The Falcons had an up and down game against the Seahawks earlier this year. Their first half was a disaster that saw the Falcons offense struggle to protect Matt Ryan and only manage to put up 3 points. The third quarter was something else, though, with the Falcons rattling off 21 unanswered points before eventually losing the game in the fourth quarter. That said, these two teams are not the same as they were on that fateful day. Let’s take a look at how they stack up now.
Note: assessments are reflective of 2016 PFF grades.
In the trenches
The first game against the Seahawks was arguably one of the worst for the Falcons offensive line. Since then, though, they’ve held up in pass protection far better. Alex Mack, Andy Levitre and Ryan Schraeder are all playing at above average or higher levels, with Mack being a recent 2nd team All-Pro selection (his second time). Chris Chester continues to be the liability on this line, while Jake Matthews has been ok - but has suffered in spots this year (including against the Seahawks). In total, this is a good line that excels in run blocking but is not built to hold up for long stretches of pass protection. They are a quality unit overall, but they can be beat on occasion.
The Seahawks still have two monsters on their line in Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. This duo caused issues in the first match-up and could be factors yet again. Defensive tackles Ahtyba Rubin and Jarran Reed help to slow down opposing running games, but don’t offer a ton in pass rushing. Edge rusher Frank Clark didn’t play in the first game and normally comes in for nickel sets, but he’s a quality player that can cause issues for Atlanta’s passing game. The Seahawks linebackers are the definition of quality, with Bobby Wagner still playing at an All-Pro level and K.J. Wright doing the same. Michael Morgan isn’t on the same level as those guys, but comes off the field in nickel sets anyhow. This is still a very good defensive front for the Seahawks and should not be underestimated.
The Falcons offensive line has played much better down the stretch, but this will be one of their hardest tests yet. Playing at home after a week of extra rest will be a difference maker, but the depth of the Seahawks pass rush could negate that somewhat. However, given that this game is at home and the Falcons have had an extra week of rest, I have to give the edge to the Falcons - even if just a slight one.
The skill positions
All-Pro QB (and likely MVP) Matt Ryan and All-Pro WR Julio Jones headline a unit that is deep and richly talented. Ryan is playing at his best level ever while Jones is healthy and ready to torch secondaries that dare leave him in single-coverage. Mohamed Sanu has settled in as a reliable possession receiver, while speedster Taylor Gabriel is healthy and capable of blowing the top off any defense. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are a great 1-2 punch in the backfield, while tight ends Austin Hooper, Levine Toilolo and Joshua Perkins are capable if not particularly intimidating. Even guys like Aldrick Robinson and Justin Hardy have proven to be reliable weapons in this offense and could be a factor on Saturday.
Seattle’s secondary is led by hard hitting safety Kam Chancellor, who missed the first game against the Falcons. However, the Seahawks will be missing All-Pro safety Earl Thomas and their defensive coverage has suffered since he’s been gone. In his place is Steven Terrell who is capable but a clear downgrade from Thomas. Richard Sherman is a top-notch corner who will likely match-up against Julio most of the day. This will be a fun match-up to watch. On the other side, Deshawn Shead is good but is not on the same level as guys like Sherman and Chancellor. In nickel sets, Jeremy Lane is not playing well and the Falcons will likely look to take advantage of him when he’s in.
If Earl Thomas was healthy, this match-up would be considerably closer. Simply put: Thomas is the best coverage safety in the game. His absence has changed the complexion of this defense. A unit that was 5th in DVOA is now 26th without Thomas. The Falcons top-level talent and incredible depth is just too much for most defenses, and without Thomas patrolling the field, this match-up favors the home team as well.
Falcons fans feel good about this game and I applaud the confidence, but this Seahawks defense can still cause issues. The combination of Bennett, Avril and Clark can disrupt the pocket for Ryan. Our offensive line had better be at their best on Saturday. If they can hold up, though, the Falcons plethora of weapons is too much for any secondary to contain for too long. With the extra week of rest, there’s reason to hope that the Falcons will show up ready to battle, which should give them the edge in this match-up.