Early Bird Breakdown NFC Championship: Green Bay Packers @ Seattle Seahawks
Hello all! Welcome to the NFC Championship edition of Early Bird Breakdown! Let’s begin with the recap:
Last week against the Dallas Cowboys, an injured Aaron Rodgers was able to gather enough of his magic to engineer a playoff victory at home, with a final score of 26-21. The Packers were forced to use Rodgers in wishbone and shotgun formations throughout the game due to his calf injury, which resulted in a more limited offense, though Eddie Lacy thrived and continues to put up big numbers down the stretch.
For the Seahawks, they picked Carolina apart and won with a final score of 31-17, where offensively and defensively the team looked in sync.
Packers’ Offense vs. Seahawks’ Defense:
In the three games Green Bay has played a top five defense on the road this season, the Packers have scored 36 combined points. Seattle was one of those defenses, all the way back on week one. Green Bay will need to play significantly better than they have on the road this season.
Seattle’s defense has excellent players riddled throughout this defense. The front four is deep and they continually rotate fresh, athletic pass rushers into the game with Michael Bennett, Bruce Irvin, Cliff Avril, and Jordan Hill as the most impactful group of the defensive lineman. While they have lost starting defensive tackle Brandon Mebane to a season ending injury, the return of middle linebacker Bobby Wagner has capitulated this defense to all time great levels of play. Since Wagner’s return week 12, Seattle has given up just 3.4 yards per carry on the ground, second best to the Detroit Lions.
The back quarter of the defense, known as, “The Legion of Boom,” is led by all-pro first-team safety Earl Thomas, second-team all-pro safety Cam Chancelor, and first-team all-pro cornerback Richard Sherman. Yes, for those unaware, Seattle has two of the four best safeties and one of the two best corners in the league. Thomas plays centerfield in the cover three defense Seattle runs, which means generally each corner is set upon each third of the field nearest their sideline and Earl Thomas covers the deep middle. Cam Chancelor is their run stopper, usually coming close into the box and covering the tight ends. While Sherman is a lockdown corner, he plays on the right side of the quarterback only, which was something the Packers week one exploited by leaving Jarrett Boykin over at him as the sacrificial lamb to give Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb better matchups.
While that plan was actually a wise one, it was not implemented to the fullest. The best way the Packers can pick holes in this defense is to put Adams on Sherman, due to Adams being a faster option, to stretch Sherman back and open up holes underneath. This will allow Mike McCarthy to move Cobb to both sides of the field, not just restricting him to the left side. While it is possible on a perfect throw to beat Sherman deep, whoever is lined up against him may not catch a single pass, let alone have a single target, as was the case week one.
The other tactic Green Bay tried to implement week one was running the ball. They managed just 80 combined yards on 21 rushing attempts. This number has to and should be better with the way Eddie Lacy has been running and the offensive line has been blocking. Lacy has become both powerful and elusive down the stretch and will need to have the game of his life to help Rodgers get this upset victory.
The biggest hurdle to the Packers offense will be Rodgers’ calf injury. His torn calf not only interferes with his ability to move, it also affects the play calling. Rodgers has not been able to play under center since the injury. Seattle this season has done much worse against the throw when the opposing quarterback was able to break the pocket, as well as they tend to give up more plays when he begins lined up under center. With the limited play calling and the limited mobility it will be very difficult for a Packers team with road issues to put up big numbers against this vaunted defense.
Fortunately for Rodgers, the offensive line has solidified incredibly well down the stretch and should give Rodgers enough time even hampered to try and make plays as well as grind out some space for Lacy. This will be key, as last week when Carolina was hanging in the game they were able to run consistently on Seattle but Cam Newton missed some open receivers on third down. If the offensive line can carve a path for Lacy as the Panthers’ line did, Rodgers will be in position to convert third-and-short situations, which he must do if the Packers want to have any hope of winning.
Packers’ Defense vs. Seahawks’ Offense:
For the second straight week, the Packers offense must contend with their achilles’ heel, a powerful rushing attack. While they had to play a more balanced offense against Dallas, they still were able to grind 145 yards against the Packers on the ground. Seattle has the league’s best run defense by a mile. Dallas, who was second in rushing, ran for an impressive 147.1 yards per game on the season. Seattle ran for 172.6. They will run, run, and run some more, both with their quarterback Russel Wilson and their powerback Marshawn Lynch.
Fortunately for the Packers, Seattle is so depleted at receiver, they rely on Wilson carrying them with excellent throws to not particularly dynamic weapons. Seattle’s only deep threat, Paul Richardson, tore his ACL last week and all of Seattle’s receivers except for maybe Doug Baldwin are at best third or fourth string receivers on most teams. Green Bay will need to play the run first, second, and third and rely on their more talented corners to go one-on-one against the receivers on Seattle to give Rodgers the chances he needs to win.
Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch have looked very impressive down the stretch, and both are matchup issues historically for Green Bay. Packer fans remember all too well another NFC West quarterback who can and did run all over them in the playoffs. Clay Matthews will need to have an amazing game both stopping the run and spying Wilson or the Packers defense will be in for a very long day.
The Weather Factor:
As of writing, Seattle is expected to be in the high 40s at kickoff with rain expected throughout the morning but clearing up right around kickoff. Regardless, the field will most likely be quite slick and both teams will be in a run-first mentality.
Green Bay is going to need to do just about everything not only right but near perfect today to win. They will need to block even more amazingly than they did in Buffalo. They will need to run the ball consistently for very good yardage. Rodgers will need to be mobile enough to make a defender miss and convert key third downs with his arm. All the while the defense will need to have by far its best game against the run. All of that together, and the game still will be tough. Marshawn Lynch only gets stronger throughout the game, and his third quarter numbers are the best of any running back. Russel Wilson has lead so many comebacks in his young career, including a 24 point rally against the Patriots last year in Seattle.
None of this factors in the fact that the Seattle fans, or “twelfth man,” will make it difficult for Rodgers to run the no huddle as he will have a hard time communicating to the offense. Seattle’s defense is not just the best in the league, based on the metrics at Pro-Football-Focus, they may be the second best all time behind the 1985 Bears. Green Bay will need everything they have and some luck to pull it off.
Fortunately, this is the sport that allows those chances. When the undefeated Patriots played the Giants in the Super Bowl, they would have probably won a best of seven and maybe win that game 85 times out of 100. But New York played one of those inexplicable games, and were able to lock out the Patriots. Green Bay has this chance. With a strong running attack from Lacy and if Rodgers can channel that second half magic he had in Dallas, Green Bay will be able to put pressure on Seattle to score, something Seattle is not equipped to do. And while Seattle’s defense is all-time great, overall this team is definitely worse top-to-bottom than last year’s squad.
Ultimately, week one I thought Green Bay had the tools to go in and beat Seattle, and I picked Green Bay in the upset. I would here as well, if not for Rodgers calf injury. Seattle plays the shotgun formations so much better than they do under center, and Rodgers has a harder time selling the play action from the pistol with his mobility issues. The narrowness of the Packers play calling, Rodgers mobility, and the questions on defense of the Packers on whether they can stop the run are just too big of questions to ignore. I think Green Bay plays it better than week one, and I think they can very well win it, but ultimately I believe Seattle returns to the Super Bowl winning 27-20 over the Packers. No one wants my score prediction to be inaccurate more than me, and I will be cheering for the Packers to make the big upset, “Go Pack Go!”As always, go Pack go! Stu Weis -Journalism graduate 2012, Carroll University