As is our custom, we asked five questions of our opponent this week. This time around, it’s Kenneth Arthur, the very smart and fair editor at Field Gulls, who gave us some extremely thorough answers. You’ll find those below, and you’ll learn something.
Dave Choate: Thomas Rawls had a tremendous game against Detroit, and with Atlanta's shaky run defense, I fear him. Will Seattle lean heavily on him, and how effective do you think he will be?
Kenneth Arthur: I think that's a good inclination to have, that the Seahawks will be leaning on the run game. Not just because the Falcons are 29th against the run per DVOA, but because they were so successful at it last Saturday and have historically been great at it under Pete Carroll. There are three big reasons Seattle wasn't very good running the football for most of the season:
- Christine Michael is a completely average running back. He's a phenomenal athlete, but a mediocre running back, and a guy who I feel has two feet and one arm out of the NFL. He's been with four teams in the last 15 months or something and each one is like "Yeah, you can go find work elsewhere" despite how great he can look on a single play. But he can't replicate that consistently and he doesn't take more than what the offensive line gives him; in Seattle, they won't give you much. Not so with Rawls, who in the last game looks like the player we saw a year ago that was the second-coming of Marshawn Lynch. Rawls broke the playoffs franchise record for rushing yards last week and has three times in his career rushed for more than what Lynch ever did in a single game in his career. We miss Marshawn a lot but having a healthy, confident Rawls makes fans feel a lot more at ease. Not so with Michael and the 10 other running backs they tried in 2016.
- Russell Wilson's health. He suffered a sprained MCL and a high ankle sprain early in the season. He finally took off the knee brace against Detroit and the zone read option is working again, kinda. When Wilson is a threat to run, it screws with so many defensive players. Shameless self-promotion (of the site, not me) but our writers covered how things changed in the run game with a video here and article here.
- What about CJ Prosise? The rookie out of Notre Dame was incredibly explosive in the few times we saw him in 2016. He's practicing again this week after recovering from a broken scapula, and if he is able to go on Saturday, watch out. Even with only a few snaps, he's so dynamic that you really don't know what to expect when he touches the ball. If nothing else, it'll keep the defense on their toes and realize that pretty much anything could happen so you have to account for a long pass to Prosise as much as a standard handoff.
Dave Choate: This offensive line is terrible by virtually any metric or eye test you want to use, though Justin Britt looks very solid. How have the Seahawks gotten around that on offense, and how do you anticipate the team slowing down Vic Beasley, in particular?
Kenneth Arthur: I'm not sure the team has figured out how to get around that. I mean, they've done okay recently but they did "ok" at other points in the season only to drop a 5-bomb on the Buccaneers. I think one of the big things is Prosise. A player like that is so hard to figure out, so hard to stop, that it gives Seattle an element that they simply don't have otherwise: A skill player you have to gameplan to stop when he's on the field. That's what they expect from Jimmy Graham, and certainly him and Doug Baldwin are great players, but I think you just do what you can against them and can limit the Seahawks offense even when they're doing well. They combined for 13 touchdowns this season -- that sounds good, right? Well, 13 touchdowns on 220 targets? Is that great? Last season Baldwin caught 14 touchdowns all on his own.
I think Tyler Lockett was that way too when he was healthy, but he was rarely uninjured this season and only started to get going just before his broken leg. In a dream world, Seattle's offense has Wilson, Graham, Baldwin, Rawls, Prosise, Lockett, Paul Richardson, and then they can overcome a porous offensive line because they're so quick, so big, and don't need more than two seconds to throw the ball, but Graham isn't there for his speed, Baldwin isn't there to go deep, they need an "x-factor" to really be successful. Maybe Richardson can be that again as he was against the Lions, but I think Prosise is a safer bet. Offensive line becomes less of an issue with a guy on the field that you aren't sure how to plan for, especially against a bad run defense.
As far as Beasley, they probably won't slow him down. Ezekiel Ansah was a beast last week, but I think Seattle breaks down to interior pressure quicker than they fall to outside pressure. Guys like Aaron Donald and Kawann Short have really messed them up. Guys like Beasley (who did have zero sacks in the first meeting) can be more easily thrown by the zone read option.
Dave Choate: Defensively, how different does this team look without Earl Thomas? Can the pass rush make up for any weaknesses caused by not having him around?
Kenneth Arthur: Short answer: Yes.
