The Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers concluded the preseason in divergent manners. The Seahawks, previously a well-oiled monster truck, stumbled and bumbled their way through a head-scratching loss to the lowly regarded Oakland Raiders. In contrast, the Packers ended their preseason schedule with a thorough whipping of the Kansas City Chiefs, a playoff team in the last NFL campaign.
The Packers’ 34–14 victory over the Chiefs capped a 3–1 exhibition record and left head coach Mike McCarthy feeling downright exuberant about the Packers (via the Associated Press): “That’s exactly how you want to finish your preseason,” McCarthy said. “I don’t know if I’ve felt this good coming out of a preseason as I do tonight.”
But now it gets real. This game cannot be overhyped. The winner will doubtless be crowned the early season No. 1 in every poll. The Seahawks, as the favorites and the reigning Super Bowl Champions, will not lose ground by beating a quality opponent. On the other hand, should the Packers prevail, it would be impossible to not put them at the top of the NFL’s list if they can knock off the champs at home.
Preseason aside, the Packers and Seahawks come to this week one battle for supremacy with different momentum, different personnel situations — and wildly contrasting styles on both offense and defense.
What about momentum?
The Seahawks say the past is past. The most recent past is the best gauge we have to go on in terms of evaluating each team’s state of readiness. The Packers and Seahawks, not incidentally, concluded the preseason in opposite manners.
High note or low note — either way, it’s good news for both teams. First of all: preseason, shmeseason. The least important statistics that come out of preseason games are won/loss numbers. The preseason is for evaluation — coaching points. In that light, both teams will be using their preseason performances as foundations to build on as they unveil their real plans and personnel for Thursday’s NFL regular season kickoff.
Seahawks fans that watched the Raiders game on television were treated to a whole new slate of facial expressions on head coach Pete Carroll’s face. He looked like a man auditioning for the role of befuddled uncle in a dinner theater production of “Bird Brain: It’s Harder to Stay There than Get There.” Uncle Pete is going to use every one of those opportunities to re-focus the Seahawks on the fundamentals of the task at hand: defend the trophy.
The Packers, on the other hand, are feeling pretty good about themselves. A little too fat and happy, perhaps? I doubt it. The organization and key performers, Aaron Rodgers in particular, have been through too much for too long to get complacent over preseason performance. Success breeds success, however. The Packers are rolling. And they’re about to roll into Seattle.
Without game planning much, the Packers have demonstrated success in a few key areas that will be key points of emphasis for Uncle Pete:
- Fast-break, no-huddle offense.
- Wide receiver / quarterback timing.
- Potent rushing / balanced offensive attack.
- Credible pass rush threat.
- Competent safety play.
Throughout the preseason, the Packers have shown marked improvement in each of these facets from a season ago. Case in point: The Packers were so shaky at the safety position, they made their first-round draft selection Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix from Alabama. Clinton-Dix, though talented, has yet to crack the starting lineup of the improved 2014 Packers secondary.
On offense, the Packers have revealed their intention to press forward with a very Chip Kelly-esque no-huddle attack. The first team offense found great success through the preseason, with Rodgers racking up 11-of-13 pass attempts in two series against the St. Louis Rams, and another two touchdowns in two series against the Raiders. Very mid-season Rodgers-esque — and also Wilson-esque (read below).
The Packers also stepped out of character in the pass rush department. General manager Ted Thompson went shopping in free agency — a rare occurrence — and brought a big wallet. He got his man: veteran defensive end now hybrid outside linebacker / defensive end / interior pass rusher Julius Peppers. Peppers is thought to be the previously missing bookend piece to Clay Matthews’ pass rushing mayhem. How the two will be paired is yet a mystery, but one the Seahawks will need to solve on Sept. 4.
And for the birds …
The Seahawks demonstrated continued growth throughout the preseason as well, until the final contest against the Raiders. Up to that point, it’s fair to say the entire roster looked undeniably strong in outings against the thoroughly overmatched San Diego Chargers and the Chicago Bears. The Seahawks did, however, revert to losing ways against the Denver Broncos and the upstart Raiders. Will the regular season Seahawks continue to struggle in road games? It’s a legitimate concern.
