Seattle Rushing Offense
When discussing Seattle's strengths, most point initially to the Seahawks' defense. Some even mention the unit in historical terms, comparing Seattle's squad to legendary defenses like the 1985 Chicago Bears or the Minnesota Vikings' Purple People Eaters of the 1960s and 1970s. Seattle's run game rarely gets this kind of praise and yet, from a statistical standpoint, Marshawn Lynch and Co. have been every bit as impressive this season for the Seahawks.
Seattle not only led the NFL in rushing yards per game (172.6), it obliterated the competition. The Seahawks ran for 25.5 yards more per game than the second-placed Dallas Cowboys. Take this number away from Dallas' total (147.1) and they'd slip to 10th on the NFL's list. Further, Seattle led the NFL in big runs (six of 40-plus yards), the percentage of their first downs gained by runs (27.4) and rushing touchdowns (20).
Lynch, of course, deserves much of the credit. It remains to be seen if he'll play long enough to earn Hall of Fame consideration, but since the Seahawks stole him from Buffalo for a fourth-round pick in 2011 and a fifth-round pick in 2012, he's played at a Canton-worthy level. Lynch consistently generates yardage after contact, helping him develop his well-earned "Beast Mode" reputation for brute power and determination. Rarely, however, does he get enough credit for his balance, lateral agility and acceleration.
Much of Lynch's production comes out of one-back sets, though when Seattle does use a fullback, former defensive end Will Tukuafu (6-2, 280 pounds) has demonstrated impressive awareness, surprisingly quick feet and, of course, pure power, to pave lanes for Lynch to exploit. He's one of many savvy pickups this season by general manager John Schneider and his staff, as the Seahawks' returning starter from a year ago — Derrick Coleman — was lost to a broken foot.
Much of Seattle's success in the running game is a direct result of Russell Wilson's athleticism and awareness. Wilson — who rushed for a career-high 849 yards and six touchdowns over the regular season — is a constant threat to scramble when the play breaks down and is one of the league's best at the read-option. Wilson possesses extraordinary spatial awareness, protecting the football and himself from big hits, frequently extending the ball to get an extra yardage as he runs out of bounds or sliding just before defenders launch. Wilson hasn't loss a single fumble in a combined 599 pass/run attempts this season.
The Seahawks have endured more than their share of injuries along the offensive line this season, losing Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung and center Max Unger for multiple games apiece. The preferred starting five is expected to be ready for Sunday's matchup, though rookie right tackle Justin Britt was limited in practice earlier this week with a knee injury.
According to Pro Football Focus, Britt has actually performed better as a run blocker this season than Okung. Prior to the 2014 draft, I compared Britt to Green Bay's David Bakhtiari, as each plays with grit and physicality. Just as Bakhtiari "surprised" a year ago as a full-time starter in Green Bay, Britt has earned the nod in all 17 games for the Seahawks. He's been aided by the play of right guard J.R. Sweezy, whose agility and aggression has made him a favorite of Tom Cable, Seattle's offensive line coach. Left guard James Carpenter, a former first-round pick and pending free agent, has enjoyed his best season in Seattle.
Green Bay's Rush Defense
For Green Bay's defense, the season was a tale of two halves, with the dividing point coming smack-dab in the middle of the season.
Through eight games, the Packers ranked 32nd in the league against the run. That includes an unsightly 207 rushing yards in Week 1 at Seattle, when the Packers were tinkering with a 4-3 alignment. By season's end, with the 4-3 long since discarded, they moved up to 23rd. That might not sound good but, over the final eight games, the Packers ranked fifth with 86.4 rushing yards allowed per game and sixth with 3.60 yards allowed per carry.
Why? Simple. In the first half of the season, A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore played most of the snaps at inside linebacker. In the second half of the season, defensive coordinator Dom Capers made the bold move of moving Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews inside and pairing him with second-year player Sam Barrington while reducing Hawk's role.
Matthews, a perennial Pro Bowler, had his best season. Moving him inside on a part-time basis was an inspired move, which was evident in the first game after the bye. Against the Bears, who rushed for 235 yards and 6.4 yards per carry in the Week 4 game, Matthews had 10 tackles to help hold them to 55 rushing yards and 2.4 per carry. Up next were the Eagles, with explosive LeSean McCoy. Green Bay held them to 109 rushing yards and 3.5 per carry.
Matthews is bigger, faster and stronger than every inside linebacker on the roster. He hits harder and tackles better, and he's better in coverage. Other than Hawk, perhaps, Matthews is smarter than all of them, too. Barrington was a good addition, as well. He lacks Matthews' speed but certainly doesn't lack Matthews' ability to deliver a blow. The coaches thought so highy of him that they inserted into the starting lineup for the game against the Patriots in late November. If a player can pass the Tom Brady test, he can pass any test.
The defensive line was supposed to be anchored by B.J. Raji, the ninth pick of the 2009 draft. However, he sustained a season-ending biceps injury during the third preseason game. It took a while for his replacement, Letroy Guion, to settle in — especially after missing most of the preseason — but he's been excellent during the second half of the season. Third-year defensive end Mike Daniels is the unit's best defender as he uses his (lack of) height and strength to beat offensive linemen. In 2013, the Packers used a first-round pick on Datone Jones but 2013 fifth-rounder Josh Boyd is the better player against the run.
Capers could move Matthews inside because he's got depth at outside linebacker with offseason addition Julius Peppers playing so well. Peppers and fellow outside linebackers Mike Neal and Nick Perry are going to have to be on top of their games to stymie the physicality and misdirection of Seattle's running attack. Peppers looked lost at time in the Week 1 game.
Cornerbacks Sam Shields and Tramon Williams have played so well in coverage that safety Morgan Burnett is free to bolster the run defense as an in-the-box defender. The fifth-year pro is having his best season. First-round safety HaHa Clinton-Dix brings more physicality to a defense that was woefully short of that element the past three seasons.
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