NFL Preview - Atlanta (1-2) at Seattle (1-2)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - A funny thing has happened on the way to the Atlanta Falcons' expected run to the Super Bowl.
One of the presumed elites in the NFC after winning a conference-best 13 games in 2010, the Falcons were anticipated by many to be ready for a next step after reaching the postseason as a No. 1 seed last winter.
So far, it seems that step may have been in another direction. However, a chance to reverse course comes Sunday in Seattle against the host Seahawks.
Rather than quickly re-establishing status as kingpins of the NFC South, the Falcons stumbled to a pair of losses in three September games and actually begin October tied for the bottom rung on the division ladder with the defending cellar-dweller Carolina Panthers.
Atlanta opened the schedule with a flaccid 30-12 loss at Chicago and had to rally late against a No. 3 quarterback to secure a narrow win over visiting Philadelphia in Week 2.
Instead of building on that prosperity, a visit to Tampa Bay wound up as a 16-13 defeat in which the normally run-heavy Falcons threw the ball 47 times for 330 yards while running it just 15 for 30 yards.
"We're not executing in order to be successful," said Atlanta head coach Mike Smith, whose team has trailed by double digits in all three games. "It's not just in one phase. It's across the board.
"We have not started fast. We have not gotten out of the chute like we want. Every coach in this league talks about starting fast. One of the things you have to do. We haven't done it to this point. They're fighting hard, and they have resolve. But we've got to start faster."
Contrary to Atlanta's lofty preseason fortunes, the Seahawks came into 2011 with little fanfare and a lot of personnel who'd been cast off from other locales.
A maligned champion of the NFC West at 7-9 a year ago, Seattle bid farewell to veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck in the offseason and restarted the engines with former Minnesota circus sideshow Tarvaris Jackson and anonymous back-up Charlie Whitehurst vying for the keys.
Jackson, Brett Favre's ex-caddy with the Vikings, won the job and has made three starts thus far while competing 60.8 percent of 97 throws for 527 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He was 18-of-31 for 139 yards in last week's initial win of 2011, a 13-10 home-opening defeat of the Arizona Cardinals.
Truth told, Jackson spent much of his time handing off to fellow vagabonds Marshawn Lynch and Leon Washington, who combined for 102 yards on 22 carries. But another ex-Viking, wide receiver Sidney Rice, did resurface long enough to catch a team-best eight balls for 109 yards in his 2011 debut.
Add that production to a defense that registered three sacks and two interceptions of Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb, and it yields a week full of told-you-so smiles from perpetually blissful Seattle head coach Pete Carroll.
"I think they're scrutinizing very sharply at this point," Carroll said of his players. "Right from the beginning, people were wondering, 'Why would you bring [Jackson] in?' and there were those kinds of questions. He's not wavered by it at all and I'm not either. But it's going to take some time before everybody gets comfortable and sees what he�s all about.
"I think [the fans] didn't boo him in the second half. I think the second half was OK. I think when he showed how tough he is and the competitor that he is and the plays that he can make and all that. He's got to do his part, and they need to give him a chance."
These teams also squared off in Seattle during Week 15 of the 2010 campaign, with the Falcons scoring a 34-18 victory. The win was only Atlanta's fourth in 12 all-time meetings with the Seahawks, though the Falcons did outlast Seattle in a 44-41 shootout at the Georgia Dome in the 2007 regular season finale. The Seahawks had bested Atlanta four straight times prior to that defeat, and last year's triumph was the Falcons' first in the Emerald City since a 30-26 decision at the Kingdome back in 1997.
