Sunday’s showdown between NFL heavyweights could turn into a hard-hitting game of chess.
The prized pieces are Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman and Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews. Matthews’ diverse skill-set is well-known. Whether it’s sacking the quarterback, running down running backs from behind or intercepting passes, he’s one of the best all-around defenders in the game. Sherman has played primarily on the left side in establishing himself as the NFL’s premier cornerback but is showing more diversity by moving into the slot.
Sherman’s new role is the ultimate game of chess by Seattle coach Pete Carroll. In the three losses to the Seahawks over the past three seasons, the Packers’ passing game couldn’t get it done even with Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb on the field together. Is it realistic to think the Packers’ passing game will be the difference-making unit without Nelson? If Carroll puts Sherman in the slot, where he’d match up against Cobb, it would be the equivalent of going for check-mate.
“I have a good idea that he may” follow him into the slot, Cobb said on Thursday. “He’s shown that in Week 1 (against St. Louis), he showed a little bit in the Super Bowl that it’s a possibility. He’s still a great player. It’s going to provide a challenge.”
Cobb is the NFL’s premier slot target. Last season, his 75 catches, 1,067 yards, 2.13 yards per pass route and eight touchdowns when lining up in the slot were league-leading figures by significant margins in all four categories. Without Nelson, he’s obviously the marquee weapon for Aaron Rodgers.
“It’s a great challenge for him to play against one of the best corners in the league,” quarterbacks/receivers coach Alex Van Pelt said. “That’s something he’s looking forward to. Randall’s never backed down from anything or anybody. I can’t wait to see it if he does go into the slot. We’re ready. We’ll take that matchup. He’s a talented player, there’s no question about it, but so is Randall.”
If Sherman lines up against Cobb, what will that do to the passing game? Remember, Rodgers didn’t throw a single pass in Sherman’s direction in Week 1 of last season. In the NFC Championship Game, Rodgers targeted Sherman twice. One was for a 6-yard gain to Nelson. The other was an end-zone interception to Davante Adams in which Rodgers thought he had a free play. That’s a total of 82 passing plays but just two passes at Sherman. Are Adams, James Jones and Richard Rodgers ready to carry the passing load if Rodgers doesn’t go to Cobb?
“I don’t think anybody’s afraid of me,” Sherman said during his conference call on Wednesday. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s just in his progressions, other guys may have come open. It could be a number of factors.”
From Cobb’s perspective, this is a challenge he’s embracing – even while nursing a sprained shoulder. At 6-foot-3, Sherman is at least 4 inches taller than just about every slot defender in the league, so that height and length will make for a different challenge for Cobb and Rodgers.
“I’ve got to study and get dialed in,” Cobb said. “He’s a long player, longer arms, he has good range. It’s a little bit more field that he has to work with now, so I’m sure it’s going to provide a challenge for him as it is for me.”
On the other side of the ball, of the many things that went wrong in Green Bay’s implausible loss in the NFC Championship Game, chief among them was losing Matthews to a litany of injuries at the end of regulation. Matthews missed the final 4 minutes of regulation, with Seattle scoring two touchdowns to turn a 19-7 deficit into a 22-19 lead. Marshawn Lynch ran four times for 45 yards, including the go-ahead, 24-yard touchdown, during that sequence. On the touchdown, it appeared A.J. Hawk – who was playing for Matthews – should have filled the gap that Lynch waltzed through en route to the end zone.
In Week 1 at Chicago, Matthews was at his full-throttle best. According to the coaches’ count, he led the team with 10 tackles and he showed his incredible blend of instincts, athleticism and skill with the pivotal interception. Against Seattle, he’ll be a crucial part of Green Bay’s defensive plan. Against the run, he must come up big against Marshawn Lynch – especially with the other inside linebacker, Nate Palmer, playing with less than two healthy hands. If Green Bay can stop Lynch, it can go after quarterback Russell Wilson. The Packers sacked him five times in the championship game and the Rams sacked him six times last week. Seattle’s weakness is its offensive line, which we’ll get into later.
