Sunday’s divisional playoff between the Falcons and Seahawks sure was fascinating, wasn’t it? Although Seattle came roaring back to make it a game in the second half, they were completely flat for much of the first two quarters. It was so bad, Eric Branch joked on Twitter about booking a flight to Atlanta during the second quarter. The Falcon’s 20-0 halftime lead was a surprising anomaly, considering they were playing a team averaging 43.4 points per game over a six-game winning streak.
Ironically enough, you can credit Atlanta’s defensive coordinator Mike Nolan for both bottling up and unleashing Seattle’s offense on Sunday. Nolan needs no introduction — 49ers fans remember him well (though probably not too fondly). While he may not have been been a great quarterback whisperer or purveyor of all things head coaching in general, he did know defense; it’s one of the reasons why he was so attractive to the 49ers in the first place. It also explains why he hasn’t disappeared from the league since being uprooted in favor of a certain boisterous linebackers coach midway through the 2008 season.
It turns out he still knows a thing or two about defense, and this season Nolan is well-versed on both mobile quarterbacks and stout running backs. In retrospect, their season speaks to an equal amount of success and failure against athletes like Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore. Some highlights included holding Jamaal Charles to only 87 yards on 16 carries, Lesean McCoy to 45 yards on 16 carries and Doug Martin to 50 yards on 21 carries. They went 3-1 against Robert Griffin III, Michael Vick and Cam Newton twice. On the other hand, Newton’s late-season victory came in large part due to 116 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Willis McGahee netted 113 yards and two scores on the Falcons’ defense, and Martin got revenge in the Buccaneer’s second appearance, gaining 142 yards and a touchdown on the Falcons.
The final rushing tandem to face Nolan’s defense was Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson, and keeping them contained long enough to snag a 20-point lead was a huge part of Atlanta’s eventual victory. Conversely though, the Falcons let the duo sneak back into the game, showing a large degree of vulnerability in the process. The 49ers’ offense will trot out an offense quite similar to the one Seattle runs on Sunday, relying heavily on Frank Gore’s legs and, presumably, the read-option to open up the passing game.
The first half
The Seahawks tried to establish the run with Lynch from the first offense snap of the game, but Atlanta was ready for it. Both of their first and second down plays were runs, netting only two yards apiece. Wilson’s pass on 3rd-and-6 fell incomplete and they were forced to punt. Here is the first play, a stretch run off left tackle:
The hole is supposed to open up between tight end Anthony McCoy and a down blocking Russell Okung. The hole actually opens fine, but Vance Walker does a great job scraping with Seahawks guard Paul McQuistan (#67). Watch how Walker blocks the hole by just moving his blocker.
With his initial route blocked, Lynch is forced to improvise. The Falcons stay disciplined and swarm quickly, leaving the running back with nowhere to go.
After two turnovers and an Atlanta field goal, Seattle took the ball again in the second quarter to try and put some points on the board. The Seahawks actually did quite well moving the ball, and save for a couple poor decisions by Pete Carroll (a hand-off to Michael Robinson on 4th-and-1 in the red zone, for example), the score may have been 13-6 at the half instead of 20-0. Wilson did considerable damage through the air (especially connecting with Zach Miller), accruing 144 passing yards in the first 30 minutes. Seattle’s rushing offense struggled, however: Lynch collected 27 yards rushing and Wilson scrambled only twice for a total of 26 yards.
The second half
Atlanta succeeded in stopping Lynch, who finished his day with 46 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries. They didn’t keep Wilson down, though. He found his rhythm on the ground in the second half, starting with Seattle’s first offensive drive that spanned nine plays and 80 yards in just over five minutes. Here is the third play of the drive — 2nd-and-9 from the Seahawks 32 yard line.
To keep their defenders from turning their backs on Wilson, Nolan called zone packages for a good deal of the Falcons’ defensive snaps. The quarterback fakes a handoff and then surveys four different reads: Lynch or Sean McGrath out in the flats, Golden Tate across the middle and Sydney Rice deep. All four receivers are well covered, but Wilson manages to break out and scramble for 17 yards nonetheless. His opportunity to scramble was opened up by Miller.
Five seconds into the play’s development, Miller is still blocking Jonathan Babineaux. The only Falcon without an assignment is Akeem Dent, who hangs out between the hashes watching Wilson. Suddenly, Miller breaks out into the flat and Dent (#52) makes the wrong read, abandoning his post momentarily to break for the tight end.
Dent is completely turned around when Wilson makes a run for it. The threat to run was too much for Atlanta’s defense in the third and fourth quarter, and they conceded 275 net yards in the second half to the quarterback as a result.
With so many threats in the passing game, Wilson had chances to burn the Falcons at nearly every turn. The emergence of Miller as a receiving threat is something the 49ers should take note of; the Falcons appeared incapable of keying on both the tight end and the quarterback at the same time. Nolan’s defense demonstrated an ability to slow, but not always stop potent offenses all season. Opportunities for the 49ers to make big plays will show themselves on Sunday, they just need to take advantage of them.