Carroll is 0-2 against Atlanta as an NFL head coach, with the other loss a 41-10 setback in 1998 while then guiding the New England Patriots. Smith moved to 1-0 against both the Seahawks and Carroll with last December's outcome.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan won his only career start against Seattle in last year's meeting and passed for three touchdowns in that game. For his career, he has posted a 100-plus rating 16 times, games in which the Falcons are 16-0, and passed for a career-high 330 yards last week against Tampa Bay. Running back Michael Turner had 25 carries in last December's win over the Seahawks and his teams are 22-1 when he has 21-plus carries over his career. Since joining Atlanta in 2008, Turner has rushed for 40 touchdowns, second-most in the NFL. Wide receiver Roddy White aims for a third straight game against Seattle with a touchdown catch. He had nine catches for 140 yards last week and since the start of 2007, has 391 receptions -- second-most in the NFC. Tight end Tony Gonzalez has two career 100-yard games against Seattle and three outings with eight or more catches. His 1,083 career receptions are 20 shy of second place all-time and he has three touchdowns in his last two games. Wide receiver Julio Jones leads NFL rookies with 215 receiving yards and is averaging 16.5 yards per catch on 13 receptions. He had a career-high six catches and 115 yards last week.
Seattle's defense ranks third in the NFC against the pass (218.3 yards per game). Defensive end Raheem Brock aims for his third game in a row against Atlanta with a sack, while linemate Chris Clemons seeks a third straight game overall with a sack. In the backfield, safety Kam Chancellor had his first career interception last week. Linebacker Matt McCoy is first on the team with 15 tackles.
Atlanta is 17th in the NFL in scoring (20.0 points per game), 19th in total offense (343.0 per game), 18th in passing yards (250.3 per game) and 19th in rushing yards (92.7 per game). Seattle is tied for 16th in the league in scoring defense (22.3 ppg), 10th in both yards allowed (318.0 ypg) and against the pass (218.3 ypg) and 13th versus the run (99.7 ypg).
WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL
In his last start against Atlanta, which came while with Minnesota in 2008, Jackson completed 22-of-36 passes for 233 yards, two touchdowns and a 98.5 rating. He had an 11-yard touchdown run against Arizona last week. Lynch had a rushing touchdown in Seattle's last meeting with the Falcons, while Washington has seven career kick return scores, the second-most in NFL history. Rice now has 154 career catches, 114 of which have gone for a first down or a touchdown, after last week's outburst, while fellow wide receiver Mike Williams had eight catches for 66 yards in his last game against Atlanta and undrafted rookie Doug Baldwin is averaging 15.7 yards per catch with a long of 55 yards this year. He has netted a first down or touchdown on six of his seven receptions.
For Atlanta on defense, end John Abraham has three sacks and a forced fumble in his last two games against Seattle and aims for a third meeting in a row with a sack. He has 104 1/2 career sacks, second-most among active players. Tackle Jonathan Babineaux had a fumble return touchdown in last year's game against Seattle, but is currently sidelined with a knee injury, while cornerback Brent Grimes had an interception in that last matchup. Safety William Moore had a 27- yard interception in that same game against Seattle and had an pick against the Buccaneers last week as well. Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon has a team-best 31 tackles in three games.
Seattle has struggled offensively, placing 30th in scoring (10.0 points per game), 31st in total yards (214.7 ypg), 30th in passing (142.3 ypg) and 29th in rushing (72.3 ypg). On defense, Atlanta is tied for 24th in points allowed (25.7 ppg), 22nd in both yards allowed (373.0 ypg) and against the pass (261.0 ypg) and stands 20th against the run (112.0 ypg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
Ryan was forced to the air against the Bucs, but could be able to exploit Seattle's defense by turning and handing to Turner with more frequency.
The Seahawks haven't gotten much accomplished in any form of offense in September, so perhaps incorporating more of Williams with a now-healthy Rice would change fortunes.
All-dynamo Washington has returned from a gruesome broken leg with the New York Jets a few years back and might be a difference-maker with a special teams play in a potentially close game.
It's only Week 4, but already a barometer game for the highfalutin Falcons, who came in with such top-end expectations. And in spite of a long trip to the West Coast after a difficult visit to the East, it seems the more talented team should simply find a way -- whether pretty, ugly or otherwise -- to get it done. Too many good players in too many places for Atlanta to be 1-3 after Seattle.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 21, Seahawks 10
09/29 18:32:50 ET