World’s Best Preview: Versatile Offenses

Tipping the scales at 4,600 words, our preview is overflowing with analysis, quotes and statistics. Leading off: Can Green Bay deal with Marshawn Lynch's running and Russell Wilson's play-action game? Can Eddie Lacy prevent a repeat of the 2012 beating inflicted upon Aaron Rodgers? Plus, penalties, history, turnovers and tons more in the best preview anywhere.

The Green Bay Packers’ defense should be better due to schematic and personnel changes.

At this point, that’s only true on paper. Are the Packers tough enough and disciplined enough? Those answers will become clear against the powerhouse running of Marshawn Lynch and the play-action excellence of Russell Wilson on Thursday night at Seattle.

“I think we have a good group of guys on our side of the ball,” said defensive lineman Mike Daniels, who has become a standout on the field and the voice of the defense in the locker room. “They’re a lot meaner, a lot tougher and everybody’s hungry to get the job done. The complacency from the Super Bowl, that’s all gone. Completely gone.”

“Our mentality is different,” he added. “You watch practice, everybody’s running to the ball, everybody’s got a little bit more of an edge to them. It’s a controlled fury, which is basically what this game is.”

The test for the defense is two-fold.

First, a lighter and more athletic defensive line must help prevent Lynch from pounding away for 4, 5 and 6 yards a pop. Last season, Lynch rushed for 1,257 yards (4.2 average) and 12 touchdowns. He led the NFL by forcing 86 missed tackles — a staggering 19 more than any back — according to ProFootballFocus.com. Green Bay’s defense, which missed far too many tackles, ranked 29th with 4.6 yards allowed per carry.

“That’s the start of their offense right there, a guy like Marshawn Lynch,” linebacker A.J. Hawk said. “People talk about him kind of setting the tone for their offense, especially at home, getting the crowd into it early. We’ve got to find a way to stop the run first, make them one-dimensional, like we say every day. But it’s a lot easier said than done so it’s a big test.”

Second, it must contain a potent play-action passing attack. For Wilson last season, a league-high 34.1 percent of his dropbacks came off of play-action. According to ProFootballFocus.com’s breakdown of play-action stats, Wilson ranked among the league leaders with a 112.3 passer rating, 9.5 yards per pass attempt and 13 touchdowns. His preseason numbers bordered on absurd. With 46.1 percent of his attempts coming on play-action, he posted a 152.1 rating with 13.8 yards per attempt after faking the handoff.

“It’s a huge part of their offense,” Hawk said. “Any time you can run the ball like they can and you’re that successful, play-action is going to be a big part of it. If they can gash you a few times or pound the ball for 5, 6, 7 yards a carry, you’re going to have to start … they want you to try to clamp down and get out of position, then when you do, they’re going to run boots and they’re going to run tight ends and slot receivers down the middle of the field.”

Pick your poison

When these teams met in 2012, the “Fail Mary” provided the appalling ending to a game that, from the perspective of Green Bay’s offense, started in absurd fashion.

Sometimes to his detriment, Packers coach Mike McCarthy is never one to back down from a challenge because he has supreme confidence in his players So, despite a deafening crowd adding extra juice to Seattle’s defense, McCarthy’s game plan was simple. Attack, attack and attack some more through the air to take advantage of his best players (Aaron Rodgers and a deep receiving corps).

Green Bay’s third offensive play was a run by Cedric Benson. From there: sack, pass, pass, pass, sack, pass (but defensive offside), pass, pass (illegal use of hands on the offense), pass, sack, pass, pass, pass, sack. Added together, from the end of Green Bay’s first series of the game to the first series of the second quarter, the Packers attempted to pass on a staggering 14 consecutive plays. To end the first half, the Packers attempted to pass on 10 consecutive plays.

At halftime, the Packers trailed 7-0, with the offense managing just 87 yards. The play selection was asinine: 27 passes (15 attempts, eight sacks and one scramble for 24 official plays, plus three more passes that don’t count because of penalties) and three runs. The Packers rallied in the second half as McCarthy changed his offensive approach. Benson carried 15 times, Rodgers wasn’t sacked and the offense gained 181 yards and scored three times.

Two years ago, the Packers were hoping Benson could provide a decent running attack. Now, the Packers have one of the league’s top running attacks with Eddie Lacy. With Lacy, there will be no need to be so insanely one-dimensional.

“Eddie’s a very good runner and the line’s blocking well, and if we can run the ball, it makes our passing game that much more effective,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. “That’s the history of the game from way back when. If you can do that and keep the defense off-balance, that’s helpful.”

