Key matchup: Falcons WRs Julio Jones and Roddy White vs. Seahawks CBs Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman
One of the most anticipated battles of this divisional-round weekend will be between the Falcons’ sixth-ranked passing game and the Seahawks’ sixth-ranked pass defense because it's brimming with star power.
With two of the top receivers in the game — Julio Jones and Roddy White — at his disposal, QB Matt Ryan oversees an aerial attack with explosive potential. Jones is the bigger of the two receivers, but both have good size. So do Seattle’s cornerbacks, though, and CBs Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner are not the type to be intimidated by the challenge awaiting them. There could be some great hand fights at the line of scrimmage, as Sherman and Browner play a physical style that will force White and Jones to fight through contact to get open — both are more than capable of doing so. White was a state-champion wrestler in high school and has no fear of mixing it up.
The Seahawks typically play a lot of cover-1 (man-to-man coverage underneath with one safety high), and the expectation is for them to give the Falcons the same look. Seattle trusts Sherman and Browner in man coverage, even against tough competition, and they will have help from Pro Bowl FS Earl Thomas, who has tremendous range, over the top. It will challenge Jones and White to win their one-on-one battles. If they cannot get enough separation for Ryan to throw their way — and they don’t need a whole lot of separation (Ryan trusts them) — Ryan will be forced to settle for short-to-intermediate passes to TE Tony Gonzalez, slot receiver Harry Douglas or a checkdown to a back.
Seattle has to like its chances a lot more if it is forcing Atlanta to play small ball.
However, the Falcons have shown this season under coordinator Dirk Koetter that they can strike quickly or revert to their older, more methodical ways of the past. Gonzalez is still playing at a Pro Bowl level, and Douglas must be accounted for by the slot corner, whether it’s rookie Jeremy Lane or aging veteran Marcus Trufant.
On the outside, Sherman and Browner are going to need to tackle well in this game for the Seahawks to be successful, as White and Jones are both dangerous after the catch. Koetter has developed a good screen game and does a fine job of putting Jones and White in situations where they catch the ball and are situated in an area that allows them to create in space. Seattle has to be alert to snuff out the screens and avoid allowing the big plays that will put them in a hole.