The Atlanta Falcons are gearing up to face the Seattle Seahawks at home on Saturday in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. Check out these photos of the team at work.
2015 was a difficult season for Jimmy Graham. The three-time Pro Bowler tallied the fewest receiving yards since his rookie year, and, as critics watched him adjust to a new team for the first time since going pro, they grew skeptical that he could become a valuable part of the Seahawks offense.
The former Saint has since proved those doubters wrong, however, recording 923 yards and six touchdowns this year – helping Seattle earn a division crown in the process.
Now looking like the star he was in New Orleans, Graham, 30, is one of Russell Wilson's most reliable targets. For the Falcons, who will take on Seattle this weekend in their first playoff game since 2013, slowing him down can get a long way toward neutralizing the Seahawks' offense.
And doing so will take a group effort.
"We know the matchup with Graham and other tight ends around (the league)," head coach Dan Quinn said. "Generally, it's not just one guy where you assign him and do that. It's linebackers and safeties; it's the way you want to hit him near the line of scrimmage. I would like to think we're a better version of ourselves in terms of how we like to cover now than we were then. We do give him his respect for sure."
The numbers show Atlanta has indeed improved its coverage – especially against tight ends. During the last quarter of the regular season, no tight end – not Coby Fleener, not Greg Olsen – amassed 60 receiving yards against the Falcons.
Those low outputs can be explained, in part, by Keanu Neal's impressive growth. In the last four games, quarterbacks completed just 14 of 25 attempts in the rookie's direction for 142 yards and zero touchdowns. When targeting the strong safety in that span, opponents' passer ratings were 72.1, 79.9, 77.1 and 57.6.
Neal's physicality is, of course, a big reason why he's covered receivers well. That's evident in his number of tackles (106) and forced fumbles (five) – both of which were second on the team.
The Falcons believe that aggressiveness is also making a difference in ways that aren't visible on the box score. According to free safety Ricardo Allen, some opponents have been hesitant over the middle of the field because they know Neal "will put your lights out."
With Graham standing at 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, it'll be interesting to see how the two approach each other.
"One of the things that I really admire about his game is that he doesn't try to just hit the man, he tries to hit through the guy not just where the target's right at it, but he tries to hit through the target and that's a little different than just a normal tackle," Quinn said about Neal. "He has a real understanding where the strike zone is. When he can line that thing up in the strike zone, he likes to throw a fast ball. We're pumped about how he's playing."
As Quinn mentioned, linebackers will be involved in covering Graham, as well. One such player will be De'Vondre Campbell. The 2016 fourth-round pick returned for the regular-season finale after missing Atlanta's Week 16 contest in Carolina. He looked solid, making four tackles and breaking up one pass.
Having a pair of rookies shoulder this kind of responsibility is rare. But given how much time they've spent in the organization, Quinn doesn't feel that label is appropriate anymore.
Neither does the man who will try to deliver the ball to Graham on Saturday.
"All those guys – they don't play like rookies, they don't play like young guys," Russell Wilson told AtlantaFalcons.com. "They look really experienced and they play fast, they play smart. They know where they're supposed to be and they do a great job of it. You can definitely notice that on film. They have a lot of great players on their defense and offense, too, as well, so they can be a great team for a while with those young guys."