A moral victory is one of the most hated terms in sports. It demeans a team's overall ability, along with assuming a loss was inevitable. This shouldn't apply to the Atlanta Falcons.
Three consecutive disappointing seasons left a disgruntled fan base concerned going into the season. Being completely outplayed by a below average Tampa Bay team in Week 1 only added more worry. With an upcoming brutal stretch, the season was already looking bleak in mid September.
That perception was erased following four impressive wins. Besides this being a clearly different team, expectations weren't extremely high going into Seattle. Playing a rested battle-tested team in a hostile environment is always going to be challenging. It was important for the Falcons to hang with the most balanced team they've faced all season. They exceeded expectations and nearly defeated them with a furious second half comeback. Of course, the missed pass interference call puts a dark cloud over a game between two excellent teams. There are still plenty of positives to take away from this validating performance.
The first half can't be ignored, as it clearly left the Falcons with a mountain to climb. Seattle's blitz packages proved to be a nightmare. Matt Ryan took nine hits on 21 dropbacks in the first half. With Chris Chester and Ryan Schraeder allowing pressure on a consistent basis, Ryan took several devastating hits. Combine poor pass protection with Seattle's ultra quick linebackers and the Falcons offense was overwhelmed.
Following last week's explosion, analysts were wondering how the Seahawks could contain Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman in the passing game. Blitzing relentlessly turned out to be an effective solution. Both running backs were forced into pass-blocking duties, as the running game was non-existent in the first half. Kyle Shanahan was going to be tested against a well-coached team and elite defense. It took some time, but eventually he responded brilliantly.
Julio Jones hasn't been used in the slot very often this season. Coleman's emergence is attributed to being utilized in the slot. Shanahan decided to use Jones in the slot to create more mismatches. It worked instantly, as Seattle suffered a coverage bust and left him wide open on a touchdown. Richard Sherman rarely lines up in the slot. That allowed Jones more opportunities to make big plays, although he didn't have any problems when matched up against Sherman (when his arm wasn't being held).
Although Michael Bennett's injury was beneficial, quicker passes helped tremendously against Seattle's defense. According to Mike Conti, Ryan was only hit three times on 20 drop backs in the third quarter. Sanu had one of his better games in a Falcon uniform. Shanahan may need to consider his limitations though. Sanu couldn't create separation on three straight pass attempts during the final drive. He is a solid possession receiver, who can make athletic catches across the middle. Asking him to run post or seam routes isn't going to produce big plays, when defenses are playing man coverage.
Justin Hardy stepped up admirably for Taylor Gabriel. He caught three passes for 30 yards, which included two third down conversions. Hardy showed off his outstanding hands in highlight reel fashion on an underthrown pass. There are many positive upgrades about this current team. Wide receiver depth is near the top of the list. Sanu and Hardy made several plays against a stout Seahawks' secondary.
It wasn't necessarily a bad performance by the defense. Not finishing certain plays or tackles should leave a dissatisfying taste in Dan Quinn's mouth, though.
Grady Jarrett continues to evolve into a top-tier defensive tackle. On several occasions, he failed to wrap up Christine Michael in the backfield, though, and it was reminiscent of a prime Jonathan Babineaux. An undersized defensive tackle, who can generate penetration and blast past interior lines into the backfield, but fail to complete some tasks that seem deceptively easy. Jarrett is the second best player on their defense. The only thing missing from his game is finishing at the moment.
Russell Wilson stretches plays like no other quarterback. It wasn't surprising to see Dwight Freeney or Adrian Clayborn miss a sack by a mere second. Tackling remained an issue, especially with Kemal Ishmael and LaRoy Reynolds. The usually reliable Ishmael missed multiple open-field tackles. After playing at a high level all season, he was caught chasing open receivers on far too many occasions or taking poor angles. Reynolds is proving to be a decent backup, but he was caught tackling Michael too high, which translated into missed tackles as well. Deion Jones and DeVondre Campbell should be inserted into full-time starting roles next week.
A growing trend is Robert Alford's weekly penalties. A once-minor issue is starting to become a well-known habit across the league. Opposing quarterbacks will always target Alford, given Desmond Trufant's excellence. It has turned into targeting Alford without any hesitation in the hopes of picking up additional yards.
Paxton Lynch did it last week to draw Alford into instant pass interference. Russell Wilson threw an immediate lob for Jermaine Kearse to draw an easy penalty. Despite Alford rarely allowing big completions, he shouldn't be committing the same repetitive mistakes. A talented cornerback can't keep grabbing opposing receivers excessively 15 yards downfield. Intelligent quarterbacks such as Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers are going to test him repeatedly, as they know a big play is going to occur without even having to complete the pass.
It was mentioned above, but Ryan's durability deserves more recognition. He took an absolute beating in the first half. It looked similar to the 2013-2014 meltdown games, when the offensive line couldn't stop anything. It was remarkable to see Ryan respond from such nasty adversity. There is no denying that Seattle got away with several late hits. Michael Bennett took multiple cheap shots, before getting injured on a Jake Matthews cut block. In an overly protective quarterback league, it was baffling to see zero roughing the passer calls.
He never stopped testing Seattle's secondary deep, regardless of the constant pressure. After being labeled as a "dink-and-dunk" quarterback, he is being more aggressive and not turning the ball over. Besides throwing behind Jacob Tamme against Oakland, Ryan's other interceptions have been on a deflection and dropped pass. Viewing him as a MVP candidate didn't feel initially right. He certified his status in the most unforgiving stadium in the league, however.
Although the loss will be a bitter pill to swallow, the Falcons have taken unbelievable strides over this grueling stretch. Carolina's implosion puts them in a favorable situation. They know not to take anything for granted following last season's debacle. A controversial loss can only fuel the fire, and Quinn's reaction says it all.
Nobody predicted them to start 4-2, given their opponents and reputation for being a poor road team. Those assumptions have been obliterated. They need to reclaim their home dominance, which made them into a yearly contender under Mike Smith. Based on the offense continuing to be productive and defense taking small steps, yesterday's loss shouldn't be considered a minor setback. This was a learning experience for one of the NFC's more unlikely contenders.