A look at three keys for the Seahawks-Falcons NFC divisional playoff game. What will Seattle do to combat Atlanta’s running game, and can Russell Wilson recreate some magic in the Georgia Dome?
Putting Matty Ice in deep freeze
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan had a season for the ages at age 31, throwing for 38 touchdowns against just seven interceptions while averaging 9.3 yards per attempt, the best in the NFL since Kurt Warner with the “Greatest Show on Turf’’ Rams of 2000.
Ryan has credited the schemes of second-year offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, son of two-time Super Bowl-winning head coach Mike Shanahan, for guiding him to a season that could well see him win NFL MVP honors. But what Ryan would really like to do is alter a reputation — deserved or not — for failing to be at his best in the postseason. While Ryan has led Atlanta to 10 wins or more in five of his nine seasons, he is just 1-4 in playoff games — the win coming against Seattle in the divisional playoffs following the 2012 season.
Ryan has thrown nine touchdowns against seven interceptions in the postseason with a QB rating of just 85.2. Asked this week how to stop Ryan, Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard said it was simple: “Put him on the ground.”
That’s more than possible as Ryan was sacked 37 times, second-most of his career. The Seahawks sacked Ryan four times – tying a season high for the Atlanta QB — in a 26-24 win at CenturyLink Field, one resulting in a fumble that led to a Seahawks touchdown.
Taming the Falcons’ two-headed tailback
While Ryan and receiver Julio Jones get most of the kudos for the success of the Atlanta offense, it couldn’t operate as successfully as it does without running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Freeman was a Pro Bowler with 1,079 rushing yards and 54 receptions for 452 yards. But Coleman is an able counterpart with 520 yards and more of a vertical threat as a receiver with 421 yards on 31 receptions.
Richard said the fact that each is a good receiver complicates how to match up defensively. “You have to absolutely know where they are on the field at all times,” he said. “They can empty out of the backfield, run good routes, they have really good hands, both of them have really good vision, good speed, they’re elusive and they do well running after contact.”
Seattle combatted Atlanta’s running attack in the October win by playing a base defense almost 60 percent of the time. That worked to hold the Falcons to just 52 yards on 18 carries, with the Seahawks playing well enough on the back end to pull out the win with just four defensive backs. That will be a key for Seattle again. If Atlanta can run on Seattle’s base defense, then the Seahawks could be in trouble.
Russell running like a rookie
Russell Wilson returns to the scene of what remains one of the best games of his career, the divisional playoff game following the 2012 season when he led the Seahawks back from a 27-7 fourth-quarter deficit to a 28-27 lead before the Falcons drove for a winning field. Wilson was 24 of 36 in that game for 385 yards — which remains his career high for passing yards — while also running seven times for 60 yards. Wilson has approached that passing total a few times this season — three of his eight regular-season 300-yard passing games have come this season. But he’s rarely approached that running total, rushing for more than 19 yards in a game only twice all season, and more than 36 only once (80 against Tampa Bay).
Thomas Rawls jump-started Seattle’s running game with a franchise postseason record 161 yards last Saturday against Detroit. But while the Falcons are statistically a little worse against the run than the Lions, a similar performance might not be as easy to duplicate on the road and Seattle might need a little more from Wilson to keep the run game going. Wilson should be capable as he will again play without the knee brace he wore most of the regular season after suffering a sprained MCL.
“It was a pretty light brace, but at the same time you can’t get your full range of motion,” Wilson said this week. “It kind of impedes your stride a little bit. It’s nice to have it off.”