“You can tell by the way St. Louis played that they played fearless,” Matthews said. “And they’ve got a great defensive line. They’ve got studs up and down the line, so that obviously helps. But really, you’ve got to force them into third-and-long situations where you can turn the pass rush loose. I think you saw that last year in the playoff game when we were able to have success. But you put him in manageable situations and Marshawn as well as Russell with how smart he is tucking and running, they’ll make you pay. So it’s really about winning first and second down. Last week we didn’t do a good enough job of that and obviously put ourselves in bad situations in third downs. So if we can eliminate that, we should have a pretty good shot.”
THE BEAST IS BACK
If the Packers-Seahawks rematch is the obvious plotline, the subplot will be Green Bay’s defense trying to tackle Lynch after giving up 141 rushing yards to Chicago’s Matt Forte last week.
Back in 2010, when the Packers just happened to be down a running back with Ryan Grant’s season-ending ankle injury, the Seahawks acquired Lynch in a trade that’s become one of the all-time heists. Buffalo received fourth- and fifth-round draft picks. And Seattle? Since the start of the 2011 season, Lynch leads the NFL with 5,430 rushing yards (LeSean McCoy is next with 5,116), 24 100-yard rushing games (Arian Foster is next with 23) and 56 total touchdowns (Dez Bryant is next with 50).
At merely 215 pounds, Lynch is arguably pound-for-pound the baddest man in the league. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Lynch broke 88 tackles last season. DeMarco Murray was a distant second with 67, and Lynch’s total was almost 40 more than Eddie Lacy’s sixth-ranked 49.
“He’s an extraordinary athlete,” Carroll said. “He’s got unbelievable power. He’s got such a style about the way he runs. He’s just built with a great base under him and he’s got this great attitude about him and he’s such a powerful athlete. You might not realize he’s a really good all-around athlete. He’s a great hand-eye guy, he can do everything. He’s a basketball player, he can play baseball, he can do anything. He uses all of those natural abilities to go along with such an exceptional frame that he plays with and he’s just not slowing down at all. So, we’re lucky to have him.”
The Packers were right in the middle of the pack last season with 7.5 missed tackles per game. But in two encounters with Seattle, Lynch broke a total of 22 – including 14 in the championship game. Green Bay missed 12 tackles by our count against the Bears; PFF was much kinder by counting eight. However you tally it up, bringing down Lynch is going to be a daunting challenge for a defense that ranks No. 31 in the league against the run.
“He’s their tempo setter,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “He’s a violent runner and you just can’t ever relax. You’ve got to get the second and third guy there. He’s one of those guys that breaks a lot of tackles if you’ve got only one guy there. You’ve got to get the second and third guys coming with good leverage. He’s very strong, he can jump cut and a guy that size, if he can get his body moving downhill on you, he can turn a 2-yard gain into a 6-yard gain real easy.”
There are reasons for hope from Green Bay’s perspective. First, the Packers finished fifth against the run and sixth in yards allowed per carry during the second half of last season. Other than Sam Barrington, who was placed on injured reserve on Tuesday, all of the main characters from that renaissance are back. Second, Seattle’s offensive line looks like a potential sore spot. Lynch and Co. averaged merely 3.9 yards per carry in Week 1, and he was stuffed on the critical fourth-and-1 against St. Louis. Now, it’s worth noting that the Rams’ defensive line is one of the best in the league. Still, Lynch isn’t quite invincible. The Packers showed that by bottling him up for the first three quarters of the NFC Championship Game.
Can they do it for four quarters after watching Forte run wild for two-plus quarters?
“It’s always a challenge,” nose tackle B.J. Raji said. “That’s the beauty of playing in this league. You hit your goal or you don’t and you correct, then the next week you look up and you’ve got another back like Marshawn coming in. It forces you to have to get over what happened last week fairly quickly because you don’t want to repeat that. We’re definitely excited for the challenge.”
