Two ensuing fourth downs loomed large in the Seattle Seahawks' 38-25 victory against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday afternoon.
With just under 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter of what had been a tightly contested game, the Seahawks faced a fourth-and-5 at Atlanta's 38-yard line. Instead of attempting a long field goal or trying to pin the Falcons deep with a punt, the Seahawks opted to go for the first down, a decision that paid off.
Russell Wilson took the snap and delivered a perfectly placed ball to second-year receiver D.K. Metcalf, who had a step-and-a-half on Falcons cornerback Isaiah Oliver and scored a 38-yard touchdown. It was the first big downfield play allowed by Atlanta's defense, but it was crucial in swinging momentum over to Seattle.
On Atlanta's following offensive possession, the Falcons quickly faced a fourth down of their own. Sending on the punt team for a fourth-and-2 at their own 33-yard line, the Falcons decided on some trickery and called for a direct snap to safety Sharrod Neasman, who ran up the middle. Neasman picked up enough yardage for the first down, but a direct shot on the ball by Seahawks safety Marquise Blair jarred it loose and allowed Seattle receiver Freddie Swain to recover it.
The Falcons took their shot, but it was the Seahawks who benefitted from it.
"In this game, that was the one that we had and the look that we were looking for," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said of the decision to run the fake punt. "To not execute that one and obviously turn the ball over, that was a big part [of the game]."
Starting in prime field position, the Seahawks scored their fourth touchdown of the afternoon just five plays later. Longtime Panthers tight end Greg Olsen scored his first touchdown as a Seahawk, catching a 7-yard pass and giving Seattle a 28-12 lead. What had been a back-and-forth affair in the first half quickly shifted in the Seahawks' favor in the span of just two drives.
Fourth downs haunted the Falcons all afternoon. Atlanta did not convert any of its four fourth-down attempts, and those misses turned into 24 points for the Seahawks.
"We certainly wanted to be and knowing that with the group that we have we're going to continue to do that," Quinn said. "Some are execution ones, some to say, 'Hey, you'd like to have a different call in those spaces.' But, against a good quarterback, you want to be bold, you want to stay aggressive."
Those failed fourth downs also impacted the way the Falcons could approach the game. Atlanta made a noticeable commitment to running the ball in the first half, and it was allowing them to sustain drives and keep the game close.
The Falcons had 16 carries for 65 yards in the first half, an average of 4.1 yards per carry. Todd Gurley scored Atlanta's first touchdown on a 1-yard run in the second quarter, and he looked effective in his first game leading the Falcons' backfield, finishing the game with 14 carries for 56 yards and the score.
Once the Seahawks took their 28-12 lead, however, the Falcons were forced to become more reliant on the pass. At times, the Falcons are at their best throwing the ball, as they were during their five-play scoring drive midway through the fourth quarter. On that drive, Ryan was a perfect 5-for-5 for 75 yards and capped things off with an 18-yard touchdown throw to a wide-open Calvin Ridley. Ryan also moved to No. 9 on the NFL's all-time passing list on that drive.
"When you get yourself behind that much, you've got to put the ball in the air," Gurley said. "We did a good job of trying to do no-huddle. [Ridley] got a couple of touchdowns, [Julio] got some catches, Hayden, Russ. We can just feed off of that into next week, but we've got to just do better and make more touchdowns for sure."
It's difficult to have success with a one-dimensional approach in the NFL, though. As the Falcons continued to mount a comeback attempt, a few errant passes from Ryan and a drop by Ridley on fourth down doomed their hopes of further cutting into Seattle's lead later in the fourth quarter.
A 1-yard touchdown run by running back Carlos Hyde with just under four minutes remaining all but clinched the victory for Seattle by giving the Seahawks a 20-point lead.
The final score is not entirely indicative of the effort put forth by Atlanta on Sunday. The defense sacked Wilson four times, showing noticeable improvement in that aspect of the game. Atlanta's secondary did not have any complete breakdowns in coverage, although the Seahawks were more successful moving the ball through the air in the second half, particularly with Tyler Lockett and Metcalf, who finished with 95 and 92 yards, respectively.
Offensively, the Falcons' top receiving duo also had a productive day. Julio Jones caught nine passes for 157 yards and Ridley had nine grabs for 130 yards and two touchdowns. Even Russell Gage performed well in his first starting action as a slot receiver, catching eight passes for 98 yards. Ryan finished Sunday's game completing 36-of-52 passes for 434 yards and two touchdowns with one interceptions.
Atlanta outgained Seattle 506 yards to 383 yards, and the Falcons held the Seahawks to under 100 rushing yards. Atlanta also held Seattle to just 3-of-9 on third downs.
Yet, for as good as Atlanta looked at times in various phases of the game, it was not enough to overcome the Falcons' failures on fourth down, which decided the outcome and doomed them in Week 1.
"One game doesn't define us," Jones said. "We've just got to keep building, keep trusting one another. Keep going out there and, when our number gets called, make the plays and just keep going from there."
Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks with top photos from the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Week 1.