawks’ post-season record).
All of those things are far out of Ryan’s control. All of them, and yet if the Falcons lose — and especially if they lose big — we’ll hear far more about said loss than we will the Seahawks’ win, and the fact that a team led by two rookies on either side of the ball (Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner) would then be one win away from the Super Bowl.
Sure, you could argue that the Falcons would deserve your hate, and you’re right. But after they were the most underwhelming 13-3 team in, well, forever, a loss this weekend wouldn’t be a surprise given the poor defensive matchups presented by the Seahawks. Instead, Seattle would deserve much more of your praise, but the blackness of blind Falcons hate will swallow your soul.
I can’t live in that world. Go Falcons.
This should be an exceedingly close matchup, with strength against strength when the Falcons have the ball. The difference will lie with the Seahawks’ offense, and the maker of that difference is (*summons Jon Gruden voice*) THIS Wilson guy.
More on that below. First, we pause our programming for some numbers.
|Seahawks Offense||Falcons Defense|
|Total Yards P/Game||350.6 (17th)||365.6 (24th)|
|Passing Yards P/Game||189.4 (27th)||242.2 (23rd)|
|Rushing Yards P/Game||161.2 (3rd)||123.2 (21th)|
|Total Yards P/Game||306.2 (4th)||369.1 (8th)|
|Passing Yards P/Game||203.1 (6th)||281.8 (3rd)|
|Rushing Yards P/Game||103.1 (10th)||87.3 (29th)|
The shallow end of our numbers pool shows the high probability of the forthcoming beast mode from Lynch. To counter both that and the Seahawks’ defensive backfield, surely there’s a little-used slot receiver the Falcons can summon from the depths of nothingness, yes?
Thoughts and Rants
- Let’s get this one out of the way first: during the Matt Ryan/Mike Smith era, the Falcons are 33-6 at home. Yes, we’re all well aware that two of those six losses have come when losses matter most (Atlanta was on the road during their playoff loss to the Giants last year). Still, that home record is pretty significant, as there are only two teams with more home wins since 2008. And yes, for those who care about such things, if Atlanta drops this one Ryan will become the first quarterback to lose his first four playoff starts during the modern era.
- The Browner/Sherman vs. White/Jones matchup will be the central focus for fans and game film nerds alike when Atlanta is on offense. Judging by their alignments throughout the season, Browner will most likely be lining up opposite Jones for the majority of the game. He played 89 percent of his snaps at right corner according to Mike Clay of Pro Football Focus, which is where Jones is 62 percent of the time. Meanwhile, Sherman will draw White for much of the afternoon, since he spent 82 percent of his snaps at left corner. That’s where White was 56 percent of the time.
- The crucial piece for the Falcons then may not be named White or Jones, or even Tony Gonzalez. Nope, it could be slot receiver Harry Douglas. He’s played sparingly this year while serving as a distant fourth option behind White, Jones, and Gonzalez, appearing on the field in just 55 percent of the Falcons’ offensive snaps, and finishing the regular season with only 39 catches for 396 yards. As The Fake Football’s C.D. Carter noted, the scant success from wide receivers against Seattle has come from wideouts who primarily run their routes from the slot. That includes Titus Young (nine catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns), and Miles Austin (five catches for 63 yards and a touchdown).
- Let’s assume, though, that the strength of the Falcons’ WRs and the matching strength of Seattle’s corners results in a wash out. Enter Russell Wilson. Above you can see the vast gap in the two defenses, and Atlanta’s weakness against the run. But that hole is exaggerated further against mobile quarterbacks.
- Cam Newton is a convenient case study, because as a divisional opponent he’s faced this Falcons defense four times in his short career. In those games he’s rushed for 285 yards (71.3 YPG), with three touchdowns. Newton’s most recent Sunday jog against Atlanta was in Week 14 this year, a day when he finished with a 116 yards, most of which came on a 72-yard touchdown run. Both of those numbers represent career highs.
- With Seattle’s focus on the ground game, Wilson isn’t asked to throw nearly as much as Ryan (Wilson finished the regular season with 393 pass attempts, while Ryan had 615). But when he did pass, he has asked to look deep, and look deep often. Despite the gap of 222 attempts between the two quarterbacks, Wilson still had 42 completions for 20 yards or more, which is only slightly behind Ryan’s 46.
- Let those numbers sink in a little deeper for a second. Despite Atlanta’s dual-threat speed options out wide — oh and yeah, they have that Gonzo dude too — only 7.5 percent of Ryan’s pass attempts in a vertical offense resulted in a +20 yard chunk play. Meanwhile, 10.6 percent of Wilson’s attempts in an offense that’s anchored by the run (Seattle led the league with 536 rushing attempts) led to a deep gain.
- Applying pressure may not be such a great idea against Wilson, and not just because of the threat that he’ll squirt out for major yardage on the ground. Last week prior to the Redskins-Seahawks game, ESPN’s Mike Sando charted Wilson’s performance against pressure, and observed that the rookie’s ability to improvise out of the pocket led to eight touchdown passes and no interceptions against five or more pass rushers since Week 8. He’s also connected on six deep passes — again, +20 yarders — against a five-man rush, the third-highest rate in the league.
- However, there’s one weak area. Overall regardless of the amount of rushers, Wilson’s completion percentage on deep throws is only 28.6 while on the road, which rises to 53.3 at home.