Sunday, December 19, 2010

Hawks blindsided in the bay, NFC leading Falcons flying in fast: Part 2

For an analysis on the Seahawks' mindset and a preliminary game preview for week 15, scroll down or follow the link on the right!

The Atlanta Falcons bring the NFC's best record to Qwest in week 15 for a highly anticipated late season matchup that has playoff implications for both teams. Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll has given nothing but praise to the Falcons organization this week; "Obviously you can tell I'm impressed with what they are doing—they epitomize what you look for in this league." The Falcons take care of the football, have a balanced offense, consistent special teams and solid defense. "Across the board, a formula for winning; a team that is having success in a type of formula we regard highly." The Seahawks are simply hoping to play hard and rebound from a disappointing loss to San Francisco; The Falcons come here expecting to be the first NFC team to clinch a playoff spot.

Flying high

The Falcons come in as winners of seven in a row, four of the seven wins coming in fourth quarter comebacks. Led by third year stud Quarterback Matt Ryan, they are one of the NFL's dangerous, young teams. In their third year under Head Coach Mike Smith, the Falcons have become one of the league's consistent game finishers, led by Ryan's 13 career game wining drives. On Sunday, they hope to finish their three game road trip, 3-0, in a celebratory fashion; expectations are on the Falcons as one of the teams being picked to play in February. Simply put, they are a team that is good enough to carry the weekly expectation of competing at the highest level. A pesky, inconsistent Seahawks team is just another weekly challenge, but likely victim.

Bring out the best

Coach Pete Carroll's message to his team this week was clear; "we are calling on a tremendous week of preparation for our best shot at them, we have to find our game and get clean; it's a matchup that calls to be the best you can." Matt Hasselbeck describes the Falcons as a team that is exemplary of what the Seahawks believe they can become.

The Seahawks have shown great potential, only to be undone by major mental lapses and injuries; only two Seahawks games have been decided by 10 points or less, both victories; the Falcons are 8-1 in games decided by that margin. The Seahawks seven losses have all been blowouts and the season can be described as inconsistency in "grand fashion," a quality Safety Lawyer Milloy called "not good, at all" earlier in the week.

Coach Carroll has acknowledged his team is not capable of consistently performing to the level they had hoped, yet the team is in the thick of a division race. A team not ready for January football has a rare chance to get hot in December and sneak into the playoffs. Carroll explained to his players Wednesday morning this is a playoff game. This is the type of team that you have to beat to advance in the playoffs. Were in a playoff situation; it's win or go home. The Seahawks need compete with their 4th quarter mentality for 60 minutes Sunday.

Four offensive factors

Protect Hasselbeck and protect the ball, part 2: Coach Carroll noted after the Carolina victory that poor ball security could, but had not yet, cost the team a game; Matt Hasselbeck had one of his worst games as a pro last week, turning the ball over five times, validating Carroll's sentiment. This week, Hasslebeck faces an opportunistic and aggressive defense that has 17 interceptions, among the best in the league. The Falcons secondary has been improving in recent weeks, playing more press coverage and winning the battle at the line of scrimmage against opposing receivers; the Seahawks must win the battle versus the Falcons shorter corners, as both Mike Williams and Ben Obomanu are expected back. Coordinator Jeremy Bates called Hasselbeck a "true pro;" Hasselbeck took the poor performance personally and is eager to bounce back. Bates will not reign back the offense as aggressive is his M.O.; Hasselbeck needs to consistently make the smart throw, aggressively, in a game that will ultimately be used to evaluate his status as the starter this coming off season.

Bait the defense: The Falcons run defense had been a top 10 unit until allowing 100 yard rushers the past two games, both road games. The defense thrives on maintaining gap discipline, a strong "read and react" unit; they find the football. They were outwardly frustrated this week with the struggles against the run and are focused on attacking the line of scrimmage, playing physical and disciplined run defense. Offensive Coordinator Jeremy Bates has an opportunity to attack the Falcons, baiting them into over pursing the run, setting up the play action pass on 2nd and 3rd downs. If the Seahawks can get themselves into 2nd and 5 situations, there is opportunity for big plays; throwing on first down from "21" and "22" or running from "20" will help keep the Atlanta defense off balance by breaking tendency and "mixing" formations. The Seahawks need to counter the Falcons discipline with creative play calling if they want to consistently move the football.