Fortunately for Seahawks fans, the champs open up the season at home. In the friendly confines of CenturyLink Field, the Seahawks will bring:
- An extremely efficient Russell Wilson.
- Beast Mode.
- A healthy Percy Harvin.
- Fully functioning Legion of Boom.
- A (mostly) healthy defensive front seven.
A year ago, the Seahawks were gritting their teeth through a spate of injuries to their front seven. This year they’re in far better shape. They come to the clash against the Packers with few — if any — serious health concerns among this stout group (see below).
It should surprise no followers of the Seahawks that Wilson led the NFL in preseason passer rating (133.8), directing the blossoming Seahawks offense to 11 scores on 13 drives. This is not the rookie Russell Wilson the Packers last faced in 2012. There is no longer any reason to think the Seahawks’ 26th-ranked 2013 passing ranking will continue to hold back the Seahawks in 2014. Despite the Seahawks’ preference to run the ball more than almost any other NFL team, the birds should easily rank in the upper third of passing when the season concludes, so long as Wilson, Harvin, Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse remain healthy.
Which is good, because …
First team to 30
Think back to nearly one year ago, when the Seahawks eked out a 12–7 victory on the road against the up-and-coming Carolina Panthers to kick off the 2013 season. This Thursday’s game will be nothing like that. The team that wins this game will need 30 points.
The Packers bring a dynamic, potent and balanced offensive attack unlike last season’s opening opponents. Despite starting four quarterbacks in 2013, the Packers still managed to finish sixth in passing — an astonishing accomplishment considering no NFL team keeps four quarterbacks and most teams with “franchise” quarterbacks keep only two (like Seattle). While the Packers were going through passers, they found a running game in Eddie Lacy (NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year) and James Starks (5.5 yards per carry).
Aaron Rodgers missed nearly half of last season. If you think Lacy’s productivity will go down because Aaron Rodgers is healthy and in charge, think again. During the five games Rodgers and Lacy played together after Lacy returned from a concussion, Lacy averaged 92 yards per game on the ground. Rodgers was throwing an average of 41 times a game during that span, so clearly his high-volume of pass attempts does not take much away from Lacy’s productivity. In contrast, Marshawn Lynch averaged 78.5 yards per game when he had his starting quarterback playing alongside him.
If recent (regular season) history is any guide — as in the last time the two teams met in Seattle in the “Fail Mary / Replacement Officials Finale” game — The Packers will not stubbornly attempt to spread out the Seahawks on offense and throw all over the field. That strategy was the main culprit in the Seahawks racking up eight first half sacks and making mincemeat of the Packers’ blockers. Expect the Packers, with their now equally potent running game, to play a major factor in a different tone and pace during this contest.
The Packers will do what other teams that have had success against the Seahawks do: They will run right at the defense until they loosen up the coverage. Easier said than done — just ask Peyton Manning — but this time, the Packers have the personnel and the determination to pull it off, unlike in 2012.
Injuries, injuries, injuries
The Packers, despite humming along through the last three games of the preseason, are dealing with a host of problematic injuries. Projected starters nose tackle B.J. Raji, center J.C. Tretter and tight end Brandon Bostick are all unavailable for Sept. 4. In their place will be two (possibly three) rookies: fifth-round draft pick center Corey Linsley, third-round draft pick tight end Richard Rodgers and undrafted rookie nose tackle Mike Pennel. Pennel remains a longshot to start, but he is still in the mix behind disappointing new Packers free agent Letroy Guion and unproven Josh Boyd.
Depth has taken a hit too. A long list of key backups are also on injured reserve, including 2013 starting offensive lineman Don Barclay, promising rookie wide receiver Jared Abbrederis and the intriguing former Oregon Duck, tight end Colt Lyerla (waived/injured).
The Seahawks? A bit more fortunate in the injury department with all projected offensive starters back up to full or near-full health. The only outstanding injury concerns for Seattle include the hamstring health of third-string running back Christine Michael and the not-quite-fully-in-game-shape Russell Okung.
On the defensive side, there are some concerns. Bruce Irvin is still not all the way back from offseason hip surgery. Defensive end Michael Bennett (hamstring) and defensive tackle Tony McDaniel (knee) did not travel with the team to Oakland and are question marks for the opener. Backup middle linebacker Heath Farwell is on injured reserve. If we’re being overly cautious, we can wonder about the game-readiness of linebacker Bobby Wagner, who spent much of the preseason out of commission due to a balky hamstring. Assuming Tharold Simon bounces back from a knee issue, the Legion of Boom should be at full boom.
Inside vs. outside
The potential weaknesses of both teams are in stark contrast. If the Seahawks want to exploit the Packers, the way to success is likely up the middle of the field.
With the recent loss of starting nose tackle B.J. Raji, the Packers are in scramble mode to find a reliable replacement, as noted above. Their suddenly shaky nose tackle role exposes the rest of the Packers’ most vulnerable defensive weaknesses: inside linebacker and safety. The Packers’ two starting inside linebackers, A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones, are contrasts in style, themselves.
Hawk, the former first-round draft pick, is steady, reliable and devoid of many impact/splash plays in his NFL career. Jones, a converted outside linebacker, brings more raw talent, foot speed and coverage ability, but can get washed out and is frequently out of position. That is, when he’s on the field. He’s injury prone and currently attempting to come back from a hamstring injury that held him out of preseason action. Their depth is fairly nondescript.
Behind the linebackers, the Packers reluctantly offer their safety group. Last year, the position was a disaster, with poor enough play from three starters that one got cut mid-season (Jerron McMillian) and another got relegated to spot duty and was subsequently released (M.D. Jennings). Holdover Morgan Burnett is expected to bounce back with new talent alongside him: up-and-coming converted nickel back Micah Hyde and 2014 first-round draft pick Clinton-Dix.
Reports from Green Bay have this position group as the most improved across the team. Of course, they had the farthest to go. An oversized enforcer, the Kam Chancellor-esque Sean Richardson, earned much praise through training camp and is a worthy backup among this supposedly higher functioning group.
We’ll see. Beast Mode is likely to be spending a great deal of his time this Thursday evening introducing himself to the Packers’ inside defenders. If they’ve shored up this obvious weakness, they’ll have opportunities to demonstrate it early and often.
The Seahawks, in contrast, are more vulnerable on the exterior of their formations. The occasionally stellar Russell Okung has yet to show up in a big way at left tackle through training camp and the preseason. This is not a unique situation, as Okung seems to take after his predecessor, Walter Jones, in his disdain for training camp. However, all the time he has missed has not helped prepare him for facing a healthy and energized Clay Matthews.
On the opposite bookend, the Seahawks have plugged in rookie Justin Britt at right tackle. He’s performed largely as expected: like a wall in the run game and, well, like an unmoving wall in the passing game. Speed rushers and exotic stunts have confounded him a bit, leaving Wilson in scramble mode. Fortunately for the Seahawks, Wilson is often at his best in scramble mode, but still, Uncle Pete would probably prefer he exhibit more capable security when protecting the franchise.
With the healthy Max Unger at center, improved J.R. Sweezy at guard and the supposedly rejuvenated James Carpenter at guard, the Packers defense will have less success attacking the middle than they’ll likely generate attacking the edges. The Packers, with their new pass rushing toy in Peppers, are cooking up new formations and plans of attack in their closed practices. The Seahawks can expect the unexpected from this group as they attempt to dial up pressure and penetration past the Seahawks’ offensive line.
What’s in style?
In this clash of contrasting styles, it comes down to execution. Which team will excel best at their trademark styles of play? The Packers saw what happened to the Denver Broncos in February, so they know what’s in for them. Overcoming it is another thing. We do not yet know what impact the new emphasis on illegal contact will have on the passing games, but the Packers are probably hoping for more freedom for their very effective passing attack.
Illegal contact penalties in the final week of preseason were down a bit from the previous weeks. Was this a result of the NFL listening to the outcry of complaints about too many flags, or did the players really adjust their games that much … or both? The Seahawks seem to be adjusting to the new rules emphasis quite well. If that holds through the regular season, the sky is the limit again for the Legion of Boom.
The danger for the Seahawks would be in counting on the Packers being the high-flying, pass-pass-pass Packers of 2012 and not the well-balanced, efficient squad of 2013 and preseason 2014. The danger for the Packers will be if the Seahawks arrive at the game on time.