THE GRAHAM FACTOR
The Packers have lost three times to Seattle in the past three seasons. In two of them, Green Bay’s defense played well enough to win the game: the 14-12 verdict in the Fail Mary Game in 2012 and January’s NFC Championship Game, which the Packers led 19-7 after forcing their fifth turnover with 4 minutes to go.
The challenge will be much bigger – literally and figuratively – this week for Capers’ defense. Seattle made a dramatic upgrade to a rather ho-hum offense by acquiring star tight end Jimmy Graham from the Saints. It came at a cost much greater than the Lynch deal, with Seattle sending center Max Unger and a first-round pick to New Orleans, but quarterback Russell Wilson finally has a premier target.
“I think he gives them a real target in the passing game,” Capers said. “When you’ve got a big, tall, athletic guy like him, it becomes a matchup issue at times. I just think that with their running game and the double threat of either Lynch of Wilson, you add him into the passing game, it gives you another difference-maker that you’ve got to account for.”
Graham is like a 24-hour ATM. He’s always open. At 6-foot-7, defending the former college basketball player is an impossible task. He’s had at least 85 receptions in each of the past four seasons with a total of 46 touchdowns. In three career games against Green Bay, he’s been held somewhat in check – 16 receptions for 191 yards and two touchdowns. In last season’s loss at New Orleans, Graham had five catches for 59 yards, including a 22-yard touchdown. Those aren’t dominant numbers but his presence can’t be overstated. In that game, Drew Brees was 27-of-32 for 311 yards and three touchdowns and the Saints piled up almost 500 yards.
“He’s a marvelous target and he’s a great competitor,” Carroll said. “He’s got such range of athleticism. It’s just a natural fit. He’d be a natural fit on everybody’s team because he can do everything and he looks great doing it. He’s 6-6-something and he just looks so open even when guys are around him. Because he’s such a big target, the quarterback is just finding that really friendly and they’re going to him and it really works. It just hasn’t been a difficult transition at all. We’re hoping he’ll just continue to fit in there, and we have to learn how to use him right as we go and get better at it, but it sure is obvious that you want to fit him in.”
THE OTHER SIDELINE
-- While Wilson undoubtedly has benefitted from an elite defense, it’s unfair to point to that as the major reason why he is the fastest quarterback to 36 victories in NFL history.
Here are some noteworthy numbers since Wilson took over the quarterback position as a rookie in 2012:
-- His 98.3 passer rating trails only Rodgers (109.5), Peyton Manning (106.7), Brees (98.9) and Tony Romo (98.8).
-- His 73 touchdown passes are the sixth-most by a quarterback in his first 49 starts.
-- Fifteen of his wins have come either in overtime or in come-from-behind fashion in the fourth quarter. That count, which includes the Fail Mary Game in 2012 and last year’s NFC Championship Game, is tied with Romo for tops in the league, with Andrew Luck a distant third with 12.
With back-to-back NFC championships on his resume, the Seahawks handed Wilson a four-year contract extension worth $87.6 million in late July. Now comes the challenge for Carroll and general manager John Schneider – and it’s the same one conquered by Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson with Rodgers’ contract. Can the Seahawks remain an elite team when the quarterback no longer is being paid the relative peanuts that come with a rookie contract? Wilson’s cap number went from $817,000 in 2014 to $7.05 million in 2015 to $18.5 million in 2016. That’s about $17.68 million in cap space that has been shifted to the quarterback position.
“This is a long, drawn-out plan that we’ve put together and it’s been done in stages and with a real direction and purpose,” Carroll said. “John’s done a fantastic job orchestrating the year-to-year plan. We set out, geez, four years ago now, we told our guys somewhere in the middle of the year that this is the core of guys we’re going to build this team around and we’ll add to it as we go, but we’re going to try to keep it together. So, that’s what we’ve done.
“With organization and system and discipline, John’s been able to put us in a position where we’re going to play with young players. We believe in playing with young players, we have no problem with that. And so the whole formula has really showed itself. And it’s worked out really well. Russell signing, we planned on that all along, that was going to happen and we budgeted to make it so we could keep our other guys. We turned right around and got Bobby Wagner done, another core guy who joined us. So, unfortunately, it doesn’t please everybody, but it’s a plan and we’re seeing if we can really make this thing work over a long period of time.”