Matt Ryan said this week that a defense can't be made by just one guy and that the Falcons were still able to make plays even when Earl was in the lineup. That being said, now Frank Clark, Kam Chancellor, and Michael Bennett are all back, and that wasn't the case in the first meeting. (Bennett started but left and missed the second half.) That's an All-Pro safety, Pro Bowl defensive end, and a young DE/DT who just had 10 sacks in his second season and is dominating offensive lines lately. Backup Steven Terrell is clearly not Earl Thomas, and that's definitely an area for Ryan to attack in a way that he couldn't attack if Earl was in there, but they will hope to mitigate that mess by giving him help with Kam, DeShawn Shead, and Jeremy Lane. Seattle's pass defense has plummeted since the loss of Earl, there's no doubt about it. I still think any team has a good shot at winning if they mess with the quarterback the whole game, it's like the basic principle of successful defensive football.
Lest we forget Cliff Avril, who has 13.5 sacks in 17 games. He's been phenomenal. No trio in the NFL had more sacks than Avril-Bennett-Clark. It's a great combination when they have it. Seattle is 8-3-1 with Bennett, 3-2 without him. They are 7-1-1 when Avril gets a sack and 4-0-1 when he gets more than one sack.
Dave Choate: Give me a player who hasn't been much of a factor this year that might be in this game. Question mark?
Kenneth Arthur: Well, we would like to see cornerback Jeremy Lane have a great game. Considering that the Seattle defense will have their hands full with Julio Jones and like, eight other receivers, the Seahawks need to have their non-Sherman corners step up. Shead's been very good, but Lane has struggled since signing a four-year contract in the offseason. I thought the contract was a bad idea and Lane has done little to prove me wrong. He's also a hothead who could get a game-killing penalty at some point. It would be great to see him shut down the slot for Ryan.
How about Cassius Marsh? The third-year defensive end always seems to be a half-second late on a huge play. He has three sacks on the year but he seems like a guy who in the right situation could definitely get 8-9 per season.
Have I mentioned CJ Prosise? He's only played in six games this season, but he's the true definition of an x-factor. Fellow rookie running back Alex Collins didn't do much of anything through preseason and the first three months of the year, drawing many angry comments about why he was on the team, but I felt it was a great idea to stick with him over Michael or someone else. He lost some weight recently and it shows, carrying it 27 times for 119 yards over the last four games, and he's added nine catches for 67 yards. Keep an eye on him.
Obviously Richardson was the big story of the last game. He's been marred by injuries for the first two seasons of his career and then slow to catch up with the offense this season, buried behind Baldwin, Lockett, and Jermaine Kearse. But he was a second round pick in a deep receiver class for a reason. He's arguably the most talented receiver on the team, the question is: Can he do it consistently and for four quarters? I think Wilson will probably go after him for a few key moments this week.
I'm sure that your readers will think I'm cocky or overconfident about this team, and how many "x-factors" the Seahawks have and how "talented" they are, but honestly this is a very talented team. It's also one that is perfectly capable of scoring zero touchdowns. They don't show it all the time, especially on the road. The Falcons are also talented. It's why these teams are two wins away from the Super Bowl. This isn't a "Week 5 Q and A" anymore, these are the playoffs. Everyone's got plenty to show for their season. Plus there's the Houston Texans.
Dave Choate: The big question: Who wins this game, and what's the score?
Kenneth Arthur: The loaded question of all loaded questions. Asking a Seahawks fan for a score prediction to put on a Falcons website. Not my favorite part of these questionnaires, but fair. I think a lot depends on the health of Prosise and defensive tackle Tony McDaniel, who missed the last game. I expect Atlanta won't be very successful running the football and will have to turn to Ryan, which is fine, he's the MVP. I think with Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright, the pass options to Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman will also be limited. A lot of this comes through Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel, Jacob Tamme, and Austin Hooper. Maybe even Aldrick Robinson is the one to end Seattle's season, should it end. If the Seahawks hold the Falcons to under 30 points, they win, I think. Atlanta was 1-5 when they failed to score 30. I think Seattle will also be able to attack the Falcons defense by rushing for 180 yards and that could really give them an advantage to slow the game down and not give Atlanta an opportunity to put up 10 or 11 drives in which they could go down the field, eat yards, and score points. Protecting the football is also key here: The Falcons only turned the ball over more than once one time this year: Against the Seahawks. Can Avril put in one of his patented strip sacks? Can Sherman beat Jones for one interception? These are the biggest keys for me.
Run the football for Seattle's offense, force a turnover on Atlanta's offense, no stupid mistakes.
That being said, I don't think I am being honest with myself if I said I felt accurate in predicting the Seahawks to win a road playoff game right now against an MVP quarterback. I think Seattle has a very, very good shot at winning this game. But I think the Falcons have a better shot.
Falcons 31, Seahawks 27