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Falcons vs. Seahawks: A Closer Look

An analytic look at the game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Seattle Seahawks.


Editor's Note: You may know Alejandro as "DrCause" - he's been writing these excellent game previews as FanPosts the past several weeks so I asked him to start posting them to the front page, and he obliged!

A Retrospect

For a few minutes in the second quarter, you could see it: a successful Greg Schaino team. The Bucs' players were energetic. They looked like they were having fun. The coaching was creative and interesting (more unexpected onside kicks please!). However, all things must come to an end. And in the end, all that was left of the Bucs was their sinking ship - their overbearing captain grasping air on the top of his giraffe of a quarterback's shoulders. I'll miss Schiano.

Poetic license aside, the game was wildly entertaining. Hawks fans should be somewhat concerned about some areas of the team, but any paranoia should quashed. No contender is perfect and this team is only going to improve moving forward.

As always, this piece will rely heavily on stats (all stats through week 9), mostly from football outsiders. You can read more here.

On to the recap!

Where I was right! (This section will look good eventually.)

  • The Bucs blitzed frequently.
  • Vincent Jackson was shut down.
  • Great punting game.

Where I was wrong.

  • Marshawn was great!
  • Perhaps unexpectedly, so was Mike James.
  • Glennon had an efficient day.
  • Russell did not have a big day on the ground.
  • The Seahawks did not come close to my margin of victory (19 points).

Somewhere in between.

  • Russell didn't have a great game - throwing two picks - but he was a net positive and solid overall.

At a Glance

From 13-3 to 2-6 this year, the Atlanta Falcons represent a cautionary tale in team building. High priced players can miss time, just like average starters. Indeed, the main culprit behind Atlanta's regression this year has been injuries. Their list of injured players includes: Roddy White, Julio Jones, Steven Jackson, Sam Baker, and likely other impact players. This is the type of team Atlanta fans are going to have to deal with - a team that can dominate when their star players are healthy, but one that is especially vulnerable to drops in play as a result of injuries.

Once again, Seahawks fans should be grateful to their front office and their ability to find depth later in the draft. With that kind of depth: Russell Okung, Max Unger, Breno Giacomini, Sidney Rice, Mike Robinson (not injury), Chris Clemens, Cliff Avril, Bruce Irvin, Brandon Browner, and Bobby Wagner can all miss time and the Seahawks will still be favored against the Falcons. That's pretty incredible.

The Atlanta Falcons

The Atlanta Falcons' Offense

In 2008 the Falcons hired a new head coach with a philosophy of accountability and hard work. That year the Atlanta Falcons won 11 games behind a solid rookie quarterback, a decent defense, and most importantly, a strong running game. The run game that was once the foundation of the Falcons' offense no longer resembles what Mike Smith's team put together in 2008.

Instead they rank just 24th in rushing offense DVOA. Not surprisingly, their offensive line is below average ranking 24th in adjusted line yards. Further compounding the problem is their running backs, who aren't playing at an elite level. Currently, the Falcons' leading rusher is Jacquizz Rodgers with 220 yards (3.3 yards per carry) with Steven Jackson as their second leading rusher (140 - 3.7 y/c). What's the impetus to the running game's decline these last five years? Hard to say, if I had to analyze I would point to a few factors.

First, the offense has undergone a philosophy change from run heavy to pass heavy with the emergence of Matt Ryan. Consequently, the Falcons' have likely sought lineman who are more capable pass protectors vs run blockers.

Second, they haven't drafted a running back to replace Michael Turner (unless you count Jacquizz).

Third, their drafting philosophy - trading up to select premium talent - generally leads to shallow depth on a team, and shallow depth leads to holes. In this case, the hole is at running back. Of course, they attempted to fill that hole with Steven Jackson, but aging, free agent running backs haven't fared well generally, so it's not surprising that early returns aren't comforting. Of those explanations for a poor running game, I would speculate that the offensive philosophy change is the most impactful.

Of course the beneficiary of that offensive philosophy is Matt Ryan - a truly elite quarterback. Last season, Matt Ryan threw for about 4,700 yards, 32 TDs, 14 interceptions and a silky smooth QB rating of 99.1 (QBR - 74.8). Aside from the interceptions, all those stats were in the top 5. Elite. If those numbers aren't convincing, then consider the fact that Matt Ryan leads the 9th ranked pass offense DVOA as another indicator of his success.

Still, despite my clear adoration, this season hasn't been as great for Ryan. Currently, his passer rating is at 91.7 (QBR - 68.8) and he's already been intercepted 10 times. The biggest reason for his dip is understandably his receiving corps. Both Julio Jones and Roddy White have been badly injured. Stepping up for the Falcons has been Harry Douglas who's a nice receiver, but not nearly as good as his injured counterparts, and Tony Gonzalez who somehow remains relevant year after year (never retire!).

