NFC Championship Preview: Packers vs. Seahawks

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The Seattle Seahawks hosted the Green Bay Packers 134 days ago in the game that kicked off the NFL season. It feels closer to 134 months ago. That was before the second Ray Rice tape hit TMZ, before Adrian Peterson’s arrest, and before Roger Goodell’s press conference of despair. The key player in that game, arguably, was Packers backup tackle Derek Sherrod, who allowed two game-changing sacks after starter Bryan Bulaga went down with an injury. Sherrod was waived two months ago. He’s a Chiefs player now. Earl Thomas was returning punts and Percy Harvin was Seattle’s leading receiver. A lot has changed in 134 days.

And yet, it’s hard to see how the Packers might approach Sunday’s rematch with the Seahawks in Seattle all that much differently. Mike McCarthy put together a logical, reasonable game plan to face Seattle with four months’ notice, entered with a healthy team, and still managed to lose by 20 points. And that was when Aaron Rodgers’s calf was whole. Despite what Thomas might suggest, Rodgers is dealing with a torn calf muscle that slowed him against the Cowboys last weekend, even if it didn’t stop him. That was versus a middling Dallas defense with a subpar pass rush. The Seahawks have allowed an average of exactly eight points per game since middle linebacker Bobby Wagner returned to the lineup in Week 12; they hardly need the help of a gimpy quarterback.

For Green Bay to pull off the upset in the Pacific Northwest, it may be less about what it needs to do differently and instead about what it needs to do better against Seattle this time around. Let’s run through the Packers’ game plan from the first game and see how it matches up with the plans from teams that Seattle has lost to over the past couple of seasons.

Just Pack or Unpack

To some extent, a Packers-Seahawks matchup inherently will be dictated by the styles of the two teams. Even if they thought it might be their best game plan, the Packers aren’t going to run the wishbone. They’re going to put the game on Rodgers and his magical ability to find throwing lanes in places where other quarterbacks wouldn’t even think to look. What the Packers can control instead is what those throws look like and how much time Rodgers has to make them.

The first time these teams played, the Packers spent most of the game with their standard offensive personnel, using either Richard Rodgers as an H-back or Andrew Quarless as a more traditional tight end. John Kuhn took only eight offensive snaps. McCarthy offered up a ritual sacrifice to try to create strong matchups for his offense, handing poor Jarrett Boykin over to his fate by leaving him on Richard Sherman’s side of the field. Boykin wasn’t targeted and hasn’t really recovered from the abandonment, as he finished the year with just three catches on 12 targets.

Rookie second-rounder Davante Adams took over Boykin’s role as the season went along, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Packers send him over to Sherman’s side of the field as their new sacrificial lamb this weekend. Adams is a faster receiver than Boykin, so he could at least consider threatening Sherman over the top, but his biggest role on Sunday is likely to be occupying Seattle’s star cornerback and blocking on run plays. Adams had a huge seven-catch, 117-yard game against the Cowboys last week, but going from the 5-foot-10 Sterling Moore to the 6-foot-3 Sherman is like, well, going from being covered by Sterling Moore to being covered by Richard Sherman. It’s a lot tougher, you know?

By sacrificing Adams, the Packers manage to get their two best wideouts matched up on the same side of the field against the weaker components of the Seattle secondary. Most of the competitive snaps in the Week 1 contest saw Jordy Nelson split out wide against Seahawks cornerback Byron Maxwell, while Randall Cobb lined up in the slot against Seattle’s nickelback, Jeremy Lane. Rodgers repeatedly went after the left side of the field, where those two were matched up. He went 15-of-23 for 145 yards on passes to the left side in that first game and then 8-of-10 for 44 yards on throws to the rest of the field.

Of their star wideouts, Cobb was really the one who had more to do. Faced with a favorable matchup against Lane, the Packers had Cobb running routes all over the field. He was their best target going over the middle, running dig routes that were designed to get in between the two vertical layers of zones in Seattle’s defense, where he could settle in behind Wagner and K.J. Wright without attracting the attention of Thomas. The Packers tried to use Cobb as part of pick plays with Nelson and Quarless. He also was a deep threat on a number of plays, notably a pair of wheel routes (with some rub action) that were designed to stretch Lane while taking advantage of Seattle’s Cover 3. Those throws failed in Week 1, but the Broncos would have success with a similar concept, switch verticals, against Seattle just two weeks later.

