The Atlanta Falcons defense is going to have it’s hands full when the Seattle Seahawks roll into the Georgia Dome on Sunday. Seattle presents some problems offensively that powerhouse NFL teams don’t traditionally present. If Atlanta is to successfully slow-down and stop Seattle, there are several key things they must do.
The first thing the Falcons have to do is stop Marshawn Lynch from getting yards after contact. The Falcons haven’t been great defending the run in the 2012 season, and Lynch is one of the toughest runners in the NFL. He averaged 5 yards per carry in 2012. The Falcons gave up 4.8 yards per rush in 2012. It’s not a good combo.
Throw on top of that the fact that Lynch is the absolute best back in the NFL at getting yards after contact with a defender. Just look at any highlight reel. Lynch doesn’t run past defenders or around them; he absolutely looks for contact and bowls over them. He plays hard, and people follow that type of hard-nosed style. Just look at his 2010 playoff run against the Saints. He shed the tackles of 7 different defenders.
The Falcons have to bring him down immediately. That may require one guy getting to him and standing Lynch up while the rest of the teammates come in to finish the tackle. It may require going low, getting his legs wrapped up. Whatever is required, the Falcons must do it. They need to stop him on first contact, and then rally to finish him off. Remember what happened to the Falcons in week 9 in New Orleans? Chris Ivory ran for a 56-yard TD because no Falcons who contacted him wrapped up (or slowed him for that matter) and everyone else was afraid to get in. Lynch is a much bigger load than Ivory, so the Falcons need to stop him early before he gets a whole head of steam going.
The second thing that has to happen, is the Falcons need to do a good job containing Russell Wilson. That means playing good contain on the backside of the play, as well as providing adequate pass-rush.
Let me explain those two things. When the Seahawks run their option, typically Wilson will take the snap, Lynch will run across his face for the handoff. For example, Wilson may hand it off to Lynch to run to the left side of the line. If the backside defensive end (coming from the right side of the offensive line) looks to be crashing in and trying to bring down Lynch, Wilson will fake the handoff to Lynch, pull the ball out, and run right past that backside defensive end for positive yardage.
John Abraham, Kroy Biermann, or whoever else may play defensive end will have to be extremely disciplined. They will be tempted to get in on every play, to try and stop Lynch on every down, because there’s no doubt he’ll be running for all he’s worth. But they need to trust their teammates to do their job, because the backside defensive ends will really have to do their due diligence in protecting the fake handoff and run by Wilson. It’s dangerous, it opens up the play-action passing game, and that can lead to big gains, big points, and just isn’t good for the Falcons defense. Playing disciplined on the backside, and stopping Lynch on the play-side is critical.
That brings me to the interior pass-rush. Wilson is a very mobile quarterback, and while his modus operandi is to pass first, and run only when necessary. But make no mistake, Wilson is very elusive and a good runner. Biermann and Abraham are going to have to do a good job of preventing Wilson running to the outside around the right or left end, but the big problem ensues when nobody is pressuring him up the middle. I watched the Seahawks take on the Redskins last Sunday, and several times the Redskins had everyone covered in the secondary. They outflanked Wilson, and had him penned into the pocket– except up the middle. And he proceeded to run straight up the middle for a gain of around 25 yards. You don’t have to necessarily sack Wilson, although that would be a good thing. But you must cut off the running lanes, at least to the point where he has to go around tackles, allowing the rest of the team to rally for a tackle. It’s also good to defend rollouts and prevent Wilson from easily throwing on the run. He’s at his best when doing that, and if you can force him to stay in the pocket and read the defense, he’s not quite as effective. And if you have a shot at bringing him down, you have to do it.
The final step is to successfully cover the Seahawks receiving targets. They’re not the most talented receivers in the league, but they work really well with Wilson, and if you’re not careful they will beat you. Sidney Rice is a big, fast, physical receiver, and while he’s not elite, that may only be because Wilson spreads the ball around so much. I think this is the best matchup for the Falcons to take advantage of.
The Falcons have pretty good corners and safeties who have now figured out how to work together extremely well. Asante Samuel earned a reputation as a ball-hawk who was prone to giving up big plays, but in Atlanta he’s been good at being a ball-hawk when he has safety help. And when you have two Pro-Bowl caliber safeties playing deep in William Moore and Thomas DeCoud, you feel confident in your safety help. Heck, even Dunta Robinson has turned in a very good season in Mike Nolan’s scheme. He’s played really well in coverage, and he’s continued to be good helping the run.
With the talent in the secondary, Mike Nolan can throw a bundle of different coverages at Wilson and dare him to dissect it as the play unfolds. He can bring some conservative blitzes from one side to force Wilson in one direction, and roll coverage the other way. There’s so many things Nolan can do with a good pair of safeties and smart corners, it really gives the Falcons flexibility. The real key to the Falcons winning against the Seattle offense is to stop the run, and contain Russell Wilson.