Following a grueling victory on Thursday Night Football away to the Arizona Cardinals, the Seattle Seahawks return home to play the Atlanta Falcons on Monday Night Football, 11 days after they last played. The extended break couldn’t have come at a better time, with Seattle having had 10 players come off injured for varying amounts of time throughout the win over Arizona. The miniature bye week will have helped a good portion of those players get healthy, as well as crucially affording Earl Thomas a full three weeks to return to full health.
Meanwhile the Falcons are coming off one of their best games of the season, a dominant 27-7 victory over the Dallas Cowboys. In a tightly contested NFC, Atlanta has to make up a game on their wildcard competitors - the Cowboys, Seahawks/Rams, Carolina Panthers and Detroit Lions - and a victory in Seattle would be a huge boon to their playoff chances. A loss would see them fall to 5-5, third place in the NFC South and falling behind the playoff race. In a game featuring two of the NFC’s most talented teams, there is plenty to watch for.
How many carries for Seattle’s running backs?
In the second half of last week’s win over the Cardinals, the Seahawks’ offense did something unthinkable, yet something a good portion of fans had been asking for all season: They stopped running the football. Prior to Seattle’s last (non-kneel down) possession of the game, they ran the ball in the second half with a running back just twice. On their last possession, they ran it three consecutive times prior to punting. Was this a sign of mid-season evolution from the Seahawks’ offense, or simply a product of the way the game was going?
During Monday’s game against the Falcons, it would benefit the Seattle to continue using an offense absent of traditional running back carries, whether it’s a concerted change or not. Although Atlanta’s struggled against the run this year - 28th in run defense by DVOA - they present a difficult matchup to the Seahawks.
Bizarro-universe Super Bowl LI MVP Grady Jarrett has been superb this season at defensive tackle for the Falcons, making up for Dontari Poe’s early season struggles. Jarrett’s posted the fourth-highest run stop percentage by Pro Football Focus this season, stuffing runners on 12-percent of run snaps. His strong play inside directly combats where Seattle’s had their most success running the ball in 2017. On inside runs (behind the LG, C or RG), Seahawks ball carriers have averaged four yards per carry. While on outside runs (behind either tackle or outside either hash), they’ve averaged a paltry 2.3 yards per carry. If they’re to get Thomas Rawls, Mike Davis or J.D. McKissic rolling on Monday night, they’ll be hard pressed to do it on inside runs.
Continuing to move away from the run and allowing Russell Wilson to maximize his value down the stretch will be Seattle’s best option.
Can the Seahawks’ offense get rolling?
A simple look at Seattle’s points scored on a week-to-week basis shows how tantalizingly frustrating their offense has been so far this season: 9, 12, 27, 46, 16, 24, 41, 14 and 22. For every offensive explosion, like those we saw against the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans, there’s the rainy, sloppy performances against Washington and the San Francisco 49ers. In the final seven games of the season, the Seahawks have a great opportunity to make noise in the NFC. The conference-leading Eagles and division-leading Rams come to CenturyLink Field after the Seahawks host Atlanta. But before wins against Philadelphia and L.A. can re-install hope for home field advantage, Seattle’s offense needs to start clicking.
A struggling Seahawks offense has blown out opponents at home in prime-time out of nowhere before, but it will be difficult for them to repeat it against Atlanta. A young, loaded Falcons defense has improved from 2016 to 2017. Linebackers De’Vondre Campbell and Deion Jones have both made strides towards being legitimate All-Pro caliber players; Keanu Neal, Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford make up a blossoming secondary; and Vic Beasley, Jarrett and Takk McKinley highlight a young defensive line. While they remain more potential than production - they’re currently the 24th ranked defense by DVOA after finishing last season 27th - they’re also coming off their best performance of the season.
Against a Dallas offense missing several key pieces, Atlanta’s defense racked up eight sacks, two turnovers, one defensive touchdown while allowing just 233 total yards. Not only did Adrian Clayborn have the career day of all career days against backup left tackle Chaz Green, but Vic Beasley beat right tackle La’el Collins repeatedly on the other side. As they’ve done all season, the Falcons defense did a tremendous job of finishing the game off against the Cowboys, as they continue to lead the league in third-down defense in the fourth quarter -- allowing conversions just 25-percent of the time.