-- Seattle’s defense isn’t just good. It’s all-time great. The Seahawks have led the NFL in scoring defense in each of the past three seasons, a feat accomplished just twice in NFL history: the Cleveland Browns from 1953 through 1957 and the Minnesota Vikings from 1969 through 1971.
That dominance was demonstrated against the Packers last season. Green Bay led the NFL in scoring with 30.4 points per game but managed a grand total of 38 in two games.
Seattle led the NFL in yards allowed and yards per play, and they were first in passing yards per game and second in passing yards per attempt. The secret is speed. The Seahawks are a track team on turf. Just look at the 40-yard dash times of their starting linebackers: Outside linebacker Bruce Irvin (first round, 2012) ran in 4.41, middle linebacker Bobby Wagner (second round, 2012) ran in 4.46 and outside linebacker Wright (fourth round, 2011) ran in 4.75. Irvin and Wagner’s times are faster than four of the Packers’ five starting defensive backs.
“It’s tough,” Van Pelt said of facing that speed. “They’re a good, solid defense. They have some great players in their core and their secondary and they pay with speed. … I don’t know if you can get the full defensive speed that they have with our scout teams but you can put people in different positions to utilize the strengths that are most similar to the Seahawks’ defense.”
-- The Seahawks’ defense is more than just the “Legion of Boom” secondary. Want to run against them? Forget it. Seattle ranked third in rushing per game and second in rushing per attempt last season. Other than receiver Tavon Austin’s 16-yard touchdown run, the Rams didn’t do a thing against Seattle’s front last week, with the Rams limited to 76 yards on 26 attempts.
Seattle took care of Lacy in both matchups last season. In Week 1, Lacy was held to 34 yards on 12 attempts (2.8 average; long of 15) and 11 yards on three receptions (3.7 average; long of 12). In the playoffs, Lacy gained 73 yards on 21 attempts (3.5 average; long of 13) and didn’t catch a pass.
While Green Bay will be without right tackle Bryan Bulaga, Seattle will be without holdout safety Kam Chancellor. At 6-foot-3 and 232 pounds, he’s got linebacker-like size and acts as the enforcer on the defense. It’s a big drop-off to his replacement, Dion Bailey.
“He’s definitely a huge part of that defense,” Lacy said of Chancellor. “They’ve still been able to make plays without him being there, but that can’t be something that we focus on. We’ve got to go in with our game plan, knowing we can execute.”
-- Seattle’s weakness is its offensive line. No quarterback was sacked more last week than Wilson, and he faced pressure on 23 of his 53 dropbacks, according to ProFootballFocus.com. Veteran left tackle Russell Okung allowed two sacks and right tackle Garry Gilliam, making just his second regular-season start, allowed another. Combined, they were charged with 16 total pressures. Both of the guards, Justin Britt and J.R. Sweezy, gave up sacks, as well.
“Gregg Williams gets after it and sends a bunch of stuff and it makes it hard on you,” Carroll said of the Rams’ defensive coordinator. “That was a great challenge for us to start with. Our guys were kind of pointing at it the whole time and it was still hard. You just have to kind of survive that one, but our guys are definitely going to get better because of it. It’s going to be another challenge. Dom knows exactly how to make it hard on you, too. We’re going to be challenged. We’ll make some mistakes at times and we’re going to try to overcome them with good plays and good fortune and all that. We’re going to grow and make this a really good line as we get down into the season.”
-- The recent history of this series has been authored in Seattle. Now, the Packers get their chance to host Seattle. Green Bay went undefeated at home last season, usually in dominating fashion. Rodgers, especially, has been a juggernaut at Lambeau Field. Dating to Dec. 2, 2012, Rodgers has thrown 418 passes without an interception. During that span, he threw 36 touchdown passes. Both are league records.