More Offensive Line changes: After three games in a row starting the same five linemen, it's time for more change. Veteran Left Guard Chester Pitts returns to the lineup for the Seahawks after a three game absence, replacing 3rd year player Mike Gibson; Gibson is being moved to Right Guard, replacing 6'7, 340 pound Veteran Shawn Andrews, who has started 12 games at the position this year. Gibson is a smart, hard working lineman that plays with attitude. The shift says more to me about Gibson than it does Pitts, who has been expected to play the left side with Russell Okung since the preseason, or Andrews; Gibson has clearly made an impression on Offensive Line Coach Art Valero, enough to bench a well respected, pre season acquisition. The Seahawks are sacrificing continuity for potential on the right side of the line, a move that will be under scrutiny Sunday.

Attack Abraham: Defensive end John Abraham has been one of the league's most consistent edge rushers for the past decade, with over 100 career sacks. He has already achieved double digit sacks this season and his presence allows the Falcons defense to focus an extra man on stopping the run or vary their coverage and blitzes. The Seahawks can attack Abraham, who is not a stout "point of attack" defender against the run, using two back formations with Michael Robinson as the lead back. Furthermore, rookie Sean Weatherspoon plays the Strongside linebacker position behind Abraham and has struggled the last four games returning from a knee injury. The Seahawks need to neutralize Abraham and force the Falcons to adjust their pass rush.

Four defensive factors

Stay on balance: The Falcons offense displays a unique balance that is driven by an efficient quarterback, power running game, the leagues #2 third down conversion percentage and #4 turnover margin. Coach Carroll explained, "Put it all together, it's a powerful, potent offense. And if you can't adjust, Coordinator Mike Malarkey will hammer it home." Last week, the Seattle defense produced a staggering statistic: The Seahawks allowed 227 of 336 total yards on 6 of the 56 defensive plays. The Seahawks played very good defense except for six "physical breakdowns and missed opportunities to corral the football." The Seahawks must stay both balanced and aggressive, not allowing the Falcons to "ball control" the defense onto its heels and capitalize on the big play.

A lethal connection: Matt Ryan is one of the most polished and consistent young quarterbacks in the NFL; Roddy White leads the NFL with 99 catches. Ryan has the ability to throw to all areas of the field and is particularly dangerous working with White "outside the numbers," 15-30 yards down the field. Ryan has good recognition against the blitz and has great anticipation and chemistry with his receivers, especially on 3rd downs; his poise in the pocket allows him to throw precise sideline, timing routes or fit the ball in a small window over the middle. If the Seahawks are to get the Falcons offense off the field on 3rd down they must find a way to take away one side of the field, from the numbers to the sideline. Marcus Trufant struggled greatly against the Giants' Hakeem Nicks defending sideline, timing routes and Kelly Jennings continues to look confused and overmatched, especially in press coverage. The Seahawks need to bracket White with the deep defender taking away the outside; both forcing White to primarily work inside and minimizing Ryan's ability to make his preferred throw. Ryan will look towards his second target Tight End Tony Gonzalez, forcing throws over the middle and giving the Seahawks opportunities; Linebackers Aaron Curry and Will Herring need to be utilized in containing Gonzalez. Ryan is turning into a great player, but he overly features his preferred targets. Limiting White and Gonzalez, especially on third down, is of the utmost importance for the Seahawks to be competitive against the Falcons.

Contain the running game: The Seahawks need to focus on minimizing, not stopping, the Falcons diverse power rushing attack that is led by Runningback Michael Turner. Coordinator Mike Malarkey uses a variety of formations to engineer a diverse, balanced and consistent run game. The Falcons offensive line has gained experience and created a continuity playing together that is rare in the modern NFL; they have worked together under Head Coach Mike Smith for the majority of three seasons. The unit ranks in the top 10 in yards, touchdowns and first downs over both sides of the line, while the right side is especially prolific; the right side is among the leagues best in consistently gaining positive yards and first downs. Colin Cole and Brandon Mebane need to play stout inside and the Seahawks must adjust quickly to find the right combinations of lineman and linebackers; 5-2-4 is a defensive formation I believe the Seahawks can use to offset the running game, only if the Seahawks are willing to rotate linebackers. Additionally, backup Jason Snelling is used as an extension of the running game in the short passing game, a crucial secondary factor the Seahawks must continually be aware of. They need to use the entire defensive playbook if they are going to slow down the Falcons.

