The Seahawks and Falcons have become quite familiar with one another over the last couple of years. Beginning with Dan Quinn leaving Seattle to become the head coach in Atlanta in 2015, then the two franchises facing off twice in 2016: First with the Seahawks winning 26-24 in the regular season, then the Falcons winning the one that mattered the most, a 36-20 divisional round victory that helped them eventually blow a 28-3 lead.
Taken back a bit further, Atlanta also provided us with a miraculous Russell Wilson fourth quarter comeback in the 2012 playoffs, and then a crushing blow moments later.
The two teams are then quite worthy of a Monday Night matchup this week that rivals even the best Miami Dolphins games! To get a better sense of where the Falcons stand today as compared to last season and so on, I sent five Qs to Dave Choate of The Falcoholic. In return, he sent me these five As.
Q: Many Seahawks fans are familiar with Steve Sarkisian thanks to his days at the University of Washington. I know that at least for me, there was considerable surprise that he'd been resurrected to be the man in charge of taking over one of the best offenses in NFL history. Some regression had to be expected but the Falcons are 16th in scoring and have struggled to top 17 for much of October and November. All of which is to say, what's the temp like for fans on Sarkisian? Are they accepting of him needing time to install on offense like Kyle Shanahan got (and needed) before the 2016 offensive outburst, or is it a constant call to fire him like Darrell Bevell gets in Seattle? What are your personal thoughts on the job he's done so far?
A: It has been somewhat muted after the offense had an effective game versus Dallas, but basically everyone has wanted to fire Steve Sarkisian since about Week 4 of the season. Fans hate the production we've been getting after watching the offense hit historic heights in 2016, and it really came to a head after that pitiful seven point effort against the Patriots.
The sense with Sarkisian, again and again, is that he isn't willing to use his personnel creatively and cannot figure out how to create advantageous matchups. That has gotten better in recent weeks, and we saw a lot more of Taylor Gabriel against the Cowboys, but there have been too many mystery fourth down jet sweeps on the goal line and senseless runs up the middle for Tevin Coleman to ignore. Sark inherited the pieces for a great offense and took a long time to figure out what he had. That time probably should have been expected, but we all saw 2016 and lost our minds a little bit.
I think he's done a largely average-to-poor job with the offense, but I've been very encouraging over the last two weeks, when he's been able to get Julio Jones and Taylor Gabriel open and create plays that have genuinely headaches for opposing defenses. That has only translated into one win thanks to lousy execution in Week 9's game against the Panthers, but it's a sign that this offense can and perhaps will be good again now.
Q: For most of his career, Matt Ryan has been the type of QB who throws like 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Except for last season when he won MVP, as I'm sure you remember. This season, he's on pace for 23 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, but he's upticked the touchdowns recently, so roughly 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions seems plausible for Ryan right now. It seems like this isn't a step backwards for Ryan, but just a step back into the production we're used to seeing from him. Would you say that's accurate?
I would agree with that characterization. Ryan had some very shaky stretches early in the year where he was overthrowing receivers, and it was fair to wonder if there would be some pullback with Kyle Shanahan heading to San Francisco.
But since those early mistakes, Ryan has been genuinely excellent, though it hasn't been reflected in his production. He has thrown four tipped picks and another one that came when tight end Austin Hooper messed up his route, and he's either overthrown or seen at least three touchdowns dropped. That's just the way it goes, but it has meant that the Matt Ryan doubters have been able to come out of the woodwork without being properly ridiculed.
I expect the rest of the year will see Ryan producing at a high level, but it would not surprise me at all if he wound up right around that 28/14 TD/INT ratio.
Q: In your BIASED opinion, how many Falcons are deserving of Pro Bowl honors this season and who are they?
I'm very biased, but quite a few of them. I think you can make a real case for Matt Ryan, who has had at least four interceptions this year either bobbled or picked off because of a mistake by a receiver, but I also know his stats don't merit consideration on their own.
So let me stump for Julio Jones, who has been as stellar as ever. Let me push for Alex Mack and Ryan Schraeder, two of the NFL's finest at their respective positions on the offensive line. Let me recommend a Pro Bowl berth for Adrian Clayborn because the man got six sacks in one game and that is a genuine feat. Let me push hard for De'Vondre Campbell and Grady Jarrett, who have been absolute studs for this Falcons defense. And finally, let me recommend Desmond Trufant, who somehow always flies under the radar despite consistently putting together stellar campaigns.
Q: The Seahawks and Falcons made a trade this year, with Atlanta moving up from 31 to 26 so they could draft Takkarist McKinley. Meanwhile, Seattle traded down from 31 and with the third and seventh round picks they got, added safety Delano Hill and running back Chris Carson, who looks to be a significant part of their future now. (That last part has nothing to do with Atlanta of course, just interesting for Seattle.) How is McKinley looking? Worth the trade up? As for the whole 2017 class in Atlanta, seems the returns are slow to get here -- is that true? Who are the bright spots?
Takk has been pretty quietly excellent. He's a much more physical player than I anticipated he'd be, and that has translated into better-than-expected run defense at end. That has enabled him to push past Brooks Reed and Derrick Shelby in the team's crowded defensive end rotation, and the team has even been willing to give Vic Beasley a longer look at linebacker because of McKinley's play thus far. He's also doing quite well as a pass rusher, albeit with the streakiness you expect from a rookie and not a lot of sacks to show for it.
Otherwise, the class has been extremely slow to deliver any results. Fifth round safety Damontae Kazee got one start and looked pretty good, and he and fellow fifth round tight end Eric Saubert have done well on special teams. Third round linebacker Duke Riley was below average as a starter, missing a ton of tackles, and has now been hurt for a few weeks and doesn't have a clear role to return to. Rookie fourth round guard Sean Harlow is a gameday inactive more or less every week, and fifth round running back Brian Hill got cut, put on the practice squad, and then snapped up by Cincinnati.
There's some real upside here--the Falcons clearly want Riley to be a significant part of their linebacker corps, Harlow could push for the left guard job in a year or two, and Saubert and Kazee should at least be useful reserves--but Takk is the only player making a real difference right now. That's unlikely to change anytime soon, but I do think he was a player worth trading up for.
Q: With no Devonta Freeman, how does that change Atlanta's gameplan and outlook in the running game? Will we only see Tevin Coleman, or are we likely to see a different back get some action as well? Does Freeman rank high in the "must-have" list for the Falcons?
I don't think things change all that much for Atlanta. They'll continue to utilize Coleman as they utilized Freeman, which means plenty of ill-advised runs right into the teeth of the Seattle defense. They'll also spring Coleman outside as they've done for a while now, and we all know how dangerous he can be in space with his speed. The only real difference is that instead of doing that for 10 or so carries and a couple of receptions per game, Coleman's extremely likely to get 20ish carries and a half dozen looks in the passing game, given how important that big play potential will be against your defense.
The Falcons will definitely mix in Terron Ward, who is a reasonably well-rounded runner without any one spectacular skill, but I can't imagine he'll get more than five or so carries unless Atlanta gets up by a lot of points. I don't see that as a realistic possibility, to be honest.
Freeman is a vital player for Atlanta, but they showed a week ago versus Dallas that they can get by with Coleman, who is a borderline great back in his own right. The concern becomes if they have to rely on Coleman for weeks on end, because we haven't really seen him hold up to that kind of workload just yet in his young career.