Christine Michael was still the Seahawks’ starting running back when Seattle and Atlanta met earlier this season.
That’s only the beginning of the personnel differences with the Seahawks from that 26-24 home victory back in Week 6 to now, as Seattle prepares for a rematch with the Falcons in Saturday’s divisional-round game in Atlanta.
Thomas Rawls was sidelined as was C.J. Prosise, who has a chance to play Saturday for the first time since November. Bradley Sowell was starting at left tackle ahead of George Fant.
Defensively, Seattle was missing strong safety Kam Chancellor, pass-rusher Frank Clark and strong-side linebacker Mike Morgan. Defensive end Michael Bennett went down in the second half of that game with an injury.
If there’s one reason to think the Seahawks can beat Atlanta on Saturday, it’s that they’ve already done so with a short-handed roster, albeit at home and with Earl Thomas still at free safety.
The Falcons have gone through some changes of their own since then. Here’s a closer look at that team with the help of our old friend Andy Bunker, who used to work for 710 ESPN Seattle and is now with 92.9 The Game in Atlanta.
Henderson: Hey Andy, I’ll start with two questions about Matt Ryan. What have been some of the keys to his monster season? And what’s the conversation like down there given some of his past struggles in the playoffs?
Bunker: Matt Ryan has benefited greatly from a number of different things this season. The most important part of his success has been the addition of Alex Mack at center. The past few years the O-line for the Falcons has been pretty suspect, and in 2015 they used four different centers. Mack is a Pro Bowler, he’s steady, and Ryan has said himself that he’s the “calmest” player he’s ever played with. It’s also Ryan’s second year in Kyle Shanahan’s offensive system, and it’s clear that he’s much more comfortable. His ability and willingness to use all of his different offensive weapons (touchdown passes to 13 different players this year, an NFL record) has made the offense tough for opposing defenses to plan for, as well. He’s always been an above-average NFL QB, but they’ve put him in the perfect system for his abilities and he’s taken off like crazy. As for his history in the playoffs, that’s certainly something that fans are wary of. I think he has been unfairly blamed for some of the team’s postseason struggles, as his numbers in the three losses are pretty good. But in order to get that monkey off his back, he needs a 2016 Matt Ryan performance against the Seahawks this weekend.
Henderson: It looks like Taylor Gabriel started to take off right after these teams played in October. What kind of a weapon is he for the Falcons and how do they use him?
Bunker: Taylor Gabriel has been the find of the year in the NFL. General manager Thomas Dimitroff scooped him up after the Browns cut him loose, paying him just $600,000 for this season. Seven TDs and a ton of exciting plays later, the Falcons have their new secret weapon. He’s so dangerous because they can use him in a variety of ways. From going deep and using his speed to beat DBs off the line, to catching screen passes and playing out of the backfield, to taking handoffs on jet sweeps, they’ve used him from everywhere. He does for Atlanta what Percy Harvin briefly did for Seattle, minus all the off-field issues.
Henderson: What kind of a season was former Husky Desmond Trufant having before he went down and how has Atlanta replaced him?
Bunker: Desmond Trufant was having a fine season. He’s pretty well respected by other teams, so he wasn’t being tested a ton, and with young DBs on the other side of the field, teams decided to stay away from Trufant for the most part. The interesting thing has been how they’ve replaced him. It’s no secret that head coach Dan Quinn knows how to find and teach defensive backs. And Jalen Collins, who has taken over for the injured Trufant, is exactly the type of player that Quinn loves. He’s 6-foot-2, he’s fast, he’s long and athletic – exactly what you’d expect from a Quinn draft pick. He, Robert Alford and Brian Poole have played so well that some of the talk has been about whether to even re-sign Trufant after next year. It’s always sad to see a player get hurt, but it has given the Falcons a chance to show off the depth they have in the secondary.
Henderson: A couple of the players Atlanta has drafted since Dan Quinn took over look familiar. How accurate are the Vic Beasley/Bruce Irvin and Keanu Neal/Kam Chancellor comparisons and how similar does the Falcons’ defense as a whole look to what Quinn was running in Seattle?
Bunker: The defense in general is incredibly similar to what Seattle has built over the past five years. If you think back to 2011 and 2012, there were plenty of games where you saw flashes of what the Seahawks would eventually grow into, but they were playing so many young guys that the consistency wasn’t there yet. That is exactly what Atlanta is right now. They start eight guys that are either rookies or second-year players on defense. They’re still learning how to play in this system, but at times, especially since their Week 10 bye, they’ve shown what they’re going to become. Pete Carroll and Dan Quinn both talk about how important communication is for this defensive scheme to work, and how time spent playing together is how you build those communicative skills. These young Falcons are only 16 games into that process as a unit, but I think they’re a player or two away from being a dominant defense for the next five years. As for the player-to-player comparisons, I think the Keanu Neal/Kam Chancellor comparison is much better than Vic Beasley/Bruce Irvin. Neal actively wants to become Chancellor – he has a No. 31 jersey hung up in his locker. In terms of size, strength, speed and violent intentions, Neal is well on his way. The key will be when he learns to harness that aggression and becomes a better cover safety. That was how Chancellor went from being a terrifying hitter to a Pro Bowl player, and that’s the next step for Neal. When it comes to Beasley and Irvin, I understand why folks would want to compare them, but having watched both play a ton of games, there are a few major differences, the biggest being Beasley’s head. They are both physical freaks – fast and strong and hard to stop. But Beasley is leaps and bounds more savvy on the field that Irvin ever was as a Seahawk.
Henderson: Sticking with that defense, where is it most vulnerable in general and specifically to an offense like Seattle’s?
Bunker: Just like Seattle’s defense, Atlanta is vulnerable to the tight end position. For whatever reason, this wonderful scheme that Dan Quinn and Pete Carroll created has a massive hole in it when it comes to pass catching tight ends. If Jimmy Graham can find space in the middle of the field, he could have a really big day on Saturday. The other obvious vulnerability is simply the youth. Like I wrote earlier, they start eight guys that are rookies or in their second year, and besides Dwight Freeney and Jonathan Babineaux they are almost all playoff rookies. If it’s a close game late, the inexperience could play a role.
Henderson: Finally, how do you see the game playing out?
Bunker: I think we are in for a treat on Saturday afternoon. Strength on strength when the Falcons’ high flying offense takes on the Seahawks defense. I know Seattle fans are bolstered by the performance against Detroit, but I’m not convinced this defense is the same one we’ve been watching for the past five years, especially without Earl Thomas. I think the Falcons are going to be able to score. The key will be if the Seahawks can establish the same running attack they had against Detroit, and whether or not Russell Wilson can avoid interceptions. Every game Russell has lost in the playoffs he’s thrown a pick. We’re in for a shootout, where both teams will score in the high 20s or 30s. I’m taking the Falcons in a great game, 34-31. The difference will be which QB can play mistake free football, and, as of right now, I trust Matt Ryan and that Falcons offense at home more than I trust the inconsistent Seahawks offense.
Andy Bunker was the producer of “Brock and Salk” and the co-host of “Night Watch” on 710 ESPN Seattle. He now hosts a show on 92.9 The Game in Atlanta.