Blue Friday Fodder: Snowy Packers Prepare for Battle
Most of Western Washington wakes to a thin layer of snow this morning. Fireplaces flicker. Hot chocolate warms hands and souls. Middle-aged kids and actual kids hurriedly make snowballs and snow angels before the rain washes it all away. It is December in the Great Northwest. That means short days, snowy mountains, and increasingly, a Seahawks football team that rises. December is the phone booth the Seahawks enter as mere mortals and exit as superheroes. No team has won more December games since 2012 than the Seattle Seahawks. Pete Carroll calls it finishing. I call it awesome. This is when many teams fade. It is like a red wine reduction. The verve that accompanies a fresh start to a season has evaporated. All that is left is the true essence and flavor that defines who the team is and what they are capable of. That is when this Seahawks team emerges from the crowd.
First up, Green Bay
This past Sunday was just the latest chapter in what has become a predictable, but still thrilling, storyline. Seattle once again looked like the best team in football while thumping the Panthers, whose quarterback is their perfect foil. He is the water to the Seahawks wine. Raise the temperature, and he disappears. We are now in the midst of fascinating closing quarter of the season. It begins in a quiet midwestern town known for cheese, football, and championships. There may be no fan base with a more pure love of the game than those of the Green Bay Packers. It is unlike the ego-centric, unbalanced obsession that exists in Texas, the obnoxious entitlement that exists in the Northeast, or the laid-back front-running of California. Football is woven into the fabric of the town in Green Bay. It is closer to a relationship with a high school than with a professional franchise.
The community owns the team. They come in droves to shovel snow from the stadium on game day. Church services are adjusted based on when the game will be played, not because football is more important, but because it is a recognized civic treasure that brings them together. They love their players like family members. Casseroles are dropped off. Group hugs are their form of celebration. It is a special place and a special football ecosystem.
The Seahawks have somewhat become the serpent in their garden of eden the past few seasons. Magic is supposed to be on their side. He even played quarterback for them at one point. Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, though, have conjured up the miracles in this series. It sticks in the craw of Packers fans like rock and roll roiled the bee bop crowd back in the day. It’s just not right. It challenges their worldview in a very personal way. So when their beloved Packers righted the wrong with a 27-17 victory last season, all felt right in their world once again.
The problem is all is not right in their world. Their team was picked by many to win, or at least appear in, the Super Bowl. Aaron Rodgers is still great. Their offensive line is experienced and powerful. Eddie Lacy, their rotund running back, showed up svelte and seemed to be poised for a great season. Their trio of receivers, led by a now-healthy Jordy Nelson, was as dangerous as any in the league. A 4-2 start was good enough to keep all their dreams alive. Then came a dizzying streak of four losses that left the team out of the playoff seedings and their fans reaching for an extra beer. Their defense allowed an average of over 38 points per game during that stretch. Thirty-eight points. Over four games. Indianapolis and Tennessee are not exactly world beaters either. The Titans dropped 47 points on a day that appeared to torpedo any remaining hopes that this team could reach its goals. Washington scored 42 points on them the next week to shovel more dirt on the grave.
Then, a sign of life. An almost dominant 27-13 win over the Eagles on the road, followed by a snowy 21-13 win over the Texans at home, has lifted the team’s record back to .500 at 6-6 and rekindled faint hopes of a playoff push. Four more wins gets them to ten on the season, and they already have a win against division leaders Detroit who they play again in the final week. A Lions loss anywhere else along the way (they play the Cowboys) would make that last game for the division title.
None of that matters if they lose to the Seahawks on Sunday. This is the game that sets up everything for their stretch run. It is their toughest remaining opponent, and the one team that has a knack for curdling their milk.
Visiting teams do not often win in Green Bay in December.
Last time a team beat GB at Lambeau in December was 2013
Then again, the Patriots were 102-1 when holding a lead at home in the fourth quarter since Tom Brady became the starter in 2001 before the Seahawks made them 102-2 earlier this year. The Packers win probability reached 100% during the 2014 NFC Championship when Wilson was intercepted for the fourth time. Five [game clock] minutes later, and the Seahawks were going to their second straight Super Bowl. Seattle is the better team, and they know they can beat the Packers. So does Green Bay.
Weather will clearly be a factor. Recent forecasts are calling for 3-5 inches of snow on Sunday. Defenses, especially those who rely on speed, are at a disadvantage in slippery conditions. Life is not exactly peachy for offenses either, especially in the passing game where breaks are far less exacting and timing is disrupted. The more powerful team, both on defense and offense, tends to gain the advantage. Misdirection also becomes a more appealing part of the game plan as defenders have a far harder time stopping their momentum if they take a step in the wrong direction.
Injuries will also be a factor. Nick Perry, the Packers leader in sacks, will miss his first game after having surgery on his hand. Clay Matthews is playing through a shoulder separation that is quite painful and has limited his snaps. Multiple linebackers are questionable. This defense is already giving up the worst yards per attempt (7.7) in the NFL and the second-worst opposing passer rating (102.1). They are 28th in the league in red zone defense and 24th in 3rd down defense. They are facing a Seahawks offense that is flickering like a light bulb as it gets screwed in. A second straight strong showing would go a long way toward validating their progress.
Thomas Rawls was made for games like this. He grew up in Flint, Michigan. Snow is nothing new to him. Neither is pounding defenses into submission. Much of the focus will be on Wilson and Rodgers, but this could very well come down to Rawls and whoever is in the backfield for the Packers. Eddie Lacy is on injured reserve and James Starks has been ineffective. Pro Bowl guard T.J. Lang is a longshot to play. The Green Bay running game has barely been walking the past four weeks.
Seattle ranks second in the NFL in rushing yards and first in yards per run (5.8) the past four weeks while the Packers have ranked 27th in rushing yards and 21st in yards per run over the same span. The team who wins the rushing battle in games played in less than 30 degree temperatures has won 70% of the time. For Green Bay, it’s 89% of the time.
Perry was not only the Packers best pass rusher. He was also considered one of their best run defenders. Seattle has a clear advantage on both sides of this run equation, and must turn that potential into reality to combat what is a very real Packers advantage in familiarity with these conditions. Richard Sherman admitted he has never played a game in the snow. Wilson, despite playing in Wisconsin his senior season, has just one regular season NFL game in temperatures below 30 degrees, and the team lost. The team will throw out their playoff game in Minnesota last year as evidence that they know how to play in cold weather. There was, however, very little to be pleased about from that performance. It took a miracle missed field goal to walk away with a low-scoring win.
Seattle does not need this game as much as the Packers need it. The last time we saw that sort of set up on the road, the Bucs embarrassed the Seahawks. This game is more than just a measure of which team is better. It is a gauge to help assess whether the Seahawks have their minds right for the close of this season.
The rise of the tight end
An undercurrent of the Seahawks domination this past weekend was the increasing role of the tight ends. Everyone knows Jimmy Graham, and what he means to the offense. Many people know Luke Willson and his more understated role. Fewer people know rookie Nick Vannett and Brandon Williams. Both players contributed mightily to the offensive explosion on Sunday.
Vannett was drafted by the Seahawks to fill the Zach Miller role of years past. They wanted a physical inline blocker. The pleasant surprise came during mini-camps when Vannett flashed speed, route running ability, and good hands. Various injuries set him back through training camp and to start the season, but he looked like a difference maker against the Panthers. He threw multiple key blocks, including one on the edge to spring Tyler Lockett for a 75-yard touchdown. He also teamed with Graham on double go down the left side of the field and caught a 21-yard pass. Those are two explosive plays that he made significant contributions to. There were others.
Vannett knew it. He could be seen facing the Seahawks sideline after the plays and celebrating each moment. He raised his hands over his head as Lockett raced down the field in front of him. It had the feel of a player who was finally feeling like he was contributing to something meaningful. Nobody knows exactly what to expect from Vannett the rest of the way. That could be a blessing. Opponents are unlikely to account for his blocking or receiving in game plans until he shows up a few weeks in a row. This week is a chance to put together back-to-back solid games.
Williams has been a great special teamer this year and has been a solid blocker when given the opportunity. His role will likely dwindle again as Willson is set to return this week. Seattle utilized three tight ends more than usual against Carolina. They also brought in Rees Odhiambo as a tackle eligible quite a few times. This is part of how they are attempting to recapture the physical mentality that has defined them through the past five years.
It may have been a specific game plan for the Panthers that we will not see much of the rest of the way. I tend to think otherwise. Carroll wants the offense to get more imposing and this is one way to do it.