Julio Jones and Roddy White are almost as long, nearly as physical and have tormented overmatched corners all season while combining to catch 171 passes for 2,549 yards in a passing game that is the best part of an offense that propelled the Falcons to a 13-3 record and the top seed in the NFC playoffs.
Something obviously has to give on Sunday, when the Falcons host the Seahawks in a divisional playoff game at the Georgia Dome.
“The set of receivers they have is what jumps out at us the most,” defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. “It’s probably the most complete that we’ve faced. I mean we’ve faced some good ones, so I don’t want to slight anybody else. But these guys are very talented, very talented.”
The Seahawks faced a litany of productive receivers during the regular season, including four who finished among the Top 5 in the NFL in receptions – the Lions’ Calvin Johnson, Bears’ Brandon Marshall, Patriots’ Wes Welker and Cowboys’ tight end Jason Witten. Throw in the Cardinals’ Larry Fitzgerald and 49ers’ Michael Crabtree (twice), as well as the Cowboy’s Dez Bryant, Packers’ Randall Cobb and Bills’ Stevie Johnson, and it’s nearly half the receivers in the Top 20 in receptions.
But Sunday will be different, because it’s all of that, times two.
“It’s going to be a fun matchup,” Sherman said. “They’ve got two of the best receivers in football. It’s going to be one of the more-fun matchups we’ve had this season.”
The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Jones was voted to the Pro Bowl after catching 79 passes for 1,198 yards and 10 touchdowns. White is shorter (6 foot) and lighter (211 pounds), but didn’t back down against anyone while catching 92 passes for 1,351 yards and seven TDs.
“Roddy is a crafty route-runner,” Sherman said. “Julio runs hard routes and plays the game more physical. He’s stronger in his routes. He uses his body more.”
Stronger. Physical. Uses his body. Sounds like someone describing Sherman and Browner. Someone like Falcons coach Mike Smith.
“I think it’s arguably the best duo at cornerback position in the NFL this year,” Smith said this week during a conference-call interview. “They’re big, long, physical football players.”
Sherman is 6-3, weighs almost 200 pounds and has a 6-foot-5½ wingspan. He tied for second in the NFL with eight interceptions, returning one of them for a TD, and led the Seahawks with 24 passes defensed. Browner is even bigger (6-4, 221) and longer (6-8 wingspan). He had three interceptions in 12 regular-season games, after leading the team with six last season, and shared the team lead with three forced fumbles.
“They’re as big and as physical as there are in the league, that’s for sure,” Falcons QB Matt Ryan said this week when asked about the aggressive style of the Seahawks’ secondary – which also includes 6-3 strong safety
“Richard Sherman is a big, physical guy. Browner, on the other end, is a big, physical guy, as well. They’re good.”
Even when you have big receivers capable of going up and making plays on any ball against any defender, throwing against a tandem like Sherman and Browner is different.
“You have to be accurate with the football and trust in the guys that we have,” said Ryan, who threw 14 interceptions during the regular season to go with his 32 TD passes. “We have big, physical receivers, as well. You have to trust that they’re going to win on their routes and also look for other areas to throw the football.”
Like wherever Tony Gonzalez might be. The most productive tight end in NFL history led the Falcons with 93 receptions this season – his 16th – and also had eight TD catches. But Gonzalez will be primarily Chancellor’s problem.
“So that will be another exciting one to watch,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “Our guy is as big and strong as you can get and he’s ready. But nobody has ever stopped Tony. We’re hoping to contain him and not let him get crazy on us.”
That’s also the plan for White and Jones. Or Jones and White.
“They present a lot of challenges,” Sherman said. “They have a lot of weapons. We look forward to those kinds of challenges.”
So does Browner, who returned for last week’s wild-card playoff game against the Redskins after serving a four-game suspension and hardly missed a beat. Literally. At times, the Redskins’ Pierre Garcon was wearing Browner like a second jersey the coverage was so tight, and just as physical.
“That’s what we expect from B.B.,” Sherman said. “We expect nothing less. We needed him to come back and step right back into the lineup and give us everything we needed to roll according to plan. That’s what he did, and that’s exactly what it was.”
Browner also is anticipating this almost mirror-image matchup.
“I think they’re the best tandem of receivers we’ll face, if not the best in the league,” he said. “They’re going to give us their best shot, and it’s going to be a good matchup because we match up well against these guys.
“The guys that are willing to fight longer are going to be the victors. That’s what it’s going to boil down to. It’s going to be an old-school, one-on-one, up-in-your-face type of matchup for us.”
Just the kind of situation where Sherman and Browner usually are at their best.
“It’s fun to play against good players,” Sherman said. “Good versus good is always the best kind of game.”