NFC Championship Preview: Packers @ Seahawks

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The Seahawks put a beat down on the Packers on opening night of the 2014 NFL season as the game wasn’t as close as the 20-point margin suggests. And that was when Aaron Rodgers wasn’t skipping up and down the field with his strained calf.

Combine Seattle’s success against the Packers in Week 1, Rodgers’ calf injury, the 12th man of CenturyLink field and the fact that the Seahawks are simply a good team and the chances of the Packers reaching their sixth Super Bowl look bleak.

The popular storyline has been detailing everything that has changed among these two teams since its Week 1 meeting, and yes a few things have changed. Percy Harvin who accounted for 41 rush yards and 59 receiving yards on seven catches ended his season in the Big Apple, Derek Sherrod who replaced an injured Bryan Bulaga at tackle for the Packers in now a member of the Chiefs, Davante Adams has replaced Jarrett Boykin as the third receiver in the Packers offense and run-stuffing force Brandon Mebane has been placed on IR for the Seahawks.

Amidst all those changes, however, both teams still have the basic strengths and weaknesses they had opening night and those favor Seattle. The biggest advantage for Seattle remains in the run game as the Packers have struggled all season, even since moving Clay Matthews to inside linebacker, ranking 23rd against the run this season and allowing a league-leading 25.8% of opponent’s running plays to go for first downs. Seattle, meanwhile, led the NFL with over 170 YPG on the ground and in percentage of running plays to achieve first downs at 27.4%. Obviously those numbers are buoyed by Russell Wilson scrambles, but Seattle’s traditional rushing attack with Marshawn Lynch mixed with a few read-option plays per game remains one of the league’s most effective ground games. The advantage on the ground was evident in Week 1 as the Packers defensive front consistently yielded ground to the Seahawks mauling offensive line and Marshawn Lynch gashed the Packers for 110 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. Even when subtracting Harvin’s four carries for 41 yards, the Seahawks ran for 166 yards on 33 rush attempts for an average of five yards per carry and that’s including three kneel downs to end the game by Wilson.

Lynch gashed the Packers for 110 yards and 2 TDs in Week 1.

Lynch gashed the Packers for 110 yards and 2 TDs in Week 1.

Green Bay’s porous Week 1 run defense remains so, evidenced by how they were gashed by the Cowboys last week. The emergence of second-year inside linebacker Sam Barrington has been an upgrade over Brad Jones and AJ Hawk in the middle, but the Packers front seven, particularly its defensive line struggles to disengage from blockers and consistently make plays in the run game.

On the flip side, Green Bay’s rushing attack is vital to its success in this championship matchup, particularly due to Rodgers’ calf injury. If that wasn’t enough, consider how essential the running games of the Cowboys and Chiefs were in terms of controlling the game in their victories over Seattle earlier this season. The fact that Seattle’s considered weakness defensively is its run defense which ranked third in the NFL allowing 81.5 YPG says something about Seattle’s dominate D, but it can be had.

In last week’s Divisonal matchup with Carolina, Seattle allowed 132 rush yards on 30 attempts for an average of 4.4 yards per carry. Running back Jonathan Stewart accounted for 70 of those yards on just 13 carries which is more indicative of what the Packers will deploy as we won’t be seeing the read-option from the Packers. There is hope for the Packers as Eddy Lacy looked dominate in the Packers’ opening possession last week against the Cowboys and rushed for 101 yards on 19 carries despite reportedly suffering an asthma attack. That success, however, came against a mediocre front seven and in the Week 1 matchup Lacy was stifled accounting for just 34 yards on 12 carries. Lacy was particularly ineffective running outside accumulating just 11 yards on seven carries off tackle or outside the tackles. He actually had some success running up the middle, running five times for 23 yards. Green Bay would be advised to give Lacy more attempts into the gut of Seattle’s run defense where, despite the presence of MLB Bobby Wagner, the Seahawks are most susceptible.

Lacy must have a bigger impact than the 12 carries for 34 yards he had in Week 1

Lacy must have a bigger impact than the 12 carries for 34 yards he had in Week 1

Then there is the passing game which pits Green Bay’s wounded savior against the intimidating and dominate Legion of Boom in Seattle. Rodgers steered cleared of cornerback, Richard Sherman, in the Week 1 matchup as the Packers willingly sacrificed Boykin to his side of the field. It will be worth watching to see if the Packers attempt a similar strategy using Adams in Boykin’s role or if Mike McCarthy will be more willing to test Sherman against the likes of Jordy Nelson and possibly Randall Cobb. The Packers also seemed content to throw short passes in the Week 1 matchup with 27 of Rodgers’ 33 attempts being shorter underneath throws and 23 of his 24 completions coming on those underneath passes.

Against most teams a shorter passing attack can still be utilized as an effective way to maintain offensive rhythm while also moving the ball due to yards gained after the catch, but Seattle isn’t like most teams. One of the primary strengths of its historically great defense is the ability of its secondary, particularly safties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor to come up and make tackles on short pass routes. Green Bay must be daring enough to stretch the field on a consistent basis, and while it may not yield results it’s imperative to keep Chancellor and Thomas from lurking toward the line of scrimmage to shut down Lacy and the short passing game.

Seattle's Legion of Boom held Rodgers to less than 200 yards in Week 1

Seattle’s Legion of Boom held Rodgers to less than 200 yards in Week 1

Another problem in the passing game for Green Bay is the lack of mobility from Rodgers. Not only does the calf severely hamper his ability to escape the pass rush, but it also prevents him from moving outside the pocket and putting unwanted pressure on defenses. Rodgers ability to throw on the run and from a variety of angles without losing velocity on his throws is one of his greatest strengths. Also one of Seattle’s’ greatest defensive liabilities is defending quarterbacks outside the pocket. Consider that the Seahawks were fourth in QBR against quarterbacks inside the pocket and just 22nd in QBR against QBs outside the pocket according to Grantland’s ­Bill Barnwell. Not only is Seattle more susceptible outside the pocket, but when considering how disruptive Seattle defensive end/tackle Michael Bennett can be as an inside pass rusher in obvious passing situations, Rodgers may mobility may be an absolute necessity.

Despite the calf injury Rodgers was spectacular in last week's Divisional victory

Despite the calf injury Rodgers was spectacular in last week’s Divisional victory

Green Bay just simply doesn’t match up well with Seattle even if Rodgers was healthy or if the game was being played at a neutral site. The run defense has been inconsistent and is facing the best rushing attack in the NFL, Rodgers limited mobility will prevent him from repeatedly burning the Seattle defense outside the pocket, and we didn’t even touch on the magic of Russell Wilson. Even if Green Bay is able to overcome enough of its weaknesses to engage in a nip and tuck battle with Seattle, Wilson has proven he’s perfectly capable of making enough plays without garnering too much credit to take Seattle to its second consecutive Super Bowl.

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