“He has extraordinary vision. He sees everything,” Carroll said. “When you can match it up with the ability to move like he can move to give himself a second and third chance at plays, and then he’s got extraordinary accuracy. He’s always been just a naturally accurate thrower. It just makes him the best guy in the league. He’s the most difficult guy to play against us and he’s unpredictable because he is so athletic. It’s just a nightmare trying to figure him out.”
Last season, Rodgers threw 25 touchdown passes with zero interceptions at home for a 133.2 passer rating. That set an NFL record. Who held the old record? That would be Rodgers. Actually, Rodgers holds the top three spots in NFL history, with a 128.5 in 2011 and a 126.4 in 2013. And among quarterbacks with at least 100 passing attempts at home, Rodgers is the only one to never throw an interception, with zero in 240 attempts last season and zero in 110 in 2013. In fact, those two seasons are the only times that a quarterback threw less than two interceptions at home while having at least 100 attempts.
“I don’t even want to talk about it,” Van Pelt said, preferring not to jinx the two-time MVP.
-- McCarthy said he’d rather play at noon but the lights have been all right for McCarthy. He is 10-5 on “Sunday Night Football,” including 9-3 in the last dozen games. In those games, Rodgers has thrown 29 touchdowns against five interceptions with a passer rating of 113.1.
Seattle, however, has been even better. Since Carroll took over in 2010, Seattle is 13-1 in prime time, including 2-0 against the Packers (Fail Mary Game, 2012; Week 1, 2014) and 4-0 on Sunday nights. The Seahawks went 4-0 in prime-time games last season, outscoring the opponents 117-42.
-- It’s hard to believe the Seahawks lost the Week 1 game to the Rams. Seattle won the takeaway battle 3-1 and scored on a punt return and a fumble return. Since Carroll took over as coach for the 2010 season, Seattle is 33-7 when winning the giveaway-takeaway. Since McCarthy took over as coach in 2006, the Packers are a whopping 67-8-1 when coming out on top in turnovers. That record does not include playoffs; the Packers were plus-3 in losing the title game.
-- The last time the Packers hosted the Seahawks, they rolled to a 48-10 victory on Dec. 27, 2009. Brandon Jackson scored three touchdown and Ryan Grant added two, including a 56-yarder in the second quarter. Defensively, Green Bay picked off Matt Hasselbeck four times, including two by Atari Bigby. That win is part of the Packers’ 6-1 home record against Seattle.
NUMBERS WORTH NOTING
-- Tackling is a major focal point after the Packers’ shoddy effort against Chicago. For what it’s worth, ProFootballFocus.com had the Packers missing eight tackles – less than our count of 12 and McCarthy’s assertion of “double-digits.” Using PFF’s numbers, the Packers are tied for 13th in tackling and Seattle (nine vs. St. Louis) is tied for 17th.
“Sunday night, that’s going to be on the keys,” Capers said. “We have to tackle this big back and get the second and third guy there with good leverage.”
Said Carroll: “We’ll go weeks and not show like that, and then every once in a while it happens, and that was one of those games.”
-- In a league in which many teams are up and down like yo-yos most weeks, the Seahawks almost never play a bad game. When Seattle beat the Packers in Week 1 last season, it broke Green Bay’s record with a 46th consecutive game in which it did not lose by more than seven points. That streak was snapped the following week with a nine-point loss at San Diego. That is Seattle’s largest margin of defeat since losing to Dallas by 10 points in Week 9 of the 2011 season.
-- Seattle’s successful fake field goal and onside kick in the NFC Championship Game were just two examples of its special-teams dominance under Carroll. Since 2010, Seattle ranks second in blocked kicks (15), first in touchdowns/safeties (12) and tied for first in takeaways (14).
It’s two big buts, but the game that cost special-teams coordinator Shawn Slocum his job was one of Green Bay’s better special-teams performances – if you can possibly ignore the fake field goal and onside kick. Micah Hyde had a 29-yard punt return and Green Bay allowed 7 yards on five punts and forced a fumble on a kickoff return.