Perhaps the most interesting stat concerning the Falcons' offense is their pass protection, where they rank 3rd in adjusted sack rate. I would speculate that like Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan is so quick in his decision making that regardless of the play around him, pressure is hard to come by. Did I mention he is elite?

In sum, Matt Ryan has done his best to work with what's around him, but the results are mixed so far. A makeshift passing game coupled with a poor running game has led to the 11th ranked offense in DVOA - decidedly above average, but not frightening.

The Atlanta Falcons' Defense

Of all the teams I've previewed so far, I know the least about this unit. As such, I'll ask you to forgive me if my analysis is inaccurate. Any mistakes are made of ignorance, not malice. However, to start I can find some stats. Atlanta's rush defense is ranked 17th in rush defense DVOA - slightly below average.

In concert, their defensive line ranks 26th in adjusted line yards, again - below average. Surprisingly, the Falcons also start two undrafted rookie free agents at their outside linebacker spots - Joplo Bartu, and Paul Worrilow (for injured Sean Weatherspoon). Not surprisingly, the ancillary stats to the defensive rushing DVOA suggest that they are below average in their efforts. In contrast, the ancillary stats suggest that the secondary members are stout against the run (presumably when they get the chance). That would make sense considering, for the most part, they're veterans.

Where the veterans in the defense have not been performing, is in pass defense. As of this writing, the pass defense ranks a lowly 29th in defensive pass DVOA. Last year, the pass defense ranked 11th in pass defense DVOA, so the drop in production must be widespread. Unfortunately, I'm having a difficult time explaining where the dip in production comes from.

Desmond Trufant (Go Huskies!) has had his struggles, but William Moore, Thomas DeCoud, and Asante Samuel are all experienced. They shouldn't be struggling like this. Normally, I would explain decreases in performance of a secondary as a result of poor pass rush or injuries, but only Asante Samuel has appeared on the injury report for multiple weeks.

The problem with pass rush explanation is that Atlanta has stayed at 26th in adjusted sack rate between this year and last. Obviously adjusted sack rates aren't the be all end all, but that kind of consistency and a lack of any promising additions to the defensive line should be telling. This pass rush isn't good. Not only that, but subjective accounts of the pass rush would confirm that Atlanta hasn't changed over last year either.

With the pass rush explanation eliminated, where does that leave the Atlanta pass defense? Frankly, I'm not sure - age seems like the best explanation, but hardly a satisfying one. All in all, most quarterbacks that have faced the defense have played well. The worst game against the Atlanta defense has been by Cam Newton, but his passing stats are somewhat muted because of his rushing ability. Overall, the passing defense, in combination with the rushing defense, leaves Atlanta very vulnerable and their defensive ranking (29th) looks accurate.

The Seattle Seahawks

As always, Kenneth's article on advanced stats would be a great place to start to have a better idea of Seattle's strengths and weaknesses. For those busy or uninterested folks, I'll simply give a brief overview. The Seahawks retain 2nd place in overall team rankings but Carolina seems to be closing the gap (currently ranked 3rd). Seattle remains a good defensive team with both the defense (2nd) and special teams (5th) ranked in the top five. The offense isn't bad either ranking at slightly above average (13th). As for the constituent parts on offense, the pass game ranks 12th and the running game ranks 7th. For the defense, the passing game is 1st, and the rush defense remains the Hawks' biggest weakness ranking 15th.

After last week's debacle, I was surprised the Seahawks hadn't tumbled farther down the rush rankings, but apparently it's difficult to move down from average. Coach Carroll mentioned after the game that the poor performance from the rush defense was mostly due to players tackling poorly and going after the ball. I would agree and mention that the linebackers in particular looked like they were more interested in making a spectacular play in the backfield as opposed to filling gaps. The problem I have with these explanations though, is that they don't seem complete.

If the Seahawks had given up a couple nice games in a row I would have believed those explanations, but the dismal performances of the last two weeks make me think that there may be injury issues Hawks fans aren't privy to. Something to keep an eye on.

The Matchups

The Falcons' Offense vs the Seahawks' Defense

The last time Hawks fans saw Matt Ryan, he was throwing darts to Harry Douglas and Tony Gonzalez to ice the game. In that game, Matt Ryan had 250 yards passing, 3 TDs, 2 INTs and a QB rating of 93.8 (QBR - 77.8). Sad times. However, that performance was a long time ago, and the teams are different. Most notably, the Falcons will be without Julio Jones, their best receiver and who knows how well Roddy White will perform coming back from an injury.

