The Seattle Seahawks will pay a visit to the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome on Sunday, and in order for the Falcons to emerge victorious there are going to be several things they absolutely must do. This is a schematic sort of thing that the Falcons must do to be successful.
First, Atlanta is going to have to run the ball. They don’t need to go ground-and-pound style against Seattle, but they need to force the Seahawks linebackers and secondary up to respect the run. Atlanta really is more of a throwing team, so a good thought would be to run the ball effectively when Seattle shows a two-deep safety look. When the defense is trying to protect against the pass, the Falcons need to be able to run the ball effectively. By effectively, I mean Michael Turner can’t just run for no gain on those downs.
One way I could see to do this would be to come out running the ball the way they did on the first drive in Tampa Bay. I don’t know if you remember the game or not, but on that drive, the run game was very successful, but they didn’t do it between the tackles. They called a bunch of pitch plays (even out of the shotgun), and those same pitch plays that allowed cutback lanes between the tackles. Even Michael Turner got in on the fun, taking the pitch to the outside and outflanking the defense. It requires a symphony of great blocks on the run and up the field from the line, great blocking from the receivers, and great blocking from the receivers. The Falcons are definitely capable of this, and it could be a great way to run the ball against obvious pass defenses, out of obvious passing formations.
An individual matchup that the Falcons should look into exploiting is the Seahawks right defensive end, the end that Sam Baker will be tasked with handling. With the regular starter at that spot, Chris Clemons, likely to be out with a fairly severe knee injury, Seattle may place rookie DE Bruce Irvin at that spot. He’s a good pass-rusher, but he’s more pass-rusher than complete defensive end at this point. Sam Baker has been great this year, and can hold up in pass protection against Irvin, but imagine how much easier his job would be if he had to worry about the ball getting run right at him? My proposition is that the Falcons jam the ball right at Irvin, and challenge him to make the play against the run. Hitting Seattle with a draw play headed straight for Irvin, or whoever fills that spot, would do the trick.
All of that run discussion, use of draw plays, screens, outside runs, and play-action passes will help offset the pass-rush, and with Seattle likely missing their best pass-rusher, I’m not so concerned about protecting Matt Ryan in the pocket. But what I am concerned with is the Falcons receiving corps getting open.
Seattle has two cornerbacks of absolutely titanic proportions. Brandon Browner is 6’4″ tall and weighs 220 pounds. Richard Sherman is 6’3″ and 195. Heck, safeties Kam Chancellor is 6’3″ and 232 pounds. Those are three huge, HUGE defensive backs. Browner and Chancellor are pushing linebacker size. They are big guys, they play extremely tough and physical, and represent a horrific matchup for any receiving corps.
The only receiving corps in the NFL with the size to matchup with these guys is probably the Atlanta Falcons. Julio Jones is almost exactly the same size as Browner, and White is a couple inches shorter and ten pounds lighter. But both are big, strong, and physical, and represent receivers who can matchup well with the corners.
That being said, it will be critical for Jones and White to get open early and often against these two corners. They can’t get overpowered by these corners, or the pass-rush will eventually get to Matt Ryan in the pocket. However, when you have players as physical as Seattle’s are, you can’t guarantee that you’ll get open on every play. One of them has to get open every play, and physically match and win against these Seahawk corners.
While the Falcons wide receivers are contending with the big corners on the outside, Tony Gonzalez will likely be the premiere receiving option for Matt Ryan, especially since he will be working the middle of the field. Chancellor will likely matchup with Gonzalez, but this isn’t the first rodeo for Tony, and he will always find a way to get open. It will be very important that Gonzalez gets open on whatever route he runs, so that Matt Ryan always has a reliable option to throw to, and that he has a safety valve to get the ball to so he doesn’t get sacked, or worse. Atlanta will rely significantly on Gonzalez’ ability to get open in the middle of the field, and especially on critical downs and in the red-zone.
One final thought here. I watched the Seattle v. Washington game on Sunday, and I noticed that Seattle rarely calls a very complicated defense. They don’t go for any crazy, exotic blitzes, and they don’t do anything super creative in the secondary. That doesn’t mean they can’t, but if they didn’t do it against RGIII early in the game, why should we expect that to change in Atlanta? Seattle is challenging every team, lining their best men against the opponents best men, and daring them to win. If Clemons is out and Seattle’s pass-rush isn’t what it was during the regular season, Matt Ryan should have plenty of time to sit in the pocket, read the coverage, and get the ball to his receivers.
And if the Seahawks do continue to run their fairly vanilla Cover-2, that’s going to leave a lot of room for Tony Gonzalez and Harry Douglas to do things to control the middle of the field. Heck, Jacquizz Rodgers could do a bunch of great things in the middle of the field. The point is, if Seattle runs a very vanilla coverage, there’s no way that doesn’t work in the Falcons’ favor. Matt Ryan is great at reading coverage.
These are just a few of the things the Falcons must do, but these are the matchups and schematic things that the Falcons must be successful at offensively in order to emerge from the divisional round with their first playoff victory in the Mike Smith-Thomas Dimitroff-Matt Ryan era.