As much as any other professional sport, the NFL is a team game. No one player can be successful without the assistance of others. That said, individual matchups can and do determine winners and losers on a weekly basis.
Sure, superstars Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch could be called keys in every game but let's dig deeper. The goal here is to identify three critical one-on-one matchups (that few others are talking about) which will likely determine whether or not the Seahawks emerge victorious.
Matchup No. 1: Seahawks CB Cary Williams vs. James Jones/Davante Adams
While Jones led the Packers with two touchdown receptions in their season-opening comeback win over the Chicago Bears, PackerReport.com explained for us that recently re-signed wideout likely enjoyed this success in part simply because Aaron Rodgers favors whoever is getting open that day. It is presumed at this point that Randall Cobb will play Sunday night and he is Green Bay's most dynamic receiving threat with Jordy Nelson sidelined for the year with a torn ACL. Given that Richard Sherman slid inside to cover slot receivers last week, it wouldn't be surprising to see No. 25 lining up against Cobb as the Seahawks attempt to slow him down. In the video above, Sherman's versatility is explained in greater detail.
As such, Williams is expected to draw Jones or Davante Adams (depending on whether the Packers are using two or three receivers). Williams has the length and fluidity to handle these coverage responsibilities but has to be physical with Green Bay's receivers, as well. Jones, in particular, is a crafty route-runner. Neither he nor Adams possess elite top-end speed so Williams theoretically should be able to sit on short and intermediate routes rather than worrying about being beat deep. Earl Thomas may still be facing questions about how his surgically-repaired left shoulder will hold up but nothing is wrong with his legs. Thomas' range and instincts are remarkable, making Seattle the most difficult team in the league to successfully throw deep against for the past few seasons.
With a sack, strip, recovery of a fumble and score in what looked like a game-defining play last week against the Rams, Williams certainly had strong moments in the season opener. That big play doesn't erase the fact that he was caught trailing too often on intermediate routes. Williams will face a much stiffer challenge Sunday night against Rodgers and the Packers' varied receivers.
Matchup No. 2: Seahawks RT Garry Gilliam vs. Packers OLB/DE Julius Peppers
Because of his greater length and agility, Gilliam is theoretically an upgrade in pass protection over last year's starting right tackle Justin Britt, who, of course, was moved inside to left guard. The former tight end lacks ideal functional strength at the point of attack and has a bit of a finesse style to him, however, which has led some to compare him to former Seahawk Sean Locklear. This style can work well in Tom Cable's scheme but does leave him vulnerable to bull rushes. Unfortunately, that is precisely what allowed St. Louis defensive lineman Michael Brockers to blow by him and stop Lynch before he could get going on the failed 4th and one attempt that ended Seattle's opener with a loss.
Even at 35 years-old, Peppers remains one of the NFL's most extraordinary athletes. The 6-7, 287 pound former power forward for the North Carolina Tar Heels was once clocked at 4.67 seconds in the 40-yard dash and that remarkable athleticism is still obvious even now, allowing Green Bay's defensive coordinator Dom Capers the flexibility to line Peppers and Clay Matthews all over the field. While Matthews is one of the NFL's most versatile players (and is appropriately recognized as such), Peppers should be just as much of a concern to the Seahawks. Certainly his ability to harass Russell Wilson will generate lots of pre-game concern, but Peppers is also powerful enough to set the edge and ruin outside running lanes for Lynch, Wilson and the rest of Seattle's rushing attack to exploit.
As it turns out, right tackle will be a position to watch for both clubs as Packers head coach Mike McCarthy announced Friday that Bryan Bulaga will not play Sunday night due to a sprained MCL suffered during Thursday's practice. Veteran Don Barclay, who started four games a year ago, is expected to start in Bulaga's absence.
Matchup No. 3: Seahawks MLB Bobby Wagner vs. Packers RB Eddie Lacy
Seattle's secondary bared the brunt of the wrath this week after allowing an eye-popping eight receptions of 20+ yards in the opener against St. Louis but some of the blame must be pinned on Wagner, who signed a deal in the offseason that made him the highest paid middle linebacker in the NFL and was named a team captain. Wagner and outside linebacker K.J. Wright were each victimized by play-action passes from the Rams, getting sucked in too close to the line of scrimmage and leaving big holes behind them for crossing receivers and backs in the flat to exploit. Wagner, in fact, was the lowest rated of Seattle's defenders following the Rams game, according to Pro Football Focus' statistics, grading out at -3.9 overall, including -3.0 in pass coverage (also worst among the Seahawks in Week One).
Lacy is, of course, known best for his power running and that is an area that Seattle must take away if the Seahawks have a chance at slowing down Green Bay' juggernaut of an offense. Wagner enjoyed the best season of his career in 2014 in part because he showed a different level of explosiveness as a hitter. He'll need to bring that level of physicality to Green Bay Sunday night, as Lacy (like Lynch) is one of the NFL's best at running through contact.
Seattle's best hope at keeping this game close and having a chance to win late is to make Green Bay one-dimensional and pounding the ball through the running game, themselves. Should Lacy get to 85 rushing yards and score, the Seahawks will have failed in this mission and very likely will be returning to Seattle 0-2.