The team is young and inexperienced overall. But the defense is particularly green: 18 of 25 players on the depth chart have never played a playoff game. That includes eight of 11 starters: Vic Beasley, Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, De’Vondre Campbell, Robert Alford, Jalen Collins, Ricardo Allen and Grady Jarrett.
Matt Ryan and the offense may put up enough points to win this game. The Falcons have won their share of can-you-top-this games: Oakland (35-28), New Orleans (45-32), Carolina (48-33), Green Bay (33-32), Tampa Bay (43-28). But this is a Seahawks team that knows how to win in the postseason, plays physical and is led by one of the NFL’s smartest quarterbacks in Russell Wilson (8-3 in the playoffs).
Just guessing: At some point Saturday, somebody 0n the defense is going to have to make a play.
Freeney believes his young teammates, “Will be OK.”
At this point, he doesn’t feel the need to address them in a team meeting the eve of the game.
“I haven’t had to pull guys aside this week,” he said. “I haven’t seen any signs that said to me ‘Panic time.’”
There were questions on offense and defense entering this season. Quarterback Matt Ryan struggled was coming off a relatively bad season, and the offense ranked only 21st in scoring at 21.2 points per game in the first year in Kyle Shanahan’s scheme. But Ryan is now a top MVP candidate and this year ranked among leaders in every significant statistic. The offense averaged an NFL high 33.8 points per game — a nearly 13-point increase over a year ago.
On defense, it’s still a minute-by-minute adventure.
Sacks are way up, from 19 a year ago to 34 this season, including 15.5 by Beasley. But the 22 takeaways are one less than a year ago. The defense has dropped in rankings in both total yards allowed (347.6 to 371.2 per game) and points allowed (21.6 to 25.4).
The defense played better in the second half of the season, particularly in the final month (defensive points allowed in five consecutive games: 19, 19, 14, 13, 16). But how much of that could be attributed to playing experience and how much because the Falcons were playing some of the NFL’s lesser offenses: Arizona, Kansas City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Car0lina.
Coach Dan Quinn diminished the significance of the overall numbers.
“I just get into where we are right now,” he said. “When we get into stat talk, things can get a little jaded.
“Over the last month we felt like a shift happened. We were going through some of the plays that got us beat earlier, and, it’s like, ‘We told you,’ warning the person this could happen. But we had to go through it, I guess. We’re playing significantly faster than we were two months ago.”
Young players sometimes gets exposed in the postseason. Opponents are better and often so is coaching and game prep.
But Freeney again: “It’s a young defense, but there’s a benefit of that, too. We’ve got guys running around, flying around with a lot of raw energy. If you exclude the last game (against New Orleans, when the Falcons let up in the fourth quarter of a would-be lopsided win), we were one of the top scoring defenses. Can we keep it up? I hope so. We’ve only gotten better since the middle of the season.”
Not surprisingly, many are focused on the fact Ryan is 1-4 as a playoff starter. Of equal significance: Most of the defense is 0-0.