SEATTLE — Dan Quinn took over as the Atlanta Falcons' head coach in 2015 with the expectation that his respected defensive mind would overhaul one of the league's most porous defenses.
The former Seahawks defensive coordinator returns to Seattle on Sunday with a defense that hasn't made many noticeable strides over the past 19 months, but armed with a red-hot offense that ranks first in in the NFL in points (35.0), total yards (457.4) and passing yards (333.4) per game. The rushing attack? That's the black sheep of the offensive family, ranking seventh at 124.0 yards per game.
So the stage is set for Quinn to bring his NFC South-leading Falcons (4-1) to the Pacific Northwest for Sunday's 4:25 p.m. ET tilt (FOX) against the Seahawks (3-1), who are coming off a much-needed bye week and looking to create some early breathing room in the NFC West.
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“Their offense is just out of this world right now,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of the Falcons. “Their quarterback is on fire. They're doing a great job. I know Dan is fired up about it and we're excited to see him play well, and it'll feel like a championship matchup, just like we like. “
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan leads the NFL with 1,740 passing yards and 10.4 yards per completion while throwing 12 touchdowns against just two interceptions through five games. He has 26 completions of 20-plus yards and 10 of 40-plus, which both lead the NFL. And he certainly is not doing it alone, as Ryan is buffeted by a supporting cast that includes Julio Jones along with upgraded complementary wideouts and a two-headed backfield featuring Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman — each a versatile threat who contributes to the passing game.
Jones had a 300-yard game two weeks ago when the Carolina Panthers gambled on man coverage and got repeatedly burned. Most other opponents have dedicated an extra man to Jones, opening opportunities for Mohamed Sanu, among others, to do the bulk of the damage.
Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman has shadowed the Jets' Brandon Marshall, among others, in recent seasons, but there is no guarantee how the Seahawks will game-plan to face the Falcons.
“I'm not their coach to decide that,” Jones said when asked if he expects to be shadowed by Sherman. “It's whatever they do. I'm not calling anyone out or anything, nor am I going to shy away from competition. I'm definitely going to compete every play, it doesn't matter who's guarding me.”
Ironically, it will be a unit whose foundation was built by Carroll and current Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley and then continued by Carroll and Quinn that will now be charged with showing the rest of the NFL that Ryan & Co. can be tamed.
Seattle has led the league in scoring defense for four consecutive seasons — including twice under Quinn — and currently ranks third in scoring defense (13.5 points per game), first in yards allowed (264.0), second in passing yards allowed (183.8) and seventh in rushing yards allowed (80.2).
However, the Seahawks haven't faced anything this season the likes of the Falcons, with Seattle's first four games coming against the fledgling offensive units of the Miami Dolphins (29th in total offense), Los Angeles Rams (32nd), San Francisco 49ers (31st) and New York Jets (17th).
For much of Quinn's tenure in Seattle, he oversaw a defense that was the identity of a hard-nosed team along with the Marshawn Lynch-led ground game. What he will contend with Sunday is an offense now well-equipped to engage in a shootout, especially if quarterback Russell Wilson is close to full health following a bye week to rest his right ankle and left knee sprains.
Seattle doesn't use a traditional fullback anymore, with coordinator Darrell Bevell increasingly playing Wilson off the line of scrimmage and setting him up to spread the ball to a deep receiving corps, with the ground game now a complement off the passing attack.
Quinn came to Atlanta as a noted defensive mind, but he returns to Seattle with a unit that is ranked 27th in points allowed (28.0 per game), 26th in yards allowed (388.8) and 26th in passing yard allowed (290.2). The pass rush, so critical to a scheme that doesn't feature heavy blitzing, has produced just 10 sacks through five games despite consistently facing offenses in must-pass situations. Pass rusher Vic Beasley, a 2015 first-round draft pick, has 4.5 of the team's sacks.
“Pretty similar, a lot of things,” Carroll said of the scheme Quinn brought to Atlanta. “They've got their own coaches that coach things differently and stuff like that. There's a lot of basics too that are similar.”
The Seahawks scored a total of 15 points while squeaking past Miami in Week 1 before a 9-3 loss in Los Angeles in Week 2. But as has been customary under offensive line coach Tom Cable, the front five has steadily improved and Bevell has made adjustments while Wilson battled through limited mobility that all but eliminated the rollouts and read-options that were so critical to the offense's success the past three seasons. Wilson is getting the ball out quickly, and the return of tight end Jimmy Graham has added yet another weapon to a quietly deep arsenal.
For all of Atlanta's offensive prowess, the defense remains vulnerable. The pass rush has struggled to generate consistent pressure, and the secondary comes under constant attack everyone other than Pro Bowl cornerback Desmond Trufant — a former star at the University of Washington who grew up in Tacoma, Wash., and is the younger brother of former Seahawks star Marcus Trufant.
Trufant is intimately familiar with Husky Stadium, where the Falcons have been practicing this week after Quinn opted to have the team travel to the Pacific Northwest following a Sunday win at Denver rather than travel home and back. Quinn saw it as an opportunity to engage in some team-building, which sounds Carroll-esque.
“We thought it would be a unique time for our team to have that week together, and as well as the players not to battle back and forth through some time zones and some long flights,” said Quinn, per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It just so happened this is how the schedule worked out. We're fortunate we have an opportunity to practice out here.”
There is a lot on the line Sunday, perhaps as much as home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs. But there are also a lot of respected ties between the two teams, including Quinn bringing his upstart Falcons to Seattle to battle his former mentor for an early pecking order in the conference.
“I don't know about pride, but it's exciting to see (Quinn),” Carroll said. “He's having fun. He's working hard. He has a team with an attitude and a personality. They had a great start last year, and they battled back and finished well at the end and they're off flying again.
“They seem to be really be utilizing their talent well and the people they picked up. They're doing a lot of really good things. It's really exciting to see, but I'm not going to get to caught up in the pride thing right now. We need to go play them.”