The Atlanta Falcons will host the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs—that sounds familiar, right? A trip to the NFC title game is on the line Saturday and the Falcons defense will play a major role in the playoff fate for Atlanta. Let’s take a look at how we see them matching up against a revitalized Seattle attack.
In the trenches
In week six, the Falcons defense played. . . alright. They made some plays and got a few stops when they needed them, but it typically is not a sound strategy to allow your opponent to score 26 points in a game. This week, the Falcons defense gets another chance to finally compliment the high-powered Atlanta offense with high quality play and perhaps some turnovers, but the real test for this defense, as always, is going to be along the line of scrimmage.
Seattle has a very poor offensive line if we look at any commonly used measurement or, in this case, the Pro Football Focus ratings. Justin Britt, the Seattle center, has helped fill a major hole that has existed ever since Max Unger got traded to New Orleans: he ranks as the 16th best center in the NFL. It isn’t great but he has done a decent job, which is all that’s required with a quarterback like Russell Wilson. Apart from him, though, there is plenty of opportunity for the Falcons to take advantage of a struggling offensive line.
Postseason is where a team’s stars are supposed to step up, so I am expecting Vic Beasley to do so this week. Grady Jarrett may struggle a bit with Britt but if he is able to use his quickness and leverage, he shouldn’t get overshadowed too much. Seattle has struggled to run the ball most of the season due to its offensive line play, so the Falcons will need to keep that trend going in order to succeed on Saturday—despite the fact that Thomas Rawls is coming off of a strong game against Detroit last week.
I’m not sure that the Falcons defensive line is at the level yet where I can give them an advantage, just because of the lack of depth and playmaking talent in that group. I do feel, however, like they will be able to hold their own. Adrian Clayborn being completely healthy will be huge for this defense and will give them another quality body to throw at Seattle. I’m just not sure it will be enough to really own the line of scrimmage—especially with how mobile Russell Wilson is.
Last time these two teams played, the Falcons were much healthier in the defensive backfield. In short: Desmond Trufant was active. In his absence, the secondary and linebacking group have picked up their play and put together a string of pretty solid performances. Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal both have above average ratings, as well as Jalen Collins and Brian Poole, while Robert Alford and both rookie linebackers have lower grades on the season.
With the emergence of Paul Richardson as a legitimate receiving threat in the Seattle offense, the Atlanta secondary is going to have a tall task if the defense is not able to generate pressure on Wilson. Jimmy Graham and Doug Baldwin both pose great threats down the field, as well as in underneath routes that the Falcons always seem to struggle with. Rawls health also creates another potential problem for the Falcons young linebackers to cover out of the backfield.
While I think Rawls, Richardson, and Jermaine Kearse are all solid players, the key for the Atlanta defense will be slowing down Graham and Baldwin. When it comes to those two players, the Falcons secondary may have a tough day. Atlanta will need to be as crisp and disciplined as possible in order to prevent big plays and limit yards after the catch for both Baldwin and Graham. If they are able to do that, I think they make Wilson a little uncomfortable, make him go through more reads than he would like, and hopefully force him into a couple of mistakes. This edge is very, very slight.
Advantage: Atlanta Falcons
All of this is to say, if Atlanta can stop the run, force Wilson to beat them with his arm, and limit big plays, the Falcons will be playing in the NFC title game. While I feel better about the possibility of that than some might, I still don’t feel good enough to say they have the advantage. The x-factor in this game is Wilson: if Russell Wilson is able to extend plays, escape the pocket, and make plays down the field, the Falcons will struggle once again to stop Seattle. The Falcons defense plays well but Wilson still makes plays to keep them in the game. This one seems even and that is a far cry from a few weeks ago for this Atlanta defense.