After defeating the Washington Redskins on Wild Card Weekend, the Seattle Seahawks are forced to travel once again across the country. This time it's to Atlanta, where they will meet the equally physical and dynamic Falcons to decide who will continue their pursuit of the Super Bowl.
The Seahawks are going to be in for a tough game because the Falcons have several very talented pass-catchers that quarterback Matt Ryan can throw to and feature a very aggressive and dynamic defense. If the Seahawks are to pull an upset win over the Falcons, they are going to have to execute these five keys.
Run the Ball
First and foremost, the Seahawks must run the ball effectively. It is their offensive identity and a great way to set up the passing game for rookie Russell Wilson.
Last week against the Redskins, running back Marshawn Lynch was in his usual "beast mode" as he sabotaged the Redskins defense for a total of 132 yards on 20 carries. This worked out to an average of 6.6 yards per carry on the night, which is an astronomically high number to allow by a defense.
In addition to Lynch's beastly running, Wilson was able to keep plays alive and rush for 67 of his own yards. Overall, the team rushed for a total of 224 yards on 37 carries, which is an average of 6.1 yards per carry. Defensively, the Falcons allow a total of 121 yards per game, ranking No. 21 in the NFL, and even more important is their 4.8 yards allowed per carry average, which is fourth worst according to pro-football-reference.com.
If the offense is able to generate yards on the ground like they did against the Redskins, it'll make things much easier for their young quarterback. Wilson will be able to take advantage of the very aggressive—admittedly sometimes too aggressive—Falcons defense by hitting them over the top with a deep ball or two.
Continue to Simplify the Game for Russell Wilson
During Sunday night's Redskins-Seahawks Wild Card broadcast, the commentators noted that offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell sometimes has to refrain from adding more to his quarterback's plate. It's a tough task to avoid doing just that because Wilson is wise beyond his years, but Bevell's going to have to hold back against the Falcons.
The Falcons defense is coordinated by Mike Nolan, who is well known for having a multiply talented defense.
There are a plethora of false looks galore before the snap and after it. Defensive backs are rotating everywhere whilst defensive linemen, such as defensive end Kroy Biermann, are unexpectedly dropping into coverage. All a part of Nolan's blitz packages.
Nolan's exotic looks have given troubles to many quarterbacks this season, including the rarely confused Peyton Manning. If Wilson is forced to pass the ball often, especially in third-and-long situations, it could spell trouble for him and the offense.
In obvious pass downs situations, the Falcons cornerbacks, especially veteran Asante Samuel, become more aggressive and start to jump routes more often. The Falcons were tied for fifth in interception totals over the course of the regular season, logging 24. They also had 83 passes defended, which ranked No. 8 (via ESPN.com).
Both numbers will rise if the Seahawks don't protect Wilson with manageable down-and-distances.
Defend Play Action
Generally speaking, the Seahawks have to stop the Falcons' passing game. Wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White have two different types of playing styles, with the former being more vertically based while the latter is a possession receiver, but both are a tough task for the tall Seahawks corners.
Jones will test the cornerbacks with his speed while White is a handful as a crisp route-runner. Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman will have to be physical with each of them and play with sound technique. If they don't, there will be trouble in pass defense. Fortunately, if there are any mistakes made, there is a good chance that free safety Earl Thomas will make up for it with his outstanding range.
Thomas' range is going to be a big factor in defending the Falcons' play-action passing game. He has the ability to quickly cover any lost ground, and he will have to do so because Matt Ryan is one of the league's best at play action.
He has been efficient all season in this area of the game, finding his receivers cutting across the field or down the field. The aforementioned Roddy White is often a target on deep crossing routes on these pass plays, as is veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez.
Gonzalez is Ryan's safety blanket and will have to be kept in check by the safeties of the Seahawks.
Pressure Matt Ryan
Pressuring Matt Ryan is going to be a little more difficult this week than it was last week in pressuring Robert Griffin III. Ryan's not, by any means, more mobile than RG3, but the Seahawks lost starting weak-side defensive end Chris Clemons to an unfortunate tear of his ACL and meniscus, per NFL.com's Ian Rapoport.
This means that rookie pass-rusher and first-round pick Bruce Irvin is slated to start at Clemons' spot.
Irvin is primarily a speed rusher that works the edge but has also registered sacks by stunting to the inside on the defense's designed T-E (tackle-end) stunts. Due to his inexperience, he is unproven and has never really dealt with extensive playing time, even in college at West Virginia University; thus, he will have to step his game up.
Make the Falcons One-Dimensional
Giving more snaps to Irvin also means it will be more difficult for the Seahawks to stop the Falcons' running game.
Irvin is not much of a run defender, primarily focusing on working up the field through the C-gap, but will have to work hard in run defense to stop the running game of the Falcons. Although the running game has been somewhat sluggish this season, with running back Michael Turner looking like a shell of his former self, the Falcons will still run the ball to make the Seahawks respect it.
And if the Falcons have any success running the ball, it could mean trouble for the defense because the offensive playbook will quickly expand and more plays will be presented for the Falcons to attack the defense with.
Conversely, if the Seahawks stop the running game and force Ryan to throw more, there will be more opportunities for Bruce Irvin and the pass-rushers to sack Ryan.
All in all, the Atlanta Falcons may be the top seed in the NFC, but they will have their work cut out for them when they clash on Sunday with the Seattle Seahawks.
The Seahawks have a very physical team that prides itself on its ability to run the ball down the throat on the defense and suffocate offenses on the defensive side of the ball.
The offense is well organized and the plays being called complement each other very well. The players also complement each other, with running back Marshawn Lynch effectively bruising would-be tacklers and quarterback Russell Wilson throwing the deep ball over the heads of secondary defenders.
Meanwhile on the defensive side of the ball, the group is very lengthy, athletic and physical. Cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, as well as strong safety Kam Chancellor, are all very tall and physical while free safety Earl Thomas has rare range that enables him to cover the field.
Two things are for sure: The Falcons have a tall task ahead of themselves and this will be a brawl.