The Seahawks are heading back to Atlanta for a Divisional Round playoff game for the second time in five years, and on Saturday they'll face a Falcons offense that averaged a league-best 33.8 points per game this season.
"They're good at everything on offense," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said.
The Seahawks, meanwhile, are coming off of a dominant defensive performance in the Wild Card Round in which Detroit was held to two field goals and never moved the ball past Seattle's 33-yard line. So for good reason, this game is being billed as a classic strength vs. strength battle—though Seattle's offense and Atlanta's defense have also done plenty of good things to help their teams win this season.
If the Seahawks are going advance to the NFC Championship Game, these are three key matchups they'll need to win:
1. Atlanta's "Full Package" running backs vs. Seattle's front-seven.
Quarterback Matt Ryan, a leading candidate for this year's MVP award, and receiver Julio Jones are the two biggest names on Atlanta's offense, and for good reason, but while Richard Sherman potentially covering Jones might be the most talked about matchup in this game, it might not be the most important when it comes to Seattle's defense trying to slow Atlanta's high-scoring offense. One of the biggest reasons the Seahawks had success against Atlanta's offense—aside from a few notable coverage breakdowns—for most of the game when these teams met in Octobers was the way the Seahawks contained Atlanta's dangerous running-back duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
Freeman rushed for 1,079 yards and 11 touchdowns while adding 462 receiving yards and two touchdown catches this season, while Coleman had 520 rushing yards, 421 receiving yards and 11 total touchdowns. For those who don't like math, that's 2,482 yards of total offense and 24 touchdowns between the two of them. It's no surprise that Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright called Freeman and Coleman the best two-back tandem the Seahawks have faced this season.
"They're good backs, there's no doubt," defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. "Both of them are really good receivers out of the backfield, first and foremost, so you have to absolutely know where they are on the field at all times. 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. You're talking about a bunch of guys that run with attitude, that are essentially the full package-type back."
The Seahawks, who allowed a league-low 3.4 yards-per-rush this year, did a good job against that full-package attack last time around, limiting the Falcons to 52 total rushing yards and an average of 2.9 yards-per-carry. That was tied for the second lowest rushing total this season for Atlanta, which also was held to 52 rushing yards by Tampa Bay and was limited to 48 rushing yards by Philadelphia. It's no coincidence that those three games were three of Atlanta's five losses in 2016.
"I love challenges," linebacker K.J. Wright said. "The first time we played them, we did pretty well handling those guys, but we've got to do it again. Our tackling plan has to be on point. These guys are real shifty, they cut back a lot, so we've just got to maintain discipline and tackle well."
Given Atlanta's propensity for using its backs both running the ball and catching it, Saturday figures to be a big test for linebackers Wright, Bobby Wagner and Mike Morgan, and the Seahawks like their chances when an opponent tests their linebackers.
"Our guys are pretty well-versed now and they can do pretty much whatever," Carroll said. "We don't seem to have any matchups that we're worried about. That doesn't mean that it's easy, it's going to still be challenging for them because of their style of offense, but our guys can matchup and do the things that we want to do and hopefully we'll have a good game with those guys."
The Seahawks defense has been excellent on third down of late, holding four straight opponents to a 25 percent or lower conversion rate and seven of eight opponents under 40 percent, and the best way to maintain that success and get the Falcons offense off the field is to prevent Atlanta from gaining big chunks of yardage on the ground on first and second down. With the Falcons being somewhat one-dimensional in the previous meeting, the Seahawks recorded four sacks and 13 quarterback hits—and that was without Frank Clark and with Michael Bennett leaving the game with a knee injury midway through the third quarter—so the Seahawks know that formula can work. Repeating it won't be easy, especially on the road, but if the Seahawks can keep Freeman and Coleman in check, it would go a long ways towards slowing the Falcons entire offense.
2. Falcons linebacker Vic Beasley vs. Seahawks right tackle Garry Gilliam.
In his second season in the NFL, Vic Beasley emerged as one of the league's best pass rushers, recording a league-high 15.5 sacks. Beasley also has a Cliff Avril-esque ability to knock the ball out when he gets to the quarterback, forcing six fumbles this season.
"He's better, he has come a long way since the last time we played him (in October)," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. "He's a more volatile player and he's got great rushes. He plays with great energy, he finishes, so it's going to be a big challenge to make sure that we take care of him, that we don't allow him to direct plays for us."
Beasley has done most of his damage this season rushing from the left side of Atlanta's line, meaning Seahawks right tackle Garry Gilliam will be largely responsible for blocking him, though it won't entirely fall on Gilliam. One encouraging sign for the Seahawks is that Gilliam has played better since briefly losing, then reclaiming his starting job late in the season. Offensive line coach Tom Cable noted this week that the Seahawks are seeing "a little more of that finishing physicality" out of Gilliam, something that will be needed against a top pass-rusher like Beasley.
3. Ball security.
For the second straight week, this is a key matchup because, well, turnovers are always a big deal, but especially in the postseason when teams tend to be more evenly matched. And this week, the focus on trying to take the ball away and protect it is even more heightened because of how hard it is to get the ball away from the Falcons. Atlanta turned the ball over only 11 times this season, tied for the fewest in the league with New England, and they had a plus-11 turnover margin.
"That's good, really good," Carroll said. "That's desirable, what we're looking for. That's a good job by them."
The Seahawks, who had two takeaways in the previous meeting between these teams, were the only team this season with more than one against the Falcons.
The Seahawks, meanwhile, have gone two straight games without a turnover, winning them both, and this season they are 7-0-1 when they don't commit a turnover. The Seahawks are also 7-0 this year when winning the turnover battle.
The Seahawks and Falcons have battled 16 times, including playoffs, since 1976, with Seattle owning 10 victories. The two teams meet again this Saturday in the Divisional Round of the playoffs at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.