In my opinion, you can't stop elite quarterbacks. The best you can do is slow them down.

Against the Cardinals and Panthers (1st and 3rd in defensive DVOA), Matt Ryan has thrown for two touchdowns and seven (!) interceptions and the Seahawks' defense has similar statistical qualities to those defenses. Under different circumstances (a bad QB) I would suggest that the Hawks' defense would perform just as well, but I doubt Matt Ryan will have three horrendous games in a row.

I would suggest his performance would be similar to last year's. That is, he'll throw for a decent amount of yards, but throw a couple of picks or perhaps fumble (less likely). Consequently, I think the Hawks' defense will contain Atlanta's receivers to the point that they'll have nice games, but won't pose serious threats. It's also possible that Atlanta will try and run the ball on Seattle's now vulnerable run defense, but I don't think that would help the passing game immensely. If the Falcons do decide to run the ball, I think they'll have average success - somewhere around 4.0 yards per carry.

The Seahawks' Offense vs the Falcons' Defense

This is the game where I see the Seattle offense breaking out. The offense's biggest weakness is pressure off the edge and while Osi Umenyiora is having a nice year, I don't feel like he's going to have an enormous impact on the game. With that threat disposed, the offense should feel fully prepared to do whatever they please. That may sound like an exaggeration, but as I pointed out earlier, the Falcon's defense doesn't have an area of strength on their defense. The best they can muster is the 17th ranked rush defense, and I feel comfortable saying that Marshawn Lynch should be able to run through that.

With that in mind, I would also feel comfortable predicting this to be Russell Wilson's best game of the season (so far). He may not throw for 300 yards (that seems pretty rare in this offense), but he should have a good game and be remarkably efficient. There don't seem to be any trends for receivers going against the Atlanta defense, but I would predict that Zach Miller, Doug Baldwin, and Golden Tate will all have nice games with the other receivers getting a few catches along the way. And...that's it. I feel bad having this section so short, but I just don't have any evidence that the Falcons' defense will contain the Seahawks offense.

X Factors

Roddy White's health. Having a health Roddy White could really help improve the Falcons' offense. The problem of course, is that I'm skeptical he would be a great game changer against the Hawks even when healthy and his health is still questionable.

The Seahawks offensive line. It's not that I feel nervous about Max Unger's possible injury scratch - Lem has played well in his stead. The problem is that this line could completely implode without the help of the Falcons. I don't think it will happen, but it could.

The Seahawks rush defense. I'm going assume Red Bryant is out Sunday with a concussion. If that's the case I'm not sure how the Hawks' defense will respond. I don't think Atlanta has the horses to take advantage of the situation, but I thought the same against the Rams and the Bucs too.

The Narrative

The Hawks will give up yards and a couple touchdowns to Matt Ryan and the Falcons' offense. That won't be enough however, because the Hawks' defense will force a couple of key turnovers. Offensively, the Hawks should have little trouble moving the ball. Further, coupled with excellent field position generated from the punting game, I would expect the Hawks to score quite a few points. I would feel disappointed if this game wasn't past the single score margin.

Prediction: Seahawks win 27-17

Recap Stats

Where I was right! (This section will look good eventually.)

  • The Bucs blitzed frequently. 7 This was true, but my statement wasn't particularly firm.
  • Vincent Jackson was shut down. 9 Yes, yes he was.
  • Great punting game. 8 Once again - Seattle has a great punting game.

Where I was wrong.

  • Marshawn was great! 2 I get a point for no TD's but man, he was awesome.
  • Perhaps unexpectedly, so was Mike James. 1 the most efficient quarterback, and running back on Sunday.
  • Glennon had an efficient day. 6 he just didn't have a great second half.
  • Russell did not have a big day on the ground. 1 Not at all, but he didn't need to.
  • The Seahawks did not come close to my margin of victory (19 points) 1 These close games are killing me, and the winning percentage is not sustainable.

Somewhere in between.

  • Russell didn't have a great game - throwing two picks - but he was a net positive and solid overall. 5 The picks seemed fluky, not the result of bad decision making.

This Week's Average: 4.44...

Total Average: 5.304...*

*I've changed the total average to be weighted on how many predictions I make in a week.

Read more from Field Gulls:

Xs & Os: Breaking down schematics & strategy

The Numbers Game: Analysis of statistics & the salary cap

The Offseason: News & notes on the Seahawks' offseason

Miscellany: Commentary, criticism, pop culture & more

Field Gulls Podcasts: Hear from your writers

NFL Draft: Prospect analysis, scouting reports