What gives Green Bay’s offense a chance to be successful against Seattle and downright prolific all season is the tandem of Rodgers and Lacy.

Quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt has seen first-hand what can happen when you pair a great quarterback with a great running back. The start of his career as a quarterback with Buffalo came as the great Jim Kelly-Thurman Thomas tandem was winding down.

“I went back two years ago (when he was hired by the Packers) and referenced the K-Gun,” Van Pelt said. “I hate to go back there, because that’s what I know, but Thurman and Jim, you see that now with Andre (Reed) and Jordy (Nelson), and you start to see the pieces come in. The thing about those Buffalo teams you don’t really realize is, they were a top-five rushing team and a top-five passing team in those Super Bowl years. It wasn’t just the K-Gun throwing the ball around; it was Thurman running it, as well. So, to have a dual-threat, run and pass, only makes us more explosive.”

Denver’s offense broke the NFL scoring record last season. Green Bay’s offense in 2011 set all sorts of franchise records. Still, this offense might be the NFL’s best and the best in Packers history because of its ability to dominate in every way imaginable. That makes Thursday’s game against Seattle’s juggernaut defense a true clash of titans.

“You never want to rely on one aspect of your offense over another one. You want to be as well-balanced as you can,” guard T.J. Lang said. “Eddie’s a guy that’s going to be tough to bring down. You know he’s going to fight for every yard he gets and Aaron’s a guy with him and our receivers that, when we give them time, they’re going to make a lot of good things happen. It’s going to be a big challenge for us, I think we all understand that, but we’re confident in our own abilities, what we started last year, what we carried into the preseason, we’re ready to get it rolling now in the regular season.”

Hands-off approach

The Seahawks won the Super Bowl due in part to a physical, smothering secondary.

With that reputation, it seems logical that the NFL had targeted the Seahawks by telling its officials to clamp down on the clutching and grabbing in the passing game.

“No, I don’t feel that at all,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said during a conference call this week, “and I don’t think it’s unfair. It’s just the way the competition committee decided to go. We’re not going to take anything out of that. We’ve worked real hard at adapting. We had a very good preseason in terms of penalties and stuff in that area. So, we’ve got to compete to do things right.”

The penalty numbers back up Carroll’s statement and show that the Packers’ secondary might be the one with some issues on Thursday.

According to the league’s statistical service, the Packers were flagged seven times for defensive holding (No. 21 in the league), four times for pass interference (No. 22) and three times for illegal contact (No. 11) in the preseason.

Seattle, on the other hand, either has adapted beautifully to the league’s mandate or it’s getting the benefit of the doubt based on reputation. The Seahawks were penalized three times for illegal contact (No. 11), twice for pass interference (No. 7) and zero times for pass interference (No. 1).

Moreover, Seattle’s starting secondary of cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell and safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor were not flagged at all in the preseason. Green Bay’s starting secondary of cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Sam Shields and safeties Morgan Burnett and Micah Hyde were flagged three times – all pass-interference penalties against Shields. It becomes a tie when nickel personnel are included, with Seattle’s Jeremy Lane flagged a whopping four times (pass interference, taunting, illegal use of hands and illegal contact) and Green Bay’s Casey Hayward just once (holding).

McCarthy said “the progression of calls … did come down some” through the preseason and that the “point’s been made” by the officials that grabbing no longer will be tolerated.

“No, it didn’t affect anything” from a coaching standpoint, McCarthy said. “You don’t teach people to grab jerseys. It’s like anything – you have rules and you have rules that are being emphasized. If something isn’t being emphasized, you grab the jersey. They weren’t emphasizing it before. So now they’re emphasizing don’t grab the jersey, so you don’t grab the jersey. It’s really as simple as that. The communication between the officials and the players and the coaches, they’ve been very upfront and made their point in the preseason about what they’re looking for and it’s our job to teach it that way.”

Williams, who ranked ninth in the league and second among defensive backs last season with 11 penalties, was assuming the worst. While the league has said both defensive backs and receivers will be under tighter scrutiny, the reality is the defensive backs will be the ones being penalized. His plan is to play his game and adjust accordingly, based on how the officials are policing the action.

“Obviously, they threw a lot of flags this preseason trying to emphasis what they wanted,” he said. “Initially when they came in, they were emphasizing that we’re going to call the defensive penalties but we’re going to look out for the offensive penalties, also. But when they really got down to it, realistically, it’s just going to go on the defensive side of the ball. We know that. You just have to adjust to it. I’m not going to really adjust my game too much. I’m going to play my game, but if I get some calls that I feel I shouldn’t get, then obviously I’ve got to make that adjustment.”