Falcons Wide Receivers vs Seahawks Cornerbacks: The falcons entire receiving corps is 6'0 or taller; the Seahawks have one Cornerback, Kennard Cox, who is 6'0. As Roy Lewis is a game-time decision and Walter Thurmond is most likely out, Cox will see time on defense, something I have advocated for at times in the past five weeks. He played well filling in for Thurmond in Oakland and blocked a punt against the Chiefs. He needs to tackle well and use his physicality against the Falcons secondary receivers, red zone target Brian Finneran and speedster Harry Douglas. Secondary depth has been an Achilles heel for the Seahawks this season and Cox has an opportunity to provide unexpected depth.

Three less obvious factors

Do the Seahawks take the ball if they win the toss: The Seahawks offense is more reliable than the defense; the Falcons are fully capable of taking control of the game with a six minute, opening drive touchdown. If possible, I want to see the Seahawks take the ball instead of deferring, with the intention of starting the second half strong; they need to create the momentum, not let the Falcons control from the start; if on defense, they must get off the field in less than six plays, no points, as more than two first downs for the Falcons will let the offense begin to find a rhythm.

Go Go Gadget Flow: Jeremy Bates has shown gadget plays are a part of his offensive repertoire; Leon Washington has attempted multiple halfback passes and Michael Robinson ran a successful wildcat play, with Hasselbeck split wide, versus the 49ers. Bates likes to use the versatility of his offensive players, but Bates needs to not outsmart himself; a quick developing trick play that uses a handoff then throw, such as a Wide Receiver reverse and throw instead of a play that slowly develops with two backwards passes, would qualify as the smart, aggressive balance Bates looks for in running the offense. A "gadget" play turnover against the Falcons would be among the Season's most boneheaded mistakes.

Special teams: Both teams are strong on Special Teams; The Seahawks are very explosive in the return game while the Falcons players are phenomenal in maintaining their "lanes" covering kickoffs and punts— more so than other games, a trick play for the Seahawks is a possibility. Furthermore, both teams have strong all around kicking games. The Special Teams battle will be a factor in deciding this game

Get to the 4th quarter

Coach Carroll has continually stressed competing in the 4th quarter, possibly too much, as a key part of his "formula." Unfortunately the Seahawks have had very few competitive games in the 4th quarter, a lack of experience that Carroll acknowledged is concerning. The Falcons have plenty of fourth quarter experience, as they fought their way through tough 4th quarters in the early part of the season and learned how to separate from teams as the season progressed.

There is one 4th quarter moment that stands out in my mind; The Chiefs' Jamaal Charles 3 yard touchdown run is a play I highlighted in my post Seahawks waive white flag vs. Chiefs, as it
is exemplary of the Seahawks' season long struggles, with two missed tackles in the backfield and a Seahawk at the bottom of the pile in the end zone; down three heading into "their" quarter, the Seahawks meekly let the game slip from their grasp.

The consequences of that play remain clear; the defense is still broken, too damaged for the offense to make up the difference. Sunday, the defense needs to earn itself a similar situation; the game on the line, in the 4th quarter, a chance to change the consequences.

No Seahawks fan can be rightfully upset at this point; the team is playing below their expectations, similar to Coach Carroll's first year at USC, but is tied for the division lead. The Seahawks are nearly 300 roster moves removed from last year's pathetic week 15 loss to the Buccaneers; the fact that this team won't quit Sunday is refreshing, even exciting.

Coach Carroll on Wednesday, "I won't back off of where or what we can be for a second. That's the mindset they will hear and must have-- This is where we can go and we're on our way." The only way they will get there is for Carroll to aid his players in creating the results of clean, competitive football; the Falcons provide an excellent canvas for reflection on Sunday.

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