While Nelson has had an incredible season catching passes down the sideline for touchdowns, the Packers didn’t really go deep to him during the first contest. They attacked Maxwell with safer passes thrown in front of the fourth-year cornerback; the quick hitches, curls, and back-shoulder fades are all throws to the sideline that rely on Rodgers’s impeccable accuracy and his ability to deliver passes faster than anybody else in football.

It will be harder for a less-than-healthy Rodgers to make those throws Sunday; likely owing to his absent mobility and issues creating new throwing lanes with his feet, Rodgers is throwing to the outside far less frequently than normal. Through the first 15 weeks, just more than 53 percent of Rodgers’s passes were delivered to the edges of the field, the space between the sideline and the numbers. That’s the eighth-highest rate among qualifying quarterbacks. Since injuring his leg in the Week 16 Bucs game, Rodgers has thrown just 42.2 percent of his passes to the sideline. That is the 30th-highest rate among qualifying quarterbacks over the same time frame.

When the Packers did go over the middle to Nelson, that resulted in a crucial turnover, with Rodgers missing on a slant that bounced off Nelson’s fingers and into Maxwell’s hands for an interception. That interception happened, in part, because there was a defender in Rodgers’s face. Left tackle David Bakhtiari lost one-on-one against star Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, and while Bennett couldn’t do enough to bring down Rodgers, he got in the throwing lane and forced Rodgers to make an errant throw.

Bakhtiari didn’t have the best game, but he was the stronger link at tackle compared to Sherrod, who was mostly a disaster after coming in for the injured Bulaga early in the second quarter. It’s unfair and inaccurate to say the Packers would have won this game if Bulaga hadn’t been injured, but Sherrod got torched badly on two key snaps. Every other player on the offense could have done his job to perfection and given his all and it wouldn’t have mattered because of how badly the Seahawks defensive linemen beat Sherrod.

The former first-round pick gave up a critical sack to Cliff Avril on fourth-and-5 to end a Packers drive, and after the Seahawks punted and backed Green Bay up to its own 10-yard line, Sherrod gave up a second sack to Bennett that saw Rodgers fumble the ball into the Green Bay end zone, where the Packers recovered it for a safety. On both plays, Rodgers simply had no chance. Bulaga was having a relatively anonymous day before leaving with the injury, which would have been fine, as anonymous is a lot better than the way Sherrod held up in pass protection. Bulaga is credited as having allowed just 4.5 sacks in 15 games this season.

The entire Packers line could stand to have a better game than they did the first time out. T.J. Lang, who has evolved into one of the league’s better guards, got manhandled while trying to create running lanes for a Green Bay rushing attack that was dead on arrival in Week 1. It was actually staggering; the Packers would try to run the ball and the Seahawks defender at the point of attack would repeatedly just stonewall the guy across from him without budging. That Seahawks team had Brandon Mebane, who has been on injured reserve since November with a hamstring injury, but Seattle has allowed opposing offenses to average just 3.4 yards per carry since Wagner returned in Week 12, the second-best rate in the league.

The easiest way to envision the Packers winning this game includes a dominant performance from Eddie Lacy and their running game. That didn’t happen the first time around, as the Packers ran the ball 21 times for just 80 yards. You might wonder whether that Green Bay offense isn’t the same as this one, because the Packers have notably improved running the football as the season has gone along. They ranked 12th in rushing DVOA through the first nine weeks, but improved to fifth over the second half of the season.

It’s not necessarily a prerequisite to run the ball well against the Seahawks if you want to win, but it absolutely makes things a lot easier. In Seattle’s seven losses over the past two seasons, the opposing offense has averaged 33.6 carries and 138 rushing yards, for a per-carry average of just more than 4.1 yards. Some of the volume there is just because these teams were winning and trying to hold on to a lead, but teams like the 2013 49ers and Cardinals and the 2014 Cowboys and Chiefs were able to get ahead early with the run and then maintain their leads by continuing to run effectively as opposed to simply running to kill clock. Lacy has to stay healthy for that to happen; he was pulled out of practice by McCarthy on Thursday over concerns about his knee, and the Packers just aren’t the same with James Starks taking handoffs.