History lessons

— McCarthy made a bold statement following the Packers’ victory over Kansas City to close the preseason.

“I don’t know if I’ve felt this good coming out of the preseason as I do tonight,” McCarthy said.

That’s in stark contrast to the same point the past two seasons, and it showed up in the opening games. Last season, the Packers started 1-2 and didn’t look sharp in wins over undermanned Detroit and punchless Baltimore. In 2012, they were 1-2 after the Fail Mary game and 2-3 after falling apart at Indianapolis.

Still, during McCarthy’s tenure, the Packers are 17-10 in September. That’s tied for the sixth-best winning percentage (.630) in the league. Seattle has been a great September team, too. Going back to 2004, Seattle is 22-11 in September. Only New England (23-8) and Indianapolis (22-10) have been better.

During that span — the Packers are not among them after going 1-5 in September under Mike Sherman in 2004 and 2005 — six teams have a winning percentage of at least .600 through the season’s first month. Those clubs have combined for 39 playoff berths and nine Super Bowl appearances, including four Super Bowl championships.

— This will be the 11th time that the defending champions have kicked off the season in a made-for-TV, Thursday night clash. The champs are 8-2 in that game. One of the losses came last year, when the Ravens — forced to go on the road because of a scheduling conflict with baseball’s Orioles — lost at Denver.

— For the fifth consecutive season, the Packers will open the season against a team that reached the playoffs the previous year. Green Bay won at Philadelphia in 2010 and at home against New Orleans in 2011 but lost at home to San Francisco in 2012 and at San Francisco in 2013.

“Your opening game is important. You put a lot of work into it,” McCarthy said. “I think you also have to be in-tune with it’s one of 16. I think the biggest thing is you want to come out and establish the quality of play that you were able to build up through the preseason, so we definitely want to take a step there. But, ultimately, it’s about winning. We want to win every game and it starts this week in Seattle.”

— While Seattle has won five consecutive home openers, the Packers are 53-38-2 in their first road game of the season. That’s the most wins in NFL history and the fourth-best winning percentage (.582).

The other sideline

Winning the Super Bowl is great. Winning two, whether it’s back-to-back or over a short timeframe, is what separates the great teams from the all-time great teams.

Not since the Packers of a few years ago has there been a team with this good of a chance of repeating as Super Bowl champions. The defense is all-time good, Wilson and Lynch provide stars on offense and the team is young — the youngest team in the league last season.

“We’re aware of the fact that it’s been such a challenge in the last 10 years,” Carroll said. “So, we have our way of dealing with it. There’s no goal in mind of how many years you’ve got to win a championship or anything like that. We’re just trying to be the best we can be and see how far that takes us. That’s not changing, that’s not going to change, and hopefully we can find a consistency in a manner and in our discipline that will allow us to at least play to the ability of our team and not get messed up and sidetracked and distracted along the way.”

As Peyton Manning can attest, it all starts with Seattle’s defense. The Seahawks led the league last season with 14.4 points allowed per game, 273.6 yards allowed per game, 172.0 passing yards allowed per game and 39 takeaways. Seattle’s worst area on defense was third down, where it ranked “just” 10th. For additional perspective on that dominance, the Seahawks were the only team to allow less than 300 yards per game — Seattle allowed 27.7 yards less than second-ranked Carolina.

“(General manager) John Schneider has done a great job in helping us assemble the group that we have,” Carroll said. “We’ve been able to pick out guys who fit our style that we like. We have adapted to them as much as anything, but we found guys with style, with some strengths. So we’ve tried to play to that as much as possible. That would be speaking to the corners, and also the two safeties that we have. Those guys are totally different football players, but they fit real well with us, and we’ve found a way to help them contribute. We’ll try to get that going and all cranked up again this year.”

Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” secondary will provide an incredibly stiff challenge for Rodgers. Sherman, Thomas and Chancellor were All-Pros last season. Since entering the league in 2011, Sherman has 20 interceptions — five more than any player in the league — including back-to-back seasons of eight picks.

“You want to go against the guys who consider themselves the best in the league or whatever the case may be,” receiver Jarrett Boykin said. “You want to go out there and prove yourself over and over, whether it’s Seattle or any other team. Each and every day, you want to go out there and compete to be good.”

— With a powerhouse running game and a championship defense, it would be easy to look at Wilson’s stats and assume he’s little more than a game-manager — a very good game-manager — but not an upper-echelon quarterback.

