Falcons vs. Seahawks: 6 Keys to a Seattle Win
The Seahawks and Falcons both enter Week 4 with a 1-2 record, looking to get to .500. Atlanta is playing their second road game in a row, while Seattle is looking to capitalize on last week's home win and seize momentum heading into their own two-game road trip, sandwiching the bye.
Last year in Week 15, Atlanta won 34-18 in a game that was close for 28 minutes before the Falcons took a seven-point lead into halftime. They created a large enough margin that Seattle inserted backup Charlie Whitehurst into the game—after a horrific performance by Matt Hasselbeck. Seattle is hoping for a different storyline this week.
Two main themes covered earlier this week: While many fans are hoping to see Charlie Whitehurst, Pete Carroll is intent on getting the offense rolling with Tarvaris Jackson; can Jackson buy himself more time as starter? On defense, Seattle needs to hold Atlanta to fewer than 34 points and defensive lineman Red Bryant must dominate against the Falcons' rushing attack.
Atlanta has experienced playing at CLink, but Seattle still has the major edge of playing at home. Like last week, Seattle is motivated by playing in front of their home crowd. They need a strong effort to beat the Falcons.
Get Leon Washington, Mike Williams and the Tight Ends Involved
One major criticism of Seattle's offense after the Week 3 victory was that they didn't spread the ball around. Tarvaris Jackson targeted Sidney Rice 10 times, and the rest of the team 20 times.
Though Jackson's rapport with Rice is undeniable, Seattle needs to use all of their weapons. Once defenses take away Rice, Jackson will be forced to look other directions.
Last week Jackson missed Mike Williams on multiple occasions, failing to look his direction. Jackson knows he must get Williams involved. However, Williams is not the only primary threat lacking opportunities. Zach Miller has five catches on nine targets through three games—Williams has identical numbers—and has played a larger role run-blocking than as a receiving threat.
Granted Jackson spreads the ball around, both players should benefit from the presence of Sidney Rice. One way to get Jackson looking their direction is to employ all three men on the same side of the field: Miller the target in the short passing game, Williams in the intermediate and Rice downfield. Jackson will be able to look to one side, but also towards his main three weapons.
Rice will open up the field underneath or if the defense bites on the shorter routes, Jackson can be aggressive downfield—Seattle needs to take more shots downfield, period.
Inside the red zone, I would like to see a misdirection throwback. For example: Roll Jackson to the right with Zach Miller or Anthony McCoy on the backside selling as a blocker, but then have him release towards the sideline with an offensive lineman or two.
Chicago unsuccessfully ran a similar play in Week 1 inside the red zone, but only because Jay Cutler missed a wide-open tight end. The entire defense followed the offense right, as the tight end leaked out the backside of the play uncovered—the video provides a similar example.
The other weapon Seattle needs to get involved is Leon Washington. He needs more carries and Seattle is yet to establish him as a receiving threat on the perimeter; motion him out of the backfield or line him up on the perimeter in sub packages.
Assuming fullback/Wildcat quarterback Michael Robinson is back from injury, a formation with Rice, Williams, Miller and Washington split out, with Robinson in the backfield, could catch Atlanta off guard. Also, I wouldn't be surprised by an offensive trick play.
Seattle needs to make a concerted effort to manufacture offense, getting their best weapons involved.
Time of Possession, Turnover Margin, Penalties, Field Position
The Seahawks and Falcons both attempt to play a similar brand of football: control the clock, win the turnover battle, play cleanly and consistently gain solid field position.
The Falcons are widely thought of as one of the most fundamentally sound teams in the league, but have been struggling with breakdowns and discipline thus far.
Atlanta has 23 penalties through three games—two fewer than Seattle—and an encroachment on 4th-and-short inside two minutes cost Atlanta a final opportunity to tie/win at Tampa Bay.
By contrast, Atlanta converted two 4th-and-short conversions on offense in their victory in Seattle last year.
In their two losses this season, they have lost the turnover margin, time-of-possession battle and averaged starting their drives at the 24.5-yard line. It's important to note both losses have been on the road and Atlanta has fallen behind early each game.
By contrast, in their one victory Atlanta lost the time-of-possession battle by only six seconds, won the turnover battle and had an average starting field position at the 30-yard line.
Regardless of how Atlanta has been playing, Seattle needs to limit the Falcons' opportunities. The Falcons defense consistently looks to create interceptions via tipped balls or change the tempo on offense to gain a rhythm.
The crowd will be more of a factor if Seattle wins the field position battle and forces Atlanta to keep making uncharacteristic mistakes; both would help Seattle win time of possession. Seattle needs to beat Atlanta by taking a page out of the Falcons' book.
Win on 1st Down
The team that moves the ball more efficiently on 1st down will gain an advantage. Both offenses place an onus on moving the ball on 1st down to set up the play-action passing game and the rest of the offense.
The Falcons are particularly dangerous on 1st down because of Matt Ryan's ability to audible at the line scrimmage. He is adept at reading the defense and calling a play to exploit mismatches.
One tendency to watch is Ryan's ability to successfully audible when in "11" (one back, one tight end) personnel. After reading the defense, Ryan will make a call; the play he chooses largely depends on how the defense has defended the middle the field.
Atlanta's goal is to get the middle empty, to either exploit the lack of defenders in the second level against the running game or create a quick-hitting pass for the catch and run.
If Atlanta can keep the defense off balance, Michael Turner will have room to run. It's imperative the Seahawks front seven tackles well and gets the burly Turner to the ground, limiting his yards after contact.
Furthermore, look for Atlanta to mix in no-huddle. When the combination of solid 1st-down offense and no-huddle is working, the Falcons move the ball well. It allows them to capitalize on the play-action passing game on 2nd-and-short or spread the field looking for mismatches. Seattle must not get overly aggressive blitzing Ryan, or he will find open receivers.
The Seahawks will take a similar approach, in terms of placing an onus on 1st-down offense. They need to "stay ahead of the sticks" by getting all three running backs going early and finding receivers for quick passes—the Falcons play a lot of off coverage, creating the opportunity for early down audibles to wide receiver quick screens.
(Note: The video shows the Bears' ability to utilize screens and misdirection on 1st down versus Atlanta in Week 1, also showing the previously mentioned Cutler missed-tight-end-misdirection play.)
Expect to see the Seahawks in no-huddle as well. The strategy worked well on Seattle's 14-play touchdown drive last week. This week both Darell Bevell and Tarvaris Jackson noted Seattle's comfort in the no-huddle offense. This allows Seattle to dictate the tempo and keeps the defense honest, more "vanilla" and fewer complex schemes.
Atlanta knows that one way to keep the crowd out of the game is by moving the ball successfully on 1st down; on the flip side, Seattle understands the importance of keeping the crowd on Jackson's side. The winner of this game will move the ball successfully on 1st down.
Seattle Needs Sound, Explosive Special Teams
One main concern heading into the season was whether or not the special teams unit could match their performance from 2010; after allowing two return touchdowns in Week 1 and almost allowing another in Week 2, Seattle was more solid Week 3. This week, Seattle needs to be "right" on special teams.
Atlanta return man Eric Weems is elusive and shifty; historically, the Falcons are extremely disciplined on special teams. However, the Falcons have struggled this season and are in the bottom half of the league in both kick and punt return average.
Furthermore, Atlanta has struggled with punt coverage, notably in Week 3. Atlanta's gunners were overly aggressive, often missing the return man. The sloppy tackling allowed Tampa Bay to create big returns. Seattle can't let Atlanta right the ship and must jump-start their own special teams attack.
Carroll noted in his Monday press conference that Leon Washington has been close to busting a big return, but one missed block here or there has prevented him from getting to the next level.
Washington had two return touchdowns in Seattle's second home game of 2010 against San Diego, arguably the reason why they won the game.
