John Clayton’s keys: 4 marquee battles for Seahawks vs Falcons
The next two weeks should determine if the Seahawks are on the path of being a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the postseason.
They host the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, who have come out with a high-powered offense and a Dan Quinn defense that is trying to find its way. Then next Sunday night the Seahawks travel to Arizona to take on the struggling Cardinals.
Winning those games would create a 5-1 start that could signal a 12- or 13-win season. What the Seahawks don’t want to do is fall behind the Falcons in the playoff race. Beating the Cardinals would totally enhance the odds of winning the NFC West.
What’s great about the Falcons game is the matchups. Let’s look at them:
• Seahawks CB Richard Sherman versus Falcons WR Julio Jones. Jones is one of the best receivers in the game. He caught 136 passes for 1,871 yards last year. He had a 300-yard game against the Carolina Panthers that cost Bené Benwikere his job as a cornerback. For the season, Jones has 24 catches for 517 yards. Teams have been able to take Jones out of the game, though. The New Orleans Saints limited him to one catch, and he had only two for 29 yards against the Denver Broncos last Sunday. Sherman most likely will shadow Jones for the entire game, unless he goes into the slot, in which case Jeremy Lane would pick Jones up. Pro Football Focus studied Sherman’s numbers from when he shadowed a receiver, which he did in five games last year and one this year. A.J. Green of the Cincinnati Bengals did the best against Sherman with four catches for 48 yards. Dez Bryant of the Cowboys was limited to one 15-yard catch. Antonio Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers had three catches for 24 yards. Torrey Smith of the San Francisco 49ers played Sherman twice and had just one catch for 16 yards. And while Brandon Marshall of the New York Jets made four catches for 89 yards two weeks ago, Sherman got two interceptions.
• Seahawks CB Jeremy Lane versus Falcons WR Mohamed Sanu. Sanu was a nice free-agent pickup for the Falcons. He’s 6 foot 2, 210 pounds and works well out of the slot. This season he has 16 catches for 195 yards and a touchdown. Lane continues to evolve as a talented slot cornerback. This season, he’s only been thrown at 13 times, limited receivers to eight catches for 87 yards. It will be interesting to see what formations the Falcons call. When two receivers are on the field, the Seahawks tend to go with Sherman and DeShawn Shead. The Falcons only line up in three-receiver sets on average 23 times a game. They go with two-back sets 19 times and two tight end sets 18.4 times a game. The Falcons could scheme Lane off the field.
• The Legion of Boom versus Falcons QB Matt Ryan. Ryan is one of the smartest quarterbacks in the league. He’s also having one of his best seasons and might be the early-season favorite to be league MVP, completing 69 percent of his passes for 1,740 yards and 12 touchdowns. Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is allowing Ryan to use more no huddle, which he loves. Because of the experience of the Seahawks’ secondary, they don’t panic and do a great job of communicating.
• Seahawks QB Russell Wilson versus the Falcons defense. Pete Carroll said Wilson is moving better after getting to rest his two injuries over the bye week. The Falcons rank 26th in defense, giving up 388.8 yards and 28 points a game. Wilson’s mobility will dictate whether the Seahawks will open up their running game. The better he runs, the better the Seahawks will run.
Want more John Clayton? Listen on-demand to his weekday and Saturday shows as well as his “Cold Hard Facts” and “Clayton’s Morning Drive” segments on 710 ESPN Seattle. Also, check out his all-new “Schooled” podcast and look for his columns twice a week on 710Sports.com.