Even Wilson seems to play along.

“I just try to do my part,” he said during his conference call. “That's always the case, whether I've got to throw it 40 or 50 times or just 25 to 30 times. There's a balanced attack to it, and that's what we do so well. With a great defense, we have a physical running game, we have a great play-action game, we try to get the ball out on time. Obviously, going into Year 3, I've learned so much more, I've played in so many big games and been a part of something special. Even though it's Year 3, even though it's one day down the road to Year 18 or 20, I want to treat it like it's Day 1, like I always have, and continue to take notes and continue to learn and continue to ask questions.”

While Wilson might not have a zillion passing yards in his first two seasons, his numbers are impressive, nonetheless. With passer ratings of 100.0 as a rookie in 2012 and 101.2 last season, he’s the only quarterback in NFL history with back-to-back 100-plus ratings in his first two years in the league. Incredibly, only Dan Marino (68) has thrown more touchdown passes than Wilson (52) by a quarterback in his first two seasons.

“The fact that he would say that would really fall in line with the way these guys like to look at the makeup of our team,” Carroll said. “We’re very fortunate with the guys that we have, and Russell’s an extraordinary leader and an amazing kid to be coaching. It’s the thrill of a coach’s life to have a guy like that that you’re battling with each week. I wouldn’t expect him to say anything different than that, really.”

With his ability to extend plays with his athleticism, he’s similar to Rodgers.

“He’s one of the best in the league at doing so,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “You see that if his read’s not there, he’s tucking it. He’s very smart with the ball. I think that’s what’s most important about his game and what allows them and their offense to excel is that he’s able to extend the play — whether that’s pulling it down and letting his receivers come uncovered as well as tucking it and just getting yardage and not taking unnecessary hits. We know he’s going to make his plays but, at the end of the day, we have to do a better job of keeping him contained and keeping him in the pocket.”

— It’s hard to say what’s sillier — going by the nickname of “Beast Mode” or eating Skittles during games — but Lynch is one bad man with the ball in his hands.

Among the statistical highlights: In his last 41 games, he’s rushed for 100-plus yards 19 times (plus five other games of at least 97 yards); he’s the only back in the league with three consecutive seasons of 1,000 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns; he leads the NFL with 39 total touchdowns the past three seasons.

In many ways, he’s similar to Lacy.

“Lynch is a rare guy with his ability to plant his foot and go downhill on you, and you’ve got to be conscious — I mean this guy can run through tackles,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “He’s always moving his feet. He’s always moving north and south. He’s the perfect runner for their scheme. They’ve got a zone, downhill running scheme. He’s kind of where everything gets started.”

— Because of a hip injury, Percy Harvin played in just three games for the Seahawks last year. He touched the ball just 10 times but piled up 242 total yards — or 24.2 yards per touch. His biggest play was an 85-yard kickoff return touchdown in the Super Bowl.

“We have history with Percy (during his days with the Vikings),” cornerback Tramon Williams said. “First and foremost, excellent, tough, tough player. Obviously, he’s a key factor to their offense. It showed in the run to the Super Bowl; he was a big, big factor. We know he’s going to be involved in the game and we’re preparing for it. For a guy like Percy, you can just try to contain him. You’ve got to expect him to try to get loose at some point. You can’t get too rattled with that. Just have to get him down on the ground.”

In a way, he’s similar to the Packers’ Randall Cobb.

“Harvin’s one of those guys who has running back ability when he gets the ball in his hands,” Capers said. “It doesn’t take him long to transition from catching the ball to getting up the field. And he’s strong, he’s hard to get on the ground.”

Noteworthy numbers

— Since 2005, Seattle’s first season at CenturyLink Field, opponents have been guilty of 1.83 false starts per game. That’s tops in the league, ahead of two familiar foes: Minnesota (1.80) and Detroit (1.61).

The Packers’ offense will combat that by going no-huddle, figuring signaling plays is a better bet than trying to shout through the crowd noise.

“Really, it’d be tougher to huddle and communicate verbally,” Van Pelt said. “A lot of ours are visual and signaling, so I think it’d actually be easier. Think of someone who’s hearing impaired, to go out and do sign language, they can understand you from across the field, as opposed to if you’re in the huddle trying to yell it. We’ve practiced in it, we’re ready for it. Obviously, we know the challenge that we’re going to face, and that’s part of getting ready in training camp and all the practice we’ve had on Seattle. So, I think we’re well-prepared.”

