Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Early Look: Green Bay Packers

It has been a while since a Seattle Seahawks team could look forward to playing a team like the Green Bay Packers that went 15-1 last season. There has not been enough firepower on either side of the ball to realistically compete with championship level teams. Things are different this year, and it is not just in Seattle.

The Packers are an undeniable powerhouse, right? They have arguably the best player in the NFL on offense in Aaron Rodgers, and one of the best players in the NFL on defense in Clay Mathews. Their receiving corps is so deep that their bench players would start for many teams. Their secondary is full of play-makers like Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams, and the middle of their defensive line is plugged up by Pro Bowler B.J. Raji. Somehow, though, this team is not playing like themselves. At least, not yet.

This vaunted Packers offense has scored exactly three touchdowns through two games. Their passing offense is a pedestrian 14th in the NFL in yards and 22nd in yards per attempt. Aaron Rodgers has been sacked eight times in two games. The Packers tend to give up more sacks than the average team because they pass more often, but they are giving up a sack every ~9 pass attempts this year, compared to one every ~14 last season. Watching both of the Packers games made it very clear this offensive line is struggling to protect the passer. The Bears and 49ers are very good at getting after the quarterback, but this is more than that.

Constructing a game plan to stop the Packers offense is a chore. They can win in the passing game on any kind of route, at any point on the field. Their individual talent is only matched by their collective execution. An  absolute key for them is their tight end play with Jermichael Finley. Having him slice the middle of the field keeps defenses from being able to just play Cover-2 with a safety over the top of each corner. Finley already has 11 receptions.

The weak spot is their running game. They are 26th in the NFL in rushing yards. In part, because they are 28th in the NFL in rushing attempts. The Packers run to setup the throw. They got absolutely nothing done versus the 49ers defense, where Rodgers was their leading rusher with 27 yards on five rushes. Seattle is holding opponents to 2.6 yards per rush. The Seahawks would be wise to hold that line, or better.

Their special teams has arguably been their best unit so far, scoring a touchdown in each game. Randall Cobb had a 75-yard punt return for touchdown in Week 1, and they executed a gorgeous fake field goal for a touchdown against the Bears. Seven of punter Tim Masthay's eleven punts have been downed inside the 20-yard line. This should make for a great match-up with a Seattle special teams that has been flawless so far.

No team in football has sacked the quarterback more than the Packers. Eleven sacks in two games is crazy, and it is led by Mathews with six. Mathews would rank 6th in the NFL in sacks if he were his own team. That's right. Only four teams (other than Green Bay) collectively have more sacks than Mathews does as an individual. That, and the secondary that already has four interceptions, has helped the Packers hold opposing quarterbacks to the 3rd-lowest passer rating so far. Their run defense is not anywhere near as impressive. The Packers are 26th in the NFL in opponent rushing yards and 30th in opponent yards per carry.

The two biggest mismatches in this game may be the Seahawks running game against the Packers run defense, and the Packers pass defense (pass rush + secondary) against the Seahawks pass offense.

This game represents a rite of passage for Seattle. Beating a quarterback like Rodgers, and an offense with this many weapons, would expand the win potential for the Seahawks dramatically. Seattle's offense, especially passing, remains in its infancy. Defense and running the football will be paramount. The Packers have yet to play up to their standards on offense, and their defense is more flashy than stout. It is a defense that was built to combat high-powered passing games that are the trend in the NFL. Seattle represents a challenge to their philosophy. 

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