By Michael Cunningham The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — It has been two decades since Jimmy Johnson and Troy Aikman won Super Bowls with the Cowboys.
The blueprint those teams used to win championships endured for much longer.
Put a workhorse running back behind a physical offense line, control the ball with the run and wear out the defense. Assemble a defense that won’t allow opponents to do the same, or much of anything else.
That’s how the Seahawks play. It’s no longer the Falcons’ way. Something has to give when their styles clash in an NFC divisional playoff game today at the Georgia Dome.
Johnson and Aikman, who are NFL analysts for Fox, said Seattle’s approach no longer is the best way to win a championship.
“Run the ball and play defense — there was a time when that was a really great formula, and if you are really great on defense, it still is,” Aikman said. “But there’s really not those dominant defenses anymore. You better be able to throw the ball and score points.” If it’s true that an explosive passing game is now more important than running and stopping the run, then the Falcons should have a good chance. Their identity is, first and foremost, quarterback Matt Ryan throwing to a stable of pass catchers.
Tight end Tony Gonzalez and wide receiver Julio Jones were voted to the NFC Pro Bowl team along with Ryan. Roddy White still is a top-tier wide receiver. The Falcons’ offensive line has been excellent in pass protection.
Atlanta’s passing game is so potent that the team ranked seventh in the NFL in yards per play and points, despite having no real running game.
The Falcons ran 37 percent of the time — only six teams ran less often, and most of those were bad teams that passed a lot because they were behind. The Falcons averaged 3.7 yards per rush, better than only three teams.
Yet it was rare for an opponent to control all of Ryan’s options, which include an assortment of screen passes to his backs and wide receivers. Chances are that Seattle’s top-notch defense will be tested even if the Falcons can’t run.
“I anticipate a big day for all of us, honestly,” Gonzalez said. “When you look at the receivers, the arsenal of firepower that we have in this offense, (it’s) the ‘P.Y.P.’ offense I’ve been talking about: pick your poison.” By contrast, Seattle eschews flash for bash.
There’s probably no aspect of this game that concerns the Falcons more than Seattle’s punishing running game, which is spearheaded by relentless back Marshawn Lynch. The Seahawks ran a league-high 55 percent of the time during the season and averaged 4.8 yards per carry, tied for fifth-best.
The Falcons allowed more rushing yards this season than any other NFC playoff team. A long list of backs had good days against them: Shaun Draughn, Willis McGahee, Alfred Morris, Chris Ivory, LaRod Stephens-Howling, Pierre Thomas, Doug Martin.
Seattle isn’t just looking to churn out 3 or 4 yards at a time. According to Stats Inc., Seattle had 75 rushes of 10 yards or more, third-most in the league, and big runs are another potential trouble spot for the Falcons’ defense.
“Typically, we’ve done a pretty good job of keeping people down and then all of sudden, we give up a 50-yarder, a 40-yarder or a 30-yarder,” Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. “That kind of stuff, that’s what kills you.”
Big plays on the ground could be Seattle’s equalizer against Falcons air strikes. Or the Seahawks could try to control the ball with Lynch and keep Ryan and company on the sidelines as long as possible.
That’s how Johnson’s Cowboys won big, but he thinks teams such as the Falcons are better equipped to do so in the new NFL.
“I think a lot of coaches have had to change their way of thinking the last three or four years because of the wide-open part of the game and the rule changes,” Johnson said. “Before the staunch position was ‘run the football and play defense.’ Now the only thing that matters is getting a great quarterback. If you have that, regardless of the rest of the football team, you have a shot.”