“If you look at the special-teams plays from last year, other than the two plays, it’s the best we played the whole year," Slocum's replacement, Ron Zook, said. "Obviously, you can’t ‘other than.’ You don’t get second down, third down. You get one down."
-- Speaking of special teams, kicker Mason Crosby needs 11 points to break Ryan Longwell’s franchise-record total of 1,054 points.
-- Back in training camp, Zook said Ty Montgomery and Tyler Lockett were the top return prospects in the 2015 draft. Those two -- both third-round picks -- had explosive debuts.
Montgomery, the 94th overall pick, returned kickoffs 41 and 46 yards last week against Chicago. It was instant impact for a kickoff-return unit that ranked 31st in return average last season. Through one week, the Packers lead the NFL in average starting field position following a kickoff. Last season, they were 23rd.
Lockett, the 69th overall pick, returned a punt for a touchdown against the Rams after returning a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns in the preseason.
"You’ve got to tackle him to the ground," Zook said. "He’s a very strong returner with the ball in his hands and he’s got great awareness and great vision and obviously great speed and quickness."
The challenge will be to play fast but not reckless or hesitatnt.
"I don’t think you can play hesitant with any play in the National Football League," Zook said. "You’ve got to let your training and coaching take its course. It’s going down and playing hard and staying in your lanes and gang-tackling. Everybody’s got to chase the football. We have to be on our A-game, no question."
-- While Seattle has had its way with Rodgers – a 72.3 passer rating on 5.57 yards per attempt with two touchdowns and three interceptions – the same is true for Green Bay against Wilson.
In the Fail Mary Game, Wilson was 10-of-21 for 130 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. In last year’s opener, he was excellent with 19-of-28 accuracy for 191 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. In the championship game, he was merely 14-of-29 for 209 yards with one touchdown and four interceptions. Add it together, and that’s 43-of-78 for 525 yards with five touchdowns and four interceptions, good for a rating of 76.1 – far below his career mark of 98.3.
The difference, of course, is Wilson has come through in the clutch, with the controversial touchdown in 2012 and the comeback in January.
“The Hail Mary game, until the Hail Mary, we played extremely well,” Capers said. “Their total yardage in that game wasn’t that great. Until the last 5 minutes of the game last year, we played probably as good as we had all season. Against a good team, you’ve got to find a way to finish things off because you’ve got to play for 60 minutes.”
-- Both quarterbacks are excellent on the move. Wilson, remarkably, has four career 100-yard rushing games and leads all quarterbacks with 1,908 rushing yards since entering the league in 2012. Rodgers rushed for 35 yards last week, including a pair of runs of 10-plus yards. Of course, they’re not looking to move the ball with their legs all the time. They prefer to extend plays to give their receivers time to get open.
“He’s almost impossible to control,” Carroll said of Rodgers.
-- Green Bay scored four touchdowns in five red-zone possessions last week, a good sign for a team that struggled in that category down the stretch last season. Green Bay went 12-for-26 in the red zone during its final five regular season games and the two playoff games. Seattle stayed alive in the championship game by allowing the Packers only one touchdown in three red-zone trips.
“In the red zone, everything is a little tighter. Everything happens quicker,” Rodgers said. “The windows are smaller, so when you’re able to extend the play based on the number of guys that rush that can cause some stress with the defense, especially when there’s some match coverages where you’re having some second and third reactions by your receivers. We’ve had some success doing that and it’s a weapon that shows up sometimes.”
THE LAST WORDS GOES TO …
Matthews, on the difficulty of getting over last season’s loss to Seattle: “I think there's always a grieving period after any loss. Unfortunately, there has to be 31 teams that lose and we were one of them. There's always that what if -- what if we would've done this, what if we would've done that. Ultimately there can only be one winner and unfortunately we didn't put ourselves into a great enough position to have that. So now, we look at how close we were last year and we build upon that. I think that's what's exciting going into this year, and I think that's the confidence you see from this locker room, is not where we fell short but the opportunity we have to go do it again.”