I had the opportunity to ask five questions of Danny Kelly over at Field Gulls, the excellent SBN Seahawks community where I've spent so much time this week. His answers are awesome and you should read them.
Dave Choate: It's pretty clear that Marshawn Lynch is excellent, and the Falcons have struggled to stop power backs. If you're an athletic defense without a ton of physicality, how do you stop or slow him down?
Danny Kelly: Well, that's an interesting question, and I don't know how to answer it without sounding like a homer - the obvious retort being "Well, you don't." Lynch has been very good this season, and the Seahawks are wholly dedicated to their zone-blocking scheme and run-heavy offense. No one ran the ball more times than Seattle this season, and against Washington's fairly good run defense last week, Seattle rushed for 224 yards and a TD (the Redskins gave up ~95 yards per game over the course of the season). Lynch is very good in the zone-blocking scheme employed by Seattle - he can pick up the tough yards when there's nothing there, and he's also good at hitting the crease and getting downfield. Furthermore, he's been very effective in the read-option packages that Seattle has introduced over the last six or seven weeks. Some running backs struggle with this style because the handoff is delayed and the runner doesn't know until the last second whether or not he'll get it, but for whatever reason - his vision, quick change-of-direction ability, ferocity and explosiveness - Lynch has excelled in it.
Now, that said -- Seattle has struggled from time to time in the run game, and against Miami in particular, a lack of effectiveness up front really slowed them down as an entire offense. Miami did a great job of slicing through the Seahawks' offensive line in order to disrupt running lanes, and Lynch was hit behind the LOS way too often. It also helps, as a defense, to be very patient against this Seattle run game, because when offensive linemen start flowing toward the sideline in their zone-stretch plays, Lynch is looking for defenders that over-commit and get out of their gaps, so he can turn it upfield. Think Arian Foster, but with dreads and a bowlegged gait.
Regardless, it's a good question to lead with, because I think if Seattle can run the football effectively, they'll make things very difficult for the Falcons. They'll keep the deadly Atlanta offense off the field, and eat up clock and field position and hopefully take the crowd out of it. That's the Seahawks' game. The Falcons will obviously game-plan for this though, and in the playoffs, you never really know what will happen. I'm certainly not going into this weekend with the bravado that "the Falcons won't be able to stop Lynch", because they very well could scheme for it and surprise Seattle with some new looks, but I'm certainly hoping it will be something the Hawks can lean on. If Seattle is forced to abandon their run game for ineffectiveness, it could seriously complicate things for Russell Wilson.
Also worrisome is that Lynch hasn't practiced this week with a foot injury, so if he can't go on Sunday, all bets are off.
DK: Another great question, and one that I can't answer definitively. It's going to be fun to watch, because it's strength-on-strength. Seattle's talent at cornerback is one of the biggest reasons that they can run the schemes that they run, and obviously the same could be said about White/Jones for the Falcons' offense.
I think when it comes Brandon Browner, Jones/White probably have the advantage whenever they're on his side, because Browner can be very susceptible to the double-move. What he lacks in lock-down coverage ability, he makes up for in physicality though, and he's very tough against the run and has a way of getting into opposing receivers' heads by roughing them up a bit. That said, Jones/White are both pretty big guys themselves (Browner is 6'4, 225 or so), so it's going to be more evenly matched in the size factor. On the other side of the field, it will be interesting to see how often the Falcons look to throw the ball in Richard Sherman's direction, because he's been one of the best CBs in the league this year. He had 8 interceptions, 32 passes defensed and three forced fumbles on the season, so he'll be a formidable opponent for your two elite receivers. Ultimately it may come down to how much time the Seahawks give Matt Ryan though, because if you can't force him to rush things or move out of the pocket, even the best corners in the league are going to get passes completed on them. Receivers have a huge advantage of knowing where they're going, and Seattle's strength is disrupting timing and being physical on the outside, not sticking to receivers like glue all over the field.
DC: With Chris Clemons out, the Seahawks would seem to have a weaker pass rush. Is that the correct assumption, and how will the 'Hawks get after Matt Ryan now?
DK: Yeah, I think that's a fair assessment. Seattle pretty much relies on their front-four to get pressure (they don't blitz a ton), and Clemons was really the only guy that could consistently get pressure on the quarterbacks during the season. Their interior trio of Brandon Mebane, Alan Branch, and Red Bryant are more suited as run-stuffers, so it will be interesting to see how they change things up now that Clemons is out of the year.
Bruce Irvin will take over for Clem, and though he's a rookie, he's had a very strong year. Irvin's main move, surprisingly, is his bull-rush, and you'll see him get his arms into a tackle's chest and push the pocket inwards, so that will be important to watch. If Seattle can scheme creatively to get their linebackers in on the action, they may be able to generate more pressure than they normally do. K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner have both been used to blitz with more frequency over the 2nd half of the year, and with Matt Ryan being less of a 'mobile' guy, I'd expect they may try some things off the edge and up the middle to try and get Ryan flustered.
That said, the Seahawks' lack of pressure is probably their biggest defensive deficiency. There's a lot of talent on Seattle's D, but if Matt Ryan gets all day to throw, he may be able to shred them up a little bit.
DC: The Falcons need to run to win this game. Will Michael Turner's power style or Jacquizz Rodgers' shiftiness play better against Seattle?
DK: I'd say without a doubt that the Falcons should utilize Jacquizz Rodgers in their run game. The former Oregon State Beaver is known well up 'round these parts, and when Seattle struggles against the run, it seems to be more often than not against the shifty, east-west types of guys that can get outside the box and into space and create problems. With the amount of beef Seattle has up front, the north-south guys have more problems, typically, breaking through the line, and when Seattle has issues it's often because of cut-back lanes and backside assignment over-pursuit. Speedy shifty guys are better in this area.
This season, Seattle hasn't been particularly stout against the run in general - but if I were game-planning, I'd probably look to the explosive guy over the between the tackles guy. I know that the Falcons use screens a lot in their offense, and I think this would be something they could look to gauge the Seahawks with on Sunday. Overall, it wouldn't surprise me to see the Falcons try to get 'Quizz out in space and on screens to counter any blitz options the Seahawks' bring to try and slow down Ryan.
DC: It's tried and true and lazy, but I'm going for it. Your score prediction, and how it gets there?
DK: I like the Seahawks' chances, I'll put it that way. That's no disrespect to the Falcons, and I mean that, but Seattle has played well against some of the top teams in the NFL this season, and with their defense and strong run game, I think the Seahawks' style of play gives them a chance every week. If Russell Wilson plays at a high level, he could be trouble for Atlanta. If he struggles, Seattle could be in for a long day. Regardless, I think Seattle will need to be able to run the ball, so they'll be able to go toe-to-toe with the Falcons' O.
On defense, Seattle can somehow limit Roddy White and Julio Jones, it gives them a shot. In terms of DVOA stats, Seattle's defense has done well against teams' #1 and #2 receivers this year (1st in the NFL and 10th in the NFL, respectively), so like I said, it's strength on strength. Of course, matching up with Tony Gonzalez becomes a huge issue, and something that could be the difference in the game.
I am predicting a very close game and somewhat of a shootout, because I just don't think you slow down this Atlanta offense at home this week. I'll say 30-28, Seahawks, and it might come down to the last play of the game. Seattle is hot, but if I'm not a Seahawks' homer, I might pick the Falcons. It's going to be an awesome game, either way.
Many thanks to Danny for taking the time to answer my questions. Game's almost here, everyone!