My co-writers have done a fantastic job this week with previewing the game, both from a short-term schematic point of view and a greater long-term, philosophical point of view, so some of my thoughts may be a bit redundant, but I wanted to talk about what I'll be watching for tonight as the Seahawks take on the Packers. First and foremost, for me, it seems obvious that the Seahawks' defense must have a very strong night. If you try to get into a track meet with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' offense, odds are you're going to come up short. The excellent defense of the 49ers - who are widely considered the class of the NFC - were able to stifle Green Bay's offense effectively enough to grab a 30-22 victory but it shouldn't be ignored that Green Bay still managed to put up 22 points on them, then follow up the next week with 23 points on a very good Bears' defense.
Yes, the Seahawks will try and shut down the Packers' run game early and hope to make Green Bay's offense one-dimensional; this is what San Francisco managed to do, and combined with timely turnovers (a NaVorro Bowman interception was key), the Niners were able to outlast a team that went 15-1 in 2011. If and when the Seahawks do shut down the run, they'll be faced with the teeth of the Green Bay offense - their passing game - and will be tested against a quarterback and receiver corps whose caliber we haven't really seen in the last year-plus. For me, I throw out any of the pass defense numbers from last season and concentrate on what the Seahawks have now on their defense - with this group of backs and this group of pass rushers. Giving up 215 yards passing to Arizona's two quarterbacks won't really instill a ton of confidence, but last week's dominance over a normally very good Dallas passing attack has my interest piqued.
Dallas relies largely on their big-four of playmakers for Tony Romo to distribute the ball to - Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Demarco Murray, and Jason Witten. The good news for the Seahawks last week was that Witten developed a temporary case of the dropsies - whether that's an instinctual reaction to protect his spleen or not, we'll never know, but regardless, this isn't really something you can count on week-in and week-out. Tonight, the Seahawks will have to defend against Aaron Rodgers nigh-elite group of weapons: Greg Jennings (probably), Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Randall Cobb, Donald Driver and importantly, Jermichael Finley. I still haven't really figured out if the Seahawks are going to be able to effectively mark Finley - and judging by how often Witten was open last week, it could really be the key matchup to keep an eye on tonight.
Making matters infinitely worse is that Green Bay's offense is disgustingly multiple and difficult to predict; exacerbating this, of course, is Aaron Rodgers preeminent ability to diagnose defense and disrupt pass-rush timing with his cadence.
Per Football Outsiders' excellent Almanac, Packers' HC Mike McCarthy's offense "is a special system. It features a diverse array of formations, many of which can be disguised in the huddle, thanks to the versatility of über-athletic tight end Jermichael Finley. The Packers may line up with three receivers and a tight end on one play; two fullbacks, a running back and two tight ends on the next play; four receivers and a back on the following play; and then base personnel on the play after that. It's not just the breadth of diversity, it's the volume of the diversity. The Packers do a tremendous job at creating mismatches for players by realigning personnel within the same formations throughout a game."
This is something that our own Mike Chan delved into here, and will be a wrinkle that the Seahawks simply must be prepared for. How will this young group of defenders react to formations as certain personnel groupings come out of the huddle? We saw how a well-coached and talented defense could be exploited last week when the Seahawks effectively utilized three tight end sets to confuse and discombobulate the Cowboys' linebacker/safety group, and with a rookie manning Seattle's middle linebacker position (Bobby Wagner), this defense is going to have their hands full, even pre-snap.
That said, similar to the Niners, Seattle has speed and physicality on defense, and this could be a major factor in slowing down the Packers' offense. Green Bay's offensive attack is predicated on timing and quick passing, and as FO tells us, "McCarthy also designs route options that maximize catch-and-run opportunities, and the Packers were fourth in the NFL with an average of 6.0 yards after catch" in 2011. With Seattle's two physical corners, their two speedy linebackers in K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner, their solid safety group of Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, throwing receivers off timing and position of routes and limiting YAC as much as possible, the Seahawks could really slow down Aaron Rodgers and his group of receivers. Effective press, quick reactions to routes, and sure tackling, as fundamental as that all sounds, are key factors to note tonight.
That said -- Green Bay, in all likelihood, is going to score a decent amount of points tonight. Aaron Rodgers is probably the best offensive football player in the world right now, and though the Packer offense hasn't really hit on all cylinders just yet, that sure as shit doesn't mean they're not capable of it. Pete Carroll's Seahawks are 1-15 in Seattle when the Seahawks give up more than 20 points, and a large part of that is because, frankly, the offense hasn't been very good.
A lot of that comes down to quarterback play.
Will Green Bay score 20+? It's certainly possible, considering Seattle gave up 20+ to Arizona, and you can talk about differing offensive philosophies all you want, but every team still needs their quarterback to step up at times to take pressure off the defense. I have no doubt that John Schneider and Pete Carroll know this. I have no doubt that Russell Wilson knows this.
This means, I'm expecting, that Seattle too will have to score points (touchdowns, not field goals) and while they'll try to maintain possession of the football for as long as possible by featuring Marshawn Lynch, I do sort of get the impression that Russell Wilson may be asked to do a little bit more tonight than he has been asked to do in week's one and two. And, it should be interesting to see how he handles that.
I'm not saying that he'll be throwing the ball 40 times, but rather, he must hit on the deep strikes downfield and he must move the chains on third downs when the Seahawks inevitably find themselves in third and long after two run attempts. This means he's going to have to show improvement in throwing from the pocket and pulling the trigger on his primary reads. This means fewer lofted passes and fewer check-downs.
Former NFL QB Trent Dilfer (who, incidentally, is raising the 12th man flag tonight) was on with Brock and Salk this morning and I thought he gave a really interesting and frank evaluation of Russell's first two NFL starts, when he said, "He has a lot of challenges he has to overcome, because of his lack of stature. He makes up for it at times, with how intuitive he is, he finds a unique way of creating space for himself, but it's hard. I mean, his first game was terrible. I mean, it was brutal. But, so are many first quarterback starts, and if you put it in context with other rookie quarterback starts, it really wasn't that much different.
"When you watch the game tape (of the Arizona game), he takes the wrong steps in his drop multiple times, his eyes are looking the wrong direction, he has his #1 (receiver) open 5, 6, 7 times in the game and he can't see them or chooses not to throw to them. He decides to break contain in the pocket when there's nobody forcing him to, and I mean, just stuff - I don't want to use the word 'panic', but it was overwhelming, and I know it; I've been there and I've done it. His brain was moving too fast, and he wasn't the guy that he was in college - the poised, comfortable guy running the show. This is understandable, right? This is your first NFL start.
"What was impressive last week, was that the things he was terrible at in week one, he was really clean at in week two. He showed incredible poise, he went through his progressions. I went back to my college notes on him, in my eval, and I wrote then that this was a guy that can work through progressions when he has an understanding of the offense; climbing the pocket, doing the things you're looking to do, and he did that week two, so he showed huge gains, which I was really impressed with. I think that with what they're asking him to do in this offense, to this point, two games in, he's shown the ability to do that."
Greg Cosell said very similar things earlier in the week on FantasyGuru's weekly preview podcast, saying "Russell Wilson is in the same basic situation (as Jake Locker) but it's working. If Russell WIlson had to throw the ball forty times a game, or was in a pass-first offense, he's probably be struggling, but (the Seahawks are) running the ball well. Their defense is terrