Seahawks-Packers Divisional Preview
Even before the 49ers’ domination of Minnesota on Saturday, we knew the NFC champion would be coming from either the NFC West or NFC North. With the 5-seed Seahawks traveling to Lambeau, the question now becomes whether Russell Wilson and Seattle can ensure the champ hails from out west. Seattle comes into this game with a lot of questions, with 3 of their last 4 regular season games ending in losses before they handled an injury-depleted Eagles team. Green Bay has been seen as the weakest team to receive a bye in these playoffs by many, but they did win their last 5 games and are now almost fully healthy after the bye.
This offense is, has, and will be all about Russell Wilson, despite the fun factor of Marshawn Lynch’s return to the PNW. Wilson led the Seahawks in both passing and rushing against Philadelphia, going 18-30 for 325 yards and a TD while adding 45 yards on the ground. The rumor is that Pete Carroll and Brian Schottenheimer are going to try to get Lynch and fellow returnee Robert Turbin more involved in this one, but I think that may be more due to the Seahawks’ never-ending commitment to the run and perhaps a bit of fan service by Carroll. That may not be a terrible plan, though, considering Green Bay ended the regular season 23rd in run defense DVOA, compared to their 10th ranked pass defense DVOA mark.
The big story in this game for the Seahawks offense will be whether or not rookie receiver DK Metcalf can continue the momentum of a 7-catch, 160-yard performance against the Eagles last week. Make all the three-cone drill jokes you want, but Seattle has done an excellent job of letting Metcalf do what he does best: run really fast in pretty much straight lines and make defenders look like children. Last week was by far the best game of his young career, and the Seahawks will likely need a performance of a similar caliber from either him or Tyler Lockett if they’re to produce points against this defense.
Seattle’s offensive line remains beat up, as G Mike Iupati is doubtful with a neck injury and OTs Duane Brown and George Fant are questionable. Other than that, the Seahawks should have everyone from last week’s squad available and at their disposal.
This season’s version of Aaron Rodgers isn’t the world-beating cheat code we’ve seen in the past, but that doesn’t mean he’s completely toothless. There are only two quarterbacks left in the playoffs with a better DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) than Rodgers: Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Wilson, the quarterback on the other sideline. The first year of the Matt LaFleur-Rodgers pairing has been full of largely manufactured controversy, as LaFleur has finally installed some modicum of modernity into the offense.
At running back, Aaron Jones has built upon momentum from a strong 2018, breaking the 1,000 yard barrier for the first time in his career thanks to a completely healthy campaign. Jones and backup Jamaal Williams will have to have strong games against the Seahawks’ 26th ranked rush defense due to the lack of proven production at wide receiver. Davante Adams will be on the field, which is always good news for Packers fans, but the receiver spot opposite him and in the slot are huge question marks coming in. Allen Lazard has performed well since being inserted into the starting lineup, but this will be his first playoff game, a mental hurdle that can’t be overlooked. Geronimo Allison, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and Jake Kumerow will also get some run, but Lazard has consistently been the best performer of the 4 and looks to be the best bet in this one. Jimmy Graham might be the X-factor here, as he lost steam during the second half of the season after an alright first half. Perhaps the bye has given the veteran enough rest to have a little extra gas in the tank for this one.
Green Bay reserve running back Dexter Williams is questionable with an illness in this one, as is fullback Dan Vitale with a knee injury and illness. OT Bryan Bulaga is not on the injury report for this one, which is fantastic news for Packers fans. Overall, all the key pieces should be on the field come kickoff.
Seattle is 14th in total defensive DVOA coming into this game, and it’s hard to pin down what they need to do to stop this Packers offense. Focusing on Aaron Jones and the run game gives Aaron Rodgers more time and space down the field to operate, which is never what you want. On the other hand, the lack of wide receiver talent for the Packers means that perhaps the secondary will have an easier time in one-on-one matchups should Seattle sell out on the run. Focusing on Rodgers and the passing game gives Jones too much room to pop off a big run or two, so the best strategy is likely to just play their game and run a balanced gameplan.
The secondary has been much improved since adding S Quandre Diggs at the trade deadline, and with Diggs being a former Detroit Lion, it’s probably safe to assume he’s familiar with how this personnel is going to operate. Linebacker will be a strength for this team as long as Bobby Wagner is on the field, but don’t sleep on outside linebackers KJ Wright or Mychal Kendricks, either. Up front, the pass rush has been the biggest question and it’ll be interesting to see if they can build upon the momentum of 7 sacks last week in Philadelphia. With a healthy Packers offensive line set to go, Jadeveon Clowney especially will need to show up.
Defensive linemen Ziggy Ansah (neck) and Quinton Jefferson (ankle) are questionable in this contest, as is backup free safety Marquis Blair (ankle). If Ansah can’t go, his replacement will likely be Rasheem Green, meaning Clowney and interior linemen Jarran Reed and Poona Ford will have to shoulder even more of the load.
The Packers are 29th in total defensive DVOA, but changing the statistic to weighted defense vaults them all the way up to 16th, which is an overly complicated way to say that this defense has played much better down the stretch this year. This secondary has been excellent, with corners Jaire Alexander and Kevin King providing stability at the corner spot that Green Bay hasn’t seen since the days of Casey Hayward. Dipping their toes into free agency last offseason has paid off in a big way, as all three of Adrian Amos, Preston Smith, and Za’Darius Smith have been key contributors, with the latter two frequently credited for helping change the culture in the locker room. After some injury issues early on, the inside linebackers have gotten healthy, with Blake Martinez and BJ Goodson the likely starters in this one. Up front, Kenny Clark has been a consistent presence and Dean Lowry and Tyler Lancaster have been important role players.
If I’m Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, I’m letting the Seahawks run the ball as much as they want. The more they can keep the ball out of Russell Wilson’s hands, the better, especially when Seattle is playing two guys off the street and a 4th-stringer at running back. The matchup of Alexander and King against DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett will be fascinating to track, as it should be a hard-fought battle where both parties make huge plays. Getting pressure to Wilson will be a point of emphasis as well, especially with Seattle potentially trotting out 3 backups along the offensive line. Last week, the Eagles were only able to produce one sack despite a similar situation, so Green Bay will have to at least do better than that.
Clark (back) and Lancaster (illness) are questionable for this one, which could have huge implications for the Packers run defense. If they can’t go, Montravius Adams and rookie Kingsley Keke figure to be their replacements.
Keys to the Game
1. Get Marshawn Lynch cooking. If the rumors that Seattle wants to run the ball more this week are true, they’ll need the veteran to turn back the clock at least a little bit and break off some big plays.
2. Get the ball away from the Aarons. Rodgers and Jones are the two main players on offense that can kill the Seahawks. Stopping the run and forcing Rodgers to get rid of the ball quickly through aggressive blitzes will be paramount to slowing down this offense. The level of trust in Shaq Griffin and Tre Flowers against Davante Adams will inform how aggressive Seattle gets.
3. Keep Russell Wilson clean. With potentially 3 reserve linemen starting this game, giving Wilson time to operate will be arguably the most important part of this game. Preston and Za’Darius Smith have been wrecking opponents all season, so hopefully Duane Brown will be ready enough to go so that Seattle at least has both starting tackles.
1. Shut down Metcalf. Only Kevin King is big and physical enough to keep Metcalf contained, even with Jaire Alexander’s skill. It wouldn’t surprise me if King follows Metcalf during this game, because the Packers can’t afford to have the rookie streaking downfield. If King sticks to a side, look for Seattle to line Metcalf up against Alexander and hope he wins with his physicality.
2. Get Rodgers rolling. Most of the bad games we’ve seen from the future Hall of Famer this season have been because he couldn’t find a rhythm, either because of playing in a new scheme or with nearly brand-new receivers. A vintage Rodgers performance is likely the best bet for the Packers to feel confident in their chances, so getting him easy completions to start the game and ensuring he feels comfortable in the pocket will be key.
3. Keep the momentum. After winning their last 5 games of the regular season, in which the defense played much better than the start of the year, Green Bay has a lot of momentum. Lambeau is one of, if not the best home-field advantages in the league, which should keep the Packers locked in as well. Keeping living momentum swing Marshawn Lynch contained will be a big part of this, as will a strong first quarter or half.
This is shaping up to be the closest game of the weekend and may very well come down to the final possession. I think we’re in for another instant classic battle between Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson that viewers won’t forget, for better or for worse. The popular sentiment about the Seahawks this year has been that they’re incapable of playing a normal football game, something I don’t see changing in this one. Knowing that, maybe this game will come down to something insane, like a safety, or a missed extra point, or a blocked kick. Maybe it’ll even be an onside kick!
(I had to mention the onside kick, Packers fans. Hope you understand.)
Prediction: Packers 22, Seahawks 20