Carroll praised Washington on Monday as one of the team's most willing, hard-working leaders; Washington needs to be an X-factor on Sunday and the return units must give him room to run.
Contain Roddy White, Limit Tony Gonzalez and Remove the Underneath Options
Matt Ryan and receiver Roddy White are one of the NFL's most prolific tandems, but to stop Atlanta Seattle must take away Ryan's safety valves: Tony Gonzalez and the underneath passing game.
The duo of White and Ryan have a sixth sense about what the other one is doing on the play, and even in Ryan's down performances—such as last week against Tampa Bay—White can still be a major factor.
Seattle will often roll coverage towards White with the safety over the top, similar to how they contained Larry Fitzgerald in the second half last week. Furthermore, Brandon Browner needs to contain White early, helping open the defensive playbook. White will get his catches, but the goal is to contain him.
The offense isn't as prolific when Tony Gonzalez is taken away as Matt Ryan's short-to-intermediate safety valve.
The Falcons move Gonzalez around looking for mismatches; they'll line him up outside in an attempt to get him one on one with the safety, and only linebackers who are adept in coverage can hang with Gonzalez in the short-middle area of the field.
Seattle must experiment with multiple defenders; K.J Wright, Kam Chancellor—listed as doubtful, rookie Jeron Johnson should see time—Leroy Hill and potentially even Brandon Browner could see time defending him. Last week Gonzalez was targeted eight times, but Tampa Bay held him to two receptions—he averaged six receptions a game through the first two. Furthermore, Gonzalez has three touchdowns through three games; Seattle must have a constant pulse of his whereabouts in red zone.
The final piece of the puzzle is removing Matt Ryan's underneath options: Harry Douglas, rookie Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling—if he plays. The Falcons use short underneath routes with their secondary weapons as an extension of the running game. All three are capable receivers in the slot, the later two capable out of the backfield.
White is a budding superstar and Gonzalez will be a Hall of Famer. The goal is to minimize their impact. But if Seattle can force Ryan out of rhythm in the short passing game, the Seahawks have a better chance at winning the game.
Win the Battle of the Offensive Lines
Both offensive lines have struggled in pass protection this season, but these are two entirely different groups. Atlanta has a veteran offensive line while Seattle is starting four players with three years of experience or less, including two rookies on the right side.
Seattle has allowed 14 sacks, Atlanta just one fewer; both teams know they must protect the passer to win. Interestingly enough, each team has registered only five sacks on defense; the difference is all of Atlanta's came in Week 1, while Seattle has improved pressuring the passer over the course of the season.
The Falcons primarily rely on four down linemen to create a pass rush; compared to the Steelers and Cardinals, this is a "vanilla" defense. They do break character with cornerback or linebacker pressures on 1st down, dropping defensive end John Abraham in coverage on zone blitzes and mixing the rush.
The primary objective is to protect Jackson against the three- or four-man rush, allowing him to survey the field and find holes in Atlanta's zone.
Look for the Falcons to attack the right side of the offensive line, especially rookie right tackle James Carpenter. A major part of Atlanta's success in Week 1 was through attacking rookie right tackle Gabe Carimi.
On the other side, Seattle needs to continue mixing their pressures and packages, especially considering Ryan's ability to read the field and audible.
Chris Clemons and Leroy Hill were instrumental in pressuring Kevin Kolb last week. Look for Seattle to attack left tackle Sam Baker, assuming he plays, by moving Clemons around and mixing safety and linebacker blitzes from that side.
Furthermore, Seattle must pressure the interior of Atlanta's line. Matt Ryan was sacked and fumbled twice last week, and a good portion of the Buccaneers' pressure came from the inside—collapsing the pocket in the middle is a sure-fire way to rattle the quarterback. Earl Thomas on a delayed blitz up the middle is a play that has worked consistently.
Seattle offensive line coach Tom Cable had back surgery this week, which theoretically puts the Seattle line at a disadvantage as a young, still-gelling group. Hopefully, they can give Cable a get-well present: a cohesive performance in the trenches.