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Seahawks-Falcons preview: A chance for Seattle’s defense to make a statement

Seattle Seahawks v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

After a long, winding offseason that once looked likely to extend well into the fall, your Seattle Seahawks will mercifully begin their season in Atlanta this Sunday, where they defeated the Falcons last October. The 2019 season saw Atlanta miss the playoffs and finish 7-9 for the second straight year, but six wins over their final eight games were enough for head coach Dan Quinn to keep his job. Quinn and the Falcons enter a pivotal season for the franchise in a loaded NFC South, so wins against out-of-division foes will be crucial should they hang around the playoff picture into December.

Atlanta, consistently hampered by injuries to major players over the past several seasons, will go into Week 1 against the Seahawks healthy and firing on all cylinders. Here’s what to know about Seattle’s Week 1 opponent and how the Seahawks can top the Falcons to start 1-0.

What the Falcons do well

In a curious offseason for Seattle, their big addition on offense was 35-year-old tight end Greg Olsen. The former Panther should help to stabilize a position group that, despite its importance to Brian Schottenheimer’s offense, has been anything but stable in 2018 and ‘19. Early season injuries to Will Dissly during the past two years have been brutal blows but the Seahawks are hoping for a healthy 2020 out of at least one of Olsen or Dissly in order to receive solid passing game contributions from the position every week.

That could prove difficult out of the gate.

Atlanta was excellent against tight ends in coverage last season, finishing sixth in EPA per target to the position in pass coverage. Their success matched up against a position that often sees defenders overmatched makes sense, with a defense stocked with hybrid defenders and excellent athletes. So, while Jacob Hollister and Dissly have often served as reliable options for Russell Wilson over the past two seasons, Seattle’s offense will need to look to their receivers against the Falcons.

Where the Falcons can be exploited

For as well as they defended tight ends in 2019, Atlanta was positively crushed by wide receivers, finishing 32nd in EPA per target (31st to outside receivers and 24th to slot receivers). The Seahawks’ Week 8 win featured a 100-yard day for Tyler Lockett and two wildly easy scores for DK Metcalf, so Seattle will be well aware of that deficiency.

While Desmond Trufant moved on in free agency, Isaiah Oliver—who was dreadful last season, allowing 61% of passes thrown his way to be completed for 773 yards—is expected to start opposite rookie A.J. Terrell, with Darqueze Dennard in the slot. It’s still a highly susceptible group, especially Oliver; the Seahawks should find and attack the third-year corner at every opportunity.

Metcalf should be in line for another strong outing against the Falcons, while Lockett (and the tailbacks) can benefit from Wilson getting the ball out quickly to mitigate Atlanta’s pass rush.

Who to know on the Falcons

With such an established roster, there are very few new arrivals or under the radar contributors to look to, but let’s focus on a breakout candidate for 2020: Calvin Ridley. The third-year receiver has had a solid start to his career, with 127 catches, 1,687 yards, and 17 touchdowns across 29 games. In 2020, however, Ridley should be expected to take the next step and cement himself as one of the league’s elite route runners and a 1,000-yard threat.

Playing opposite Julio Jones will come with great benefits for as long as Jones is a dominant force and that doesn’t look likely to change soon. Defenses, forced to shade coverage towards Jones, will provide Ridley with plenty of 1-on-1s. Already proficient in finding space against zone coverage, Ridley should get open often against Seattle and so the focus will have to be on limiting yards after the catch—something Ridley has never excelled at, with an average of just 2.3 yards after the catch per reception a year ago.

Whether it’s Quinton Dunbar, Tre Flowers, or Shaquill Griffin, the cornerback tasked with Ridley on an island will have a crucial job while the defense’s focus is on Jones.

When Grady Jarrett isn’t double-teamed it’s a problem

One of the game’s best interior rushers in Grady Jarrett will have the chance to cause havoc against the Seahawks’ new trio of Mike Iupati, Ethan Pocic, and Damien Lewis in Week 1. In 2019, Jarrett posted career highs in sacks (7.5) and pressures (41 per Sports Info Solutions) while being double-teamed on 57% of pass rush snaps, per ESPN. Only Aaron Donald had a higher pass rush win rate among defensive tackles, with Jarrett coming in at 21% (compared to Donald’s 24%).

With a combination of rare balance and short-area quickness, Jarrett is the league’s budget Aaron Donald, presenting an absolutely nightmarish problem for opposing lines. Interior pressure can derail Wilson’s efforts to work from the pocket and as a result, force the entire offense off their marks.

Though Duane Brown and Brandon Shell will have difficult matchups with Dante Fowler Jr. and Takk McKinley, it will be crucial for Seattle to have two of three interior players focused on Jarrett, allowing Wilson time to work through his progressions and find the open receiver in a favorable matchup for the passing game.

Why the Seahawks will win

Everyone remembers what happened last season when Seattle went to Atlanta: Matt Schaub threw for nearly 450 yards against the Seahawks’ defense. Even with Matt Ryan, not Schaub, under center, the Falcons will not find the same kind of success. It’s an entirely different secondary for Seattle, with as many as three new starters.

Last year, Ryan was dreadful against cover-3, finishing 21st among starters in EPA per dropback. In Week 1, Ryan will face a potentially elite secondary who will give him plenty of cover-3 looks. In a difficult matchup for Ryan, Atlanta will be hard-pressed to keep up against Wilson and a Seahawks offense led by two dynamic wide receivers set for big days.

Seattle’s defense will make a Week 1 statement, while Wilson and the Seahawks’ offense will maintain their steadying force.