JOHN CLAYTON

John Clayton’s keys: Can Seahawks keep from getting burned by Falcons’ high-flying pass attack?

Jan 12, 2017, 2:39 PM
John Clayton says the Seahawks' ability to pressure Matt Ryan will be crucial in Saturday's playoff...
John Clayton says the Seahawks' ability to pressure Matt Ryan will be crucial in Saturday's playoff game. (AP)
(AP)

While the Seahawks have shown great confidence in the locker room getting ready for Saturday’s playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons, most outsiders are predicting a Falcons victory.

Critics cite Seattle’s slow offensive starts on the road, not just this season but in years past in the postseason. They bring up the inconsistencies of the offense. They mention the impact of losing Earl Thomas on defense.

Now, it’s up to the Seahawks, who have been in the divisional round of the playoffs five straight years, to silence the critics. There are sure plenty of twists and turns in this rematch against the Falcons.

Here are four things to watch for Saturday:

The Earl Thomas effect. Naturally, the Seahawks’ pass defense isn’t as strong without Thomas. The problem has shown up on deep shots. When Thomas was on the field, only 12 of 49 pass attempts that went at least 20 yards in the air were completed, amounting to a 48.2 quarterback rating, 388 yards and two touchdowns by Seattle’s opponents, and three interceptions by the Seahawks. Without Thomas, 12 of 35 of passes of at least 20 yards were completed for 442 yards and four touchdowns, and the quarterback rating was 108.9. Steven Terrell has done a nice job of filling in, but he’s not Thomas, who has great range and incredible instincts to the ball. Against the Detroit Lions last weekend, Kam Chanceller dropped back several times into a Cover 2. The Seahawks may do more of that Saturday against Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan. At least you know they will try to mix it up instead of just having a single high safety on every defensive snap.

The key to the Seahawks’ defense is getting pressure on Ryan. That’s where the Seahawks have a great chance. In the Week 6 game against the Falcons, defensive end Frank Clark was hurt and didn’t play. Michael Bennett suffered a knee injury in the contest and played only 43 snaps. Chancellor was out, which impacted some of the defense’s communication and ability to be hard-hitting. This time, Bennett, Clark and Chancellor will all be playing at full-strength. If the Falcons double Bennett or Cliff Avril, Clark will have single blocking and could have a big day. Ryan, like most quarterbacks, is affected if he gets hit too much. The Seahawks had 13 quarterback hits on him in the first meeting, and he threw for only 83 yards and was sacked three times in the first half. That allowed the Seahawks to take a 17-3 into the intermission. Because the Seahawks have started so slowly in road playoff games, a similar performance could be enough for the Seahawks to pull off a win.

Richard Sherman vs. Julio Jones. It’s pretty clear Sherman’s main assignment will be to trail Jones, Atlanta’s All-Pro wide receiver. Jones had seven catches for 139 yards in October against Seattle, but when Sherman trailed him he caught only four for 45. Jones may not be the same as he was in the last meeting, as he’s been fighting a toe injury. If Sherman can hold him under 50 yards in the one-on-one matchups, the Seahawks chances of winning increase.

Marcel Reece could be an X-factor. Seattle’s late-season addition at fullback was a big part of the win over the Lions. He was on the field for 33 plays and did a great job of lead blocking for Thomas Rawls, who had the most productive rushing day in Seahawks playoff history. For the Seahawks to win, they have to get at least 100 yards rushing. Russell Wilson has removed his knee brace and you figure he might get six or seven runs. The Falcons aren’t a great tackling team, and they are breaking in around eight young players on their defense. If the Falcons stop the run, they win, but the Rawls-Reece combo is an interesting strategy. That combination allowed the offensive line to be more physical and effective in last week’s win.

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.

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