Russell Wilson’s legs to the rescue (again)
During the defeat at home to Washington two weeks ago, Wilson finally passed Christine Michael as the team’s leading rusher since the beginning of 2016. He has a real chance at leading the team in rushing this season, as he currently has an 82-yard lead over the injured-since-week-four Chris Carson. And on Monday night, he might extend his lead by a considerable amount.
As he did when he was in Seattle, Atlanta’s head coach Dan Quinn loves his defensive linemen to attack up-field towards the quarterback. There are schematic advantages and disadvantages to this, but one of the disadvantages is it allows quarterbacks with running ability to escape - either up the middle or out the side of the pocket - if the defensive linemen work too far up-field and allow the quarterback to get in front of them.
During Sunday’s win against Dallas, Dak Prescott was the latest example of this backfiring, as he punished the Falcons’ defense on several occasions, ending the game with six carries for 42 yards and a touchdown. The week before, Cam Newton had a monster day on the ground, running it nine times for 86 yards and a touchdown. Atlanta’s struggled with quarterback runs all season, and Monday’s game versus the Seahawks will see them take on the fourth of the four best running quarterbacks in the league. Newton and Prescott had success running, while they held Tyrod Taylor to just 12 yards on seven carries. If Jarrett and the Falcons’ defense stuffs any attempt at a running game, look for Wilson to again lead the way for Seattle on the ground.
Containing Tevin Coleman
The Seahawks caught a break during their Sunday off, when running back Devonta Freeman suffered his second concussion of the season and is now likely to miss Monday’s game. Unfortunately for Seattle his backup, Tevin Coleman, is an incredibly explosive and dangerous runner in his own right. Making up the second-part of the league’s most exciting running back tandem in 2016 (that crown belongs to Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram in 2017), Coleman broke out with 941 yards from scrimmage and 11 total touchdowns. While his usage hasn’t been the same in 2017, his production remains efficient: 4.8 yards per carry, 11.9 yards per reception and four total touchdowns.
Similar to when Seattle played the Rams and Todd Gurley in week five, the challenge for the Seahawks’ defense will be containing Coleman and not allowing him to turn the corner on outside runs. Last week was the first this season when it appeared new Atlanta offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian understood how to use Coleman, repeatedly breaking off chunks of yards on outside zone runs. With Coleman in line to start on Monday night, more of the same can be expected.
On outside zone or stretch run plays (to either side) in 2017, Coleman is averaging 5.8 yards per carry on 52 attempts. On inside runs, he’s averaging just 2.3 yards per carry on 31 attempts. Coleman is an explosive play waiting to happen in both the run and pass game, and the Falcons will force Seattle’s defense to go sideline-to-sideline all game long. Another Defensive Player of the Year-caliber game from Bobby Wagner will go a long way in making Atlanta one-dimensional on Monday night.
How will the Seahawks’ secondary hold up?
On Monday night, for the first time in 2500 days (seriously), Seattle will line up without cornerback Richard Sherman. Not only did the team lose a perennial All-Pro, the 2017-leader in completion percentage when thrown at, and a leader, they lost him prior to a matchup against the NFL’s only extraterrestrial. Despite numerous complaints to the FBI, CIA and letters sent to various Area-51 officials, Julio Jones remains eligible to play in games. And so it will be up to Jeremy Lane, Shaquill Griffin and Earl Thomas to slow down a receiver who is capable of doing things no other wide receiver in league history could do. In two games against the Seahawks and Sherman last season, Jones posted a modest 13 catches for 206 yards and two touchdowns.
While Jones has yet to play up to his standards in 2017, the Falcons’ offense began to resemble 2016’s version last week. Matt Ryan was back to his facilitating best with seven different receivers catching a pass, and finally speedster Taylor Gabriel got involved in an explosive play. Ryan’s quietly having another great season to follow up his MVP-campaign in 2016, currently ranking eighth in yards, tied for eighth in touchdown passes, 12th in passer rating and tenth in ANY/A. Additionally, he throws the least amount of turnover worthy passes by PFF, has the third highest completion percentage under pressure and eighth highest on third down.
Rumors of Atlanta’s offensive demise have been greatly exaggerated. They are third in the league in explosive plays and are 10th in offensive DVOA by Football Outsiders. It remains to be seen if Sarkisian is a good fit with this unit, but Ryan, Jones, Coleman and company are as dangerous as last season, and can still beat you in a variety of ways. Seattle’s secondary, missing Sherman and potentially Kam Chancellor, will be coming up against one of the league’s most lethal offenses on Monday night.