Kevin C. Cox
Can Seattle win an early kickoff game? Or, is Atlanta the new Detroit?
The intriguing thing about this matchup is that both teams have such distinctive paths to victory.
1. Atlanta's path to victory:
On offense, Atlanta should basically be doing what Detroit did. Throw the ball quickly to every level, and run it well enough in short yardage, goal line, and to build and nurse leads. The Falcons are as capable as any team the Seahawks have faced of continuing to score. The Falcons don't let opposing offenses catch their breath. Their defense capitalizes on favorable game situations and the mistakes that result. Atlanta's run defense isn't much to shout about; not in overall DVOA or in short yardage/goal-to-go (though it is a bit better in generating zero or negative yard runs). I doubt Mike Nolan much cares.
The pass defense, by contrast, is 11th in DVOA. That ranking is VERY dependent on a ball-hawking secondary. To wit, Atlanta's Real Defensive QB Rating (per Cold Hard Football Facts) is 74.18, good for 10th overall, but they drop to 22nd in Real Defensive Yards Per Attempt (which adjusts for sack yardage). Why? Atlanta gives up a high % of completions, a good bit of real estate, and doesn't generate much sack yardage. But, the bruhs in the back get after #1 and #2 WRs and get their hands on LOTS of balls. By my count, 20 of Atlanta's 23 forced turnovers are INTs. The Falcon formula: ahead or behind, try to score and try to force turnovers. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
2. Defensively, this is Detroit all over again:
Last week, the plan was to keep Robert Griffin III in jail and force him to be patient. This week it's a return to the worst or second worst loss, week 8 at Detroit (week 1 at Arizona may have been the worst). What Seattle failed to accomplish against Matt Stafford but must accomplish against Matt Ryan is to make the pocket messy. Like Stafford, Ryan is too good to expect a big sack day without a ton of blitzes (VERY unlikely). But a messy pocket systematically reduces a QB's options.
We saw that against Dallas (where Romo had to constantly re-set). We saw it against New England (where Brady's throwing windows got tighter and tighter). We also saw it against Buffalo. None were huge sack games, but as the pocket inched closer to Romo and Brady they had had to throw where the defense wanted them to. Oddly, I think this is a matchup where Bruce Irvin can excel at the LEO. Clemons has more countermoves and uses his hands better, but Irvin may actually be better at walking the tackle back into the QB.
3. Jet lag is a real thing, and it's likely to show up as mistakes:
There is little sense crying about the early kickoff. The schedule is made to benefit the television partners. Seattle is 1-3 in 10am PDT kickoffs, with losses at St. Louis, at Detroit, at Miami, and a OT win at Chicago. The average score in those games is (with rounding) 20 - 22. I don't see any obvious patterns in the boxscores. The Seahawks have allowed no more than 7 points in any 1st quarter. So, they're not necessarily starting out sluggish.
If anything cuts across all four early kickoffs it is an inability to overcome mistakes. The fake FG in St. Louis. The blown coverage in Detroit leaves Titus Young wide open for a long score. Earl Thomas's light (but avoidable) blow to the QB's head at Miami wipes out a potentially game-saving INT. Even in the Chicago win, Richard Shermanoverruns a simple pass deflection that allows Brandon Marshall to get the Bears into FG range to force OT.
4. Even a high scoring game can be a "field position" game:
I anticipate a high scoring game, with both teams able to reach the 20s. These offenses are very good, and then add a fast playing surface to it. The Falcons have faced an easyish run of defenses. But like the 2005 Seahawks, don't let the schedule fool you. Atlanta is really good. The offense is built to pass, with little interest in running clock. And, they don't punt. They finish. How do you manage an offense like that? The first step is critical: put it in poor starting field position. Hopefully then, fewer of their big plays go directly for scores. A fifty yard bomb on first and ten from the 20 flips the field, but the defense can still win the drive with a turnover, punt, or FG attempt.
Seattle is well-equipped to make Atlanta drive long fields. The Falcons are mediocre-at-best across the board on special teams, and not especially good at creating field position on returns. They rank 10th in starting field position per drive, but much of that owes to forcing turnovers. Obviously, Seattle must also tackle well, force more punts than normal, and secure turnovers when the opportunities arise.
On the offensive side of the ball, it is worth noting that Seattle has had four "poor" offensive games based on pro-football-reference's expected points (i.e., negative expected points). Expected points shows how well a unit performed against its field position, down and distance. Seattle's last poor offensive game was at San Francisco.
That's the same number as Atlanta's offense, which is more prone to the occasional out-of-nowhere clunker. So, if you were somehow still unaware that Seattle has one of the league's best offenses, now you know. On defense Atlanta is turnover-reliant. That's not a criticism. We saw New Orleans ride that formula to a Super Bowl. Still, the Falcons defense has played nine "poor" games by expected points. (Seattle by contrast has played seven.) As I said, these two offenses are good. But not only that. They may be outright kryptonite for the two defenses involved. In cases like that field position often has the last word.