Seattle returns to the scene of their heartbreaking divisional playoff loss this Sunday. This matchup could not be more different. The 2-6 Atlanta Falcons have been ripped apart by injuries and...well, the ball just hasn't been bouncing their way—sometimes literally—so far this season.
How far have the Falcons fallen this season? Their first four losses were by an average of less than five points. The last two losses—against the Cardinals and the Panthers—were losses by an average of 19 points.
Clearly, the Falcons are struggling, and this should be a cakewalk for the Seahawks, right?
As Seattle has shown over the last two weeks, the team has struggled to play a complete game, with the defense getting gashed on the ground. The Seahawks showed their true potential in the second half against the Buccaneers, as the defense kept the Bucs out of the end zone, the special teams had a big return from Golden Tate and Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson produced some amazing individual plays.
Still, the nagging feeling that Seattle may be due for a letdown remains. And what better team to play a spoiler than the undermanned but still dangerous Falcons?
Here's what Seattle needs to do to in order to keep the Falcons at bay and, more importantly, to keep their lead in the NFC:
Stop Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers
Steven Jackson was brought in to be an upgrade over Michael Turner during the offseason, a move that puzzled many observers. After all, Jackson was on the wrong side of 30, and he had shown signs of slowing down in his final season with the Rams. Jackson has already missed much of this season with hamstring and groin problems, but he looks like he may be ready to go against Seattle. If Jackson is close to full speed, he and Rodgers can form a potent one-two punch for a defense that needs to focus on the run. Jackson has never statistically dominated against the Seahawks, but he has given them fits in the past.
Kam Chancellor, Meet Tony Gonzalez
Julio Jones is done. Roddy White, if he plays, has been slowed by a number of injuries. Harry Douglas is a potent weapon, but Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner should be able to keep him in front of them. Tony Gonzalez, though, presents problems. The Seahawks linebacker corps have been excellent all year except for in one area: Keeping track of the tight end. Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright, and Malcolm Smith have all had troubles with pick plays, where a crossing receiver bumps the linebacker off of coverage, freeing the receiver they're assigned to cover.
Seattle should bring Kam Chancellor forward to keep an eye on Gonzalez on obvious passing downs. At the very least, Seattle should work to keep the absurdly speedy Bruce Irvin locked up on Gonzalez. Sherman, Earl Thomas and Browner should be able to handle the rest of the workload.
Feed the Beast...and then Taketh Away
The Falcons will probably base their game plan on stopping Lynch by stacking as many people in the box as possible. Seattle needs to get Lynch going early, and, yes, he will probably gain only a few yards here and there. But, if Seattle can keep the Falcons honest and keep them stacking the box, Wilson should be able to get the Falcons defense to bite on play fakes.
The Falcons defense ranks 19th against the pass, but they'll be looking to improve on their 21st-ranked run defense. This gives the Seahawks an opportunity to hit some play-action slants or even a few deep routes. With a battered offensive line that will be missing three starters, the best way to keep Russell Wilson upright is to complete a whole bunch of play action passes, whether they're for three yards or 30.
Golden Tate may be the key to the Seahawks' fortunes in this game. He is speedy, but he is also deceptively powerful. He should match up well against Desmond Trufant and Asante Samuel. Tate is beginning to show promise as a game-changer; this may very well be his breakout game.
This goes without saying: If Seattle truly wants respect in the NFL, then the team needs to play a complete game on defense, offense and special teams. Although Seattle is one of the few teams that can win games when two out of three units aren't working well, they won't be able to do it for much longer. A game against the Falcons has the potential to be a statement game and to wash away some of the doubts that have been creeping up over the past few weeks.