01/13/2013 10:49 am ET Updated Mar 15, 2013

NFC Divisional Playoffs Preview: Atlanta Falcons vs. Seattle Seahawks

Atlanta Falcons vs. Seattle Seahawks

Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013

1:00 p.m. (EST)


Seahawks' offense vs. Falcons' defense

The Falcons' defensive priority is going to have to be shutting down the Seahawks' read-option plays. The Seahawks' offense is normally a fairly good unit with some very good pieces, but is nearly unstoppable when able to successfully sprinkle in a spattering of zone reads. Against the Falcons, the Seahawks' ability to run their zone read is going to be more important than usual.

Atlanta's defensive backfield often plays with its cornerbacks playing in front of the receiver in order to jump more routes, with safety help over the top to keep the defense from getting beaten deep. This style suits Atlanta's smaller corners, who are better off undercutting routes instead of trying to out-muscle receivers in the air. It's made more effective by the range and speed of safeties William Moore and Thomas DeCoud, who can quickly close any holes this style of coverage leaves open.

Seattle has a fairly solid but unspectacular receiving corps, and Wilson is going to be challenged to fit the ball into extremely tight windows due to Atlanta's style of coverage. To widen the holes in Seattle's coverage, Wilson will benefit greatly from utilizing zone-read plays to force Atlanta to put a safety in the box.

Throughout the year, the Falcons' rushing defense has been most vulnerable against runs behind the left offensive guard. This vulnerability suits the Seahawks, who often employ a zone-read play that sends Wilson outside the right tackle and running back Marshawn Lynch behind the left guard.

The threat of Wilson running to the outside will pull some defenders away from focusing on the hole paved by the left guard, thus creating running room for Lynch. If left guard Paul McQuistan can hold his own against the Falcons' rotation of defensive tackles Corey Peters, Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry, Lynch will have large running lanes and force the attention of at least one Falcons safety, helping Wilson in the passing game.

Falcons' offense vs. Seahawks' defense

The Seahawks' defense will see Bruce Irvin getting his first career start at the unit's Leo position. Irvin racked up eight sacks without starting a game, and now it's his turn to fill the hybrid end/linebacker role that's essential to Pete Carroll's "elephant" defense.

Carroll's defense uses the Leo end as a sometimes hand-in-the-dirt defensive end, and sometimes as a stand-up pass-rusher. Lined up on the opposite side of the line is 323-pound defensive end Red Bryant, who's built like a defensive tackle. As a result, the Seahawks are able to mix a combination of 3-4 looks into their 4-3 defense.

The Seahawks struggled a little bit against runs to the outside when playing the Redskins last week. Aging running back Michael Turner is certainly no longer a serious threat to get to the edge and exploit that weakness in the defense, so second-year back Jaquizz Rodgers is going to need to step up and fill the void to pressure the edge of Seattle's run defense.

Irvin's shown he can pass-rush well, but given the Seahawks' existing weakness against running backs who can get to the edge quickly, Irvin is going to have to be able to read plays quickly and shoot through gaps to blow up running plays. If he's as solid of an asset defending the run as he has been as a pass-rusher, the Seahawks will have success against the Falcons' rushing attack and slow Rodgers down.

Of course, even if the Falcons aren't having success on the ground, the Seahawks will have their hands full trying to stop Atlanta through the air. The Falcons have a trio of deadly weapons in tight end Tony Gonzalez and receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones, and quarterback Matt Ryan can make the necessary throws to get the ball to any of them anywhere on the field.

Due to a combination of being too big to be covered by most defensive ends and too fast to be covered by most linebackers, an elite tight end can wreak a special kind of havoc on a defense if not properly schemed against on a play. As a result, the Seahawks' success in slowing Atlanta's passing game has to start with shutting down Gonzalez with as little disruption to the rest of Seattle's coverage as possible.

Whichever side of the line Gonzalez is on, Irvin or strongside linebacker K.J. Wright will have to bump him at the line of scrimmage to help safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. The Seahawks like to blitz Thomas or at least put him near the line to adjust offenses' protection schemes. If Wright or Irvin can't successfully bump Gonzalez at the line when Thomas is blitzing, Ryan will be able to easily get the ball to Gonzalez before a blitzer can hit the quarterback. If Thomas isn't blitzing, Wright or Irvin have to bump Gonzalez so he isn't open in the time before Thomas is able to go from the line of scrimmage into coverage.

When Thomas isn't on the line of scrimmage, the Seahawks' best bet of shutting down Gonzalez is to have him covered by Chancellor, who possesses great speed for a strong safety but can still deliver punishing hits to tight ends attempting to catch the football. Given who the Falcons' outside receivers are, the Seahawks would probably rather Chancellor focus on providing coverage against Gonzalez while Thomas, who has excellent range and closing speed, hangs in the deep center portion of the field to help clean up any mistakes the cornerbacks make in coverage.

If Chancellor struggles to cover Gonzalez on his own, or if the Falcons' protection is holding up well against typical rushes, stunts and blitzes from the front seven, it will force the Seahawks to play Thomas near Gonzalez and the line more, which will leave Chancellor as the cornerbacks' midfield helper. Chancellor can provide more devastating blows to receivers on passes over the middle of the field than Thomas can, but he doesn't have the top-tier speed Thomas does, so he won't be as much help if a cornerback gets burned deep.

Needless to say, getting burned deep isn't something that happens often to Seattle cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman. On the other side of the ball, though, burning cornerbacks deep is something that is often done by Atlanta receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones. Browner and Sherman not only have the speed to keep up with almost any receiver in the league. They also have the size and strength to re-route receivers coming off the line of scrimmage and fight some of the league's biggest receivers for jump balls.

The six-foot-tall White will likely have a harder time against Browner and Sherman than he does against most cornerbacks, so the Falcons are going to need Jones to step up and match Seattle's cornerbacks' physicality. At 6'3" and 220 pounds, Jones has as much size, strength and speed as the Seahawks' massive cornerback duo. If Jones can use those assets and out-muscle Seattle's cornerbacks whenever the ball is in the air, it'll make life easier for the rest of Atlanta's offensive players.