— Rodgers hasn’t been daunted by road games. Rodgers, who boasts the NFL’s best overall career passer rating, also ranks No. 1 all-time with a career rating of 101.0 on the road. Since taking over as the starter in 2008, he’s No. 1 in the league with 3.10 touchdowns per interception (90 touchdowns vs. 29 interceptions), and is second with a 101.7 rating, 90 touchdowns and 8.16 yards per attempt.

— Wilson has 24 regular-season wins, most in NFL history by a quarterback in his first two seasons. (Andrew Luck and Ben Roethlisberger are tied for second with 22.) Throw playoffs into the equation, and Wilson’s 28 wins also top the chart, followed by Roethlsiberger’s 27 and Joe Flacco, Luck and Marino a distant third with 23 wins.

— Not that the Packers need to be reminded — think “Fail Mary” — but the Seahawks are a clutch fourth-quarter team. Only Luck (11) has more fourth-quarter/overtime game-winning drives than Wilson (10) among quarterbacks in their first two seasons.

Four-point stance

— From 2009 through 2012 — the first four seasons of Capers’ tenure — the Packers dominated the turnover ledger.

Green Bay was plus-24 in 2009, nine better than any team in the league. In the Super Bowl season of 2010, Green Bay was a fourth-ranked plus-10. When the Packers threatened going undefeated in 2011, it was due in part to a second-ranked plus-24. In 2012, Green Bay was “only” plus-7. That gave them a four-year total of plus-65. Last season, however, was a major step in the wrong direction as they stumbled to a minus-3. Still, over the last five seasons, Green Bay is a second-ranked plus-62. That stat means everything. Under McCarthy, Green Bay is 58-7-1 when winning the turnover battle, 15-11 when even and 9-27 when losing.

Seattle is now the undisputed champions of the giveaway-takeaway battle, due in large part to their brilliant secondary. The Seahawks were a league-best plus-20 last season. They won the turnover battle in 11 of 16 games, going 10-1 in those contests. In four seasons under Carroll, Seattle is 27-4 when winning the turnover battle.

“This defense thrives on turnovers and getting after you and hitting you and getting you off your spot, and you have to make accurate throws through windows that are even tighter with the amount of ground that they can cover,” Rodgers said. “So you have to be accurate and you have to play smart and not turn the football over."

— These are two of the NFL’s elite teams. Since 2010, Green Bay has qualified for the playoffs four times, won three NFC North titles, earned 44 regular-season victories and captured a Super Bowl. Seattle has qualified for the playoffs three times, won two NFC West crowns, earned 38 wins and hoisted one Super Bowl trophy. Seattle, Green Bay, San Francisco and Atlanta are the only NFC teams with three playoffs berths and two division titles since 2010.

— Thrust into the starting lineup, Packers rookie center Corey Linsley will face a major challenge in his debut. Seattle’s Brandon Mebane ranks fifth among interior defensive linemen with 157 tackles over the past three seasons.

“I do feel confident about my physical abilities,” Linsley said. “It’s the NFL. Everybody is going to get beat once in a while. I don’t think I’m to the point of a once-in-a-while guy, because I think you’re talking about Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang, (who are) All-Pro, Pro Bowl kind of guys. I do feel confident that strength is not an issue and quickness and everything is not an issue. That plays into the mental part, too. I can be as strong and as quick as I want, but if I’m going in the wrong direction, that doesn’t mean anything. The strength and the quickness will get even better as I move forward in my mental preparation.”

— Green Bay’s special teams had better be on alert. In his first four seasons as Seattle’s coordinator, Brian Schneider’s units lead the NFL with 10 touchdowns/safeties scored, are tied for the NFL lead with 13 blocked kicks and are tied for second with 11 takeaways. Green Bay’s kickoff unit, which ranked 32nd in opponent starting field position last year, will be tested by Harvin, who boasts a 28.2-yard average with five touchdowns in his first five seasons.

Quoteworthy

Daniels, on trying to duplicate Seattle’s defensive reputation: “If you’re anything associated with an NFL defense and you watched the Super Bowl and didn’t take notes, you probably don’t belong here, because they showed how you get it done. They didn’t do anything special. There was no crazy this or that. They rushed four, they blitzed every now and then, and then their defensive backfield was there to intimidate and the linebackers were there to fill gaps and make plays. They all hustled to the football. Everybody thoroughly, thoroughly looked like they were having fun and they enjoyed being there. Every tackle was like a celebration; they threw a party after every play. That’s kind of how you have to be. You have to love this game. If you don’t love it, it will show.”

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