It’s Rodgers’s injury that could make things more difficult for the Packers. While Rodgers battled gamely through the calf injury last week and played about as well as anyone could have imagined for a guy who was skipping to the line, he’s clearly not 100 percent. The Packers kept him in the pistol and the shotgun for the entirety of the Cowboys game1 to try to manage the risk with his calf, and while that helps, it also plays into Seattle’s strength. The Seahawks posted the league’s 19th-best QBR (54.8) when opposing quarterbacks were directly under center. When opponents moved into the shotgun or the pistol, Seattle’s fierce pass rush allowed a 41.3 QBR — the third-best figure in the NFL.

The problem gets even worse when you figure that Rodgers probably isn’t going to get outside of the pocket very frequently. Just four of Rodgers’s 35 pass attempts came from outside the pocket last week, and while those passes produced 30 yards and two touchdowns, it’s just not going to happen that much against Seattle. The Seahawks defense posted the fourth-best QBR in the league (46.8) when opposing quarterbacks stayed inside the pocket. When they made it out of the pocket alive, the Seahawks were in trouble; Seattle’s QBR against fell to 50.2, a drop all the way to 22nd. (Most defenses are far better when passers are outside the pocket than when they are inside.)

Ideally, the Packers would want Rodgers to look like Andrew Luck or Tony Romo did in their wins over the Seahawks during the past two seasons, sprinting away from pressure and making his way out of the pocket to hit receivers downfield for big gains. Rodgers can still summon up some mobility when the situation is dire, as he did when he stepped up in the pocket before throwing a short touchdown pass in the first half of the Cowboys game. The truly mobile Rodgers, though, is probably not showing up in time for Sunday’s NFC title game.

Sea Unchanged

The biggest mismatch in Sunday’s game is the gap between the Seattle rushing attack and the Green Bay rushing defense. The Packers have gotten better against the run as the season has gone along, but they were gashed on the ground for 5.2 yards per carry by a dominant Cowboys rushing attack, and the Seahawks aren’t that far behind Dallas when they’ve got things going. When these two teams played in Week 1, the Seahawks could not have looked much better running the football.

Seattle ran the ball 37 times for a whopping 207 yards the first time these teams played, and that even includes three kneeldowns. The Seahawks came within two yards of averaging an even 6 yards per carry when they were actually trying to run the football, and when you consider that their longest run went for only 21 yards, you can picture just how consistently dominant the Seahawks were.

One thing you probably can’t picture is Harvin in a Seahawks uniform. This was probably his best individual game as a runner in Seattle, as the Seahawks repeatedly used him on jet sweeps and as a member of the backfield to both carry the ball and slow down the rush of defenders toward Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch. Some of it was smoke and mirrors that opposing teams would comfortably sift through in weeks to come — Harvin rushed for 41 yards in this game and just 51 more in his four other Seattle appearances before being traded to the Jets — but it was a meaningful part of the Seattle offense in Week 1 that won’t be around Sunday.

To be honest, the Seahawks didn’t really need Harvin in this game. They were very comfortably beating the Packers up with two simple runs. I pulled a couple of clips from the same second-quarter drive to show how impressive Seattle was when it wanted to run the football at Green Bay. First, start with that aforementioned longest run of the day, with Lynch running for 21 yards on a second-and-5 just inside Green Bay territory:

seahawkszone1

This isn’t even an especially well-blocked stretch play from the Seahawks; Mike Daniels (76) nearly disengages from left guard James Carpenter, center Max Unger never really gets to a linebacker, and left tackle Russell Okung just has to shield Clay Matthews away on the play side because Matthews tries to jump into the backfield. While Matthews is a great linebacker and made a number of big plays in this game by using his acceleration to get into the backfield, the Packers didn’t have contain here. Matthews is easily blocked out of the play, which frees up fullback Derrick Coleman (40) to deliver the crucial block on inside linebacker Brad Jones (59) at the point of attack. Lynch extends his run along the line of scrimmage just long enough for Coleman to clear his lane out, at which point Lynch cuts upfield.

That was outside zone. Three plays later, the Packers got obliterated by its cousin.

seahawkszone2

Well, that’s just unfair. The Seahawks go back to the read-option and run inside zone, the combination of which has eventually become their bread-and-butter running play on offense. This time, Matthews doesn’t overpursue into the backfield and it costs the Packers. The read-option element freezes Matthews, which allows Luke Willson (82) enough time to come across the formation and wallop Matthews where he stands. That creates the cutback lane.

Lynch does a great job of holding his line like he’s running outside zone until Carpenter moves Daniels out of the cutback lane and Okung has enough time to get to the second level. Almost exactly before Okung is about to hit A.J. Hawk (50), Lynch cuts his run back into a vastness of empty space vacated for him by the Packers. Okung actually doesn’t get much on his block at all, and Hawk is still able to dive toward Lynch, but it’s a tackle that would work only if Hawk were playing NFL Blitz. He’s not, and Lynch is one-on-one versus Morgan Burnett (42) for an easy score.

The Packers saw this a lot during the first half of the season, and by the middle of the year, they made changes. Jones and Hawk were phased out of the lineup, replaced by Sam Barrington and, as you already probably know, Matthews. Matthews doesn’t line up exclusively at inside linebacker, but he also wasn’t exclusively an outside linebacker before making the switch during Green Bay’s bye week, either; he lined up on the interior a couple of times during this Week 1 loss.

In all, though, I don’t know that the move has significantly improved Green Bay’s run defense. The Packers were 24th in rush defense DVOA before their Week 9 bye. When they came back and moved Matthews to inside linebacker, they improved, but not by much, as they were 20th the rest of the way. Throw in what Dallas did to them last week, even after adjusting for the quality of the opposition, and I suspect they’re right back where they were before Matthews made the switch.

Having Matthews in the middle against Seattle, though, raises an interesting tactical question. In Week 1, the Packers mostly used Matthews as a rusher to try to get an early step into the backfield, both to attack the mesh point while both Wilson and Lynch were there and to create havoc as a pass-rusher.2 The Packers couldn’t use Matthews as a spy in that role, because Wilson would be running into daylight if he scrambled to the side opposite Matthews. Instead, while Dom Capers used a variety of tactics, I most frequently saw a safety like Micah Hyde or Ha Ha Clinton-Dix spying Wilson from the first-down sticks.

If he’s going to be in the middle of the field, could the Packers spy Wilson with Matthews instead? He certainly has the athleticism to keep up with Seattle’s star quarterback, and he even has experience spying an opposing passer in a big game. Matthews surprisingly drew the assignment to spy Ben Roethlisberger in Super Bowl XLV, a move that didn’t necessarily pay off, as the Packers sacked Roethlisberger only once. That was before Julius Peppers was a Packer, though, and if Peppers can deliver on his own as the primary pass-rusher alongside Nick Perry, Green Bay could use Matthews to stop the run and go after Wilson on his many excursions from the pocket.

Clinton-Dix is another player from whom the Packers will need to see a better game. He struggled during that NFL debut, failing to make a number of big plays. He missed a couple of key tackles, notably one on the pop pass that led to Seattle’s first touchdown. He also dropped an interception when Wilson’s throw to an open Ricardo Lockette down the sideline was late. Clinton-Dix has gotten better as the season has gone along, and while he wasn’t a full-time player in Week 1, he’s now an every-down safety for the Packers. He should be better this time around.

Lockette could also have a bigger role to play this week. Seattle suddenly finds itself lacking speed on offense. It was one thing to trade away Harvin, but the Seahawks are now without second-round pick Paul Richardson, who tore his ACL in Saturday’s victory over Carolina and will miss the remainder of the playoffs. Wilson was able to make big plays on Saturday by finding Jermaine Kearse and Willson for lengthy catches downfield; he’ll need to do the same against the Packers, and Green Bay might not be quite as generous if it’s not afraid of getting burnt downfield for a big play.

The odds are stacked against the Packers here. Winning in Seattle is a tall order with a healthy Rodgers, let alone a Rodgers who might resemble a sitting duck if the Packers can’t protect him. It’s possible the Packers could produce a huge day on the ground. It’s possible they could throw downfield and be one of the few teams that make the Seahawks regret playing three-deep by hitting Nelson past Maxwell for big plays. It’s possible Matthews could both slow down the Seattle running game and transition to serving as a spy on passing downs, but even that’s asking a lot. Having one of those things happen wouldn’t be too unlikely. Having them all happen at the same time, though? That’s exceedingly difficult to imagine, and the Packers might very well need them all to make their sixth trip to the Super Bowl.

Filed Under: 2015 NFL Playoffs, Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, NFC Championship Game, NFL

photo

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell