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Falcons vs. Seahawks Divisional Round: Biggest storylines

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A list of the biggest storylines heading into Saturday. Julio Jones meeting Richard Sherman again, starting fast, and handling Seattle’s pressure are highlighted.

Atlanta Falcons v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Following a controversial ending last October, the rematch was inevitable. The Seahawks were fortunate to pull out a narrow victory. Julio Jones’ drop fell right into Earl Thomas’ hands. Although the superstar wide receiver is prone to dropping passes, you don’t expect him to make a costly mistake in the fourth quarter. Nobody is going to forget the egregious no-call on Richard Sherman, who clearly held Jones before the pass arrived. The horrific decision nearly cost the Falcons a first round bye. Seattle’s late season decline gave them a well-deserved bye and home field advantage for this matchup.

There are several moving parts from the previous game. Taylor Gabriel’s emergence occurred two weeks later against Green Bay. The explosive wide receiver suffered a concussion against Seattle, which elevated Justin Hardy into a more prominent role. Thomas took Gabriel out of the game with a brutalizing hit. As the Seahawks make adjustments without their most valuable defensive player, they do have reinforcements. Frank Clark and Kam Chancellor didn’t play in the first meeting. You can include Thomas Rawls as well, while Desmond Trufant won’t be able to shadow Doug Baldwin. Here are the main storylines for this highly anticipated matchup.

Julio Jones versus Richard Sherman (and his running mates) II

This star-studded matchup always receives first billing. Two premier players will face each other for the second time in four months. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Sherman shadow Jones more often. DeShawn Shead and Jeremy Lane were left hopeless against him, when Sherman stayed on his preferred left side. As the Falcons scored three touchdowns in the third quarter, Kyle Shanahan started moving him around. That created several mismatches and Matt Ryan started launching 40 yard passes downfield without any hesitation. It left Sherman fuming on the sidelines. Defensive coordinator Kris Richard could make it a priority for the Pro Bowl cornerback to shadow Jones at all costs.

Seattle Times reporter Bob Condotta broke down each target intended for Jones in their previous matchup . Although Sherman tried following him, Shanahan’s varied formations freed up the wide receiver. Look no further than his 36-yard touchdown, where nobody bothered covering him. Sherman was left covering Austin Hooper. Containing Jones is not going to fall solely on the star cornerback. Whether the defense is playing zone coverage or Sherman isn’t able to track him, they need to be organized against this matchup nightmare.

That is a tall order, especially with Jones back to full strength. With Gabriel and Hooper returning this week, the Falcons offense is completely healthy for the first time since playing Kansas City. Jones may not have the biggest statistical performance. That hasn’t mattered to the Falcons, who are 4-0 in games that Jones is held under 40 yards. Seattle’s vulnerable secondary is bound to break down at some point. NFL.com’s Marc Sessler posted an eye-opening stat about Thomas’ absence. Whether Jones repeatedly beats Sherman or commands double teams to create opportunities for other receivers, this matchup will likely determine the offense’s productivity.

Starting fast

It feels fitting to use a Mike Smith quote. He stressed this message on a weekly basis during his tenure. With Seattle being known as notorious slow starters in the playoffs, the Falcons need to start well. When teams come off a bye and struggle in the first quarter, there are immediate concerns. The pressure intensifies for a prolific offense. Two non-scoring drives to start the game would be worrying, especially when having a below average defense. A fast start could make Seattle panic and turn them into a one-dimensional offense.

Russell Wilson is always capable of sparking a comeback. His second half playoff performances against Atlanta and Carolina were incredible. The big difference between those past offenses to this current unit is the offensive line. Wilson is relying on shorter passes rather than taking chances downfield. By operating under more three-step drops, it usually keeps a dreadful offensive line from allowing constant pressure. Wilson can’t play a perfect game throwing more than 35 passes. That will allow Vic Beasley, Dwight Freeney, and Adrian Clayborn plenty of pass rushing opportunities. If the Falcons can build a lead, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell will be left no other choice. For this to occur, a fast start is necessary. It will also prevent Seattle from relying on their rejuvenated running back.

Containing Thomas Rawls

One big performance can change your perspective. Rawls’ raw talent was never questioned. How Seattle utilized him remained as the biggest question. An injury-riddled season and horrific offensive line were the main reasons behind his poor production. After carrying the ball 21 times against Los Angeles, he received a combined 16 carries versus Arizona and San Francisco. Rawls averaged 1.5 yards per carry in those games. Nobody expected him to explode against Detroit. Favorable matchups didn’t matter behind an offensive line filled with career backups and rookies. Rawls gained 72 of his 161 rushing yards after contact. That put analysts and coaching staffs on notice.

The Seahawks are going to start leaning on the running game. On their third drive last week, Bevell called nine consecutive running plays. It translated into 34 yards, which is nearly four yards per carry. Alex Collins and Marcel Reece each received one carry. Rawls had seven of his 27 carries on a 14-play drive that ended in Paul Richardson’s remarkable (also controversial) touchdown. ESPN’s Sheil Kapadia wrote an excellent piece about their running game. Reece’s veteran instincts and Luke Willson’s blocking ability gives them opportunities to open up running lanes. A combination of inside zone concepts and runs in the I-formation presents a difficult challenge.

The Falcons haven’t been in a competitive game since December fourth against Kansas City. It’s unclear how their undersized front seven matches up, as their last four opponents have faced a three score deficit by the second quarter. In a likely competitive game, emerging stars Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones need to take charge.

Handling Seattle’s twists and blitzes

The Falcons were held to three points in the first half. When a historically great offense falters, it will usually come from committing turnovers or not protecting their quarterback. Seattle relentlessly blitzed to disrupt them. According to Sheil Kapadia, Ryan was hit or sacked on 11 of his 17 drop backs in the first half. To counter Tevin Coleman, who was coming off a phenomenal performance against Denver, they continuously blitzed and made him a non-factor. Bobby Wagner found plenty of success on twisting a-gap blitzes. Michael Bennett and the other defensive tackle would blast to the right side. That allowed Wagner to turn left and explode into the open gap. What appears to be a basic twist gave Atlanta’s offensive line significant problems.

With Clark healthy, Seattle used Bennett and him together against Detroit. Both players are freak specimens, who are versatile enough to play multiple positions. They used the same twisting blitz design to disrupt Matthew Stafford. Letting the same defensive scheme destroy your game plan for the second consecutive time would be unacceptable. The offensive line struggled to handle Carolina’s blitz concepts, as Shaq Thompson and Kurt Coleman each recorded a sack.

Alex Mack has been commended for his leadership. Not being able to recognize certain blitz designs and getting the interior line organized in a few games is his lone blemish. Patrick DiMarco struggled handling pass blocking assignments as well. Both disappointing games occurred on the road. The home field advantage should benefit them compared to Seattle’s ridiculously loud stadium. They also shut down the Seahawks’ blitz packages in the second half, which played a substantial role behind their comeback. Poor pass protection is the only potential roadblock for Ryan against a shaky secondary.

Robert Alford faces his biggest task yet

Desmond Trufant’s absence hasn’t been felt, since going on injured reverse. An easier schedule absolutely benefitted the cornerback group in December. That shouldn’t discount their impressive performances. They did an outstanding job against Carolina, which ended up being a division-clinching victory. Quinn made a fascinating adjustment two weeks ago. He decided to match each cornerback against one specific wide receiver rather than keeping them in their respective area. Robert Alford tracked Ted Ginn and Brandin Cooks across the field. Both wide receivers were held under 30 yards.

By cleaning up his technique and covering the opposing team’s biggest threat, Alford stepped up in a massive way. Doug Baldwin is a more complete wide receiver based on his route running ability. Crafty route runners tend to give Alford issues, due to his aggressive style. Seattle prefers using Baldwin in the slot. That didn’t stop Trufant from shadowing him. The star cornerback limited Baldwin to only four catches for 31 yards. With Tyler Lockett being done for the season, the underrated wide receiver is going to receive more targets.

This is a huge moment for Alford. The front office made a serious investment in him last month. For all his inconsistent play, the former second round pick is becoming a more reliable player. He will need to be composed against a physical player like Baldwin. Not including Jimmy Graham feels wrong, considering his past history against the Falcons. Trufant’s injury thrusts Alford into the spotlight against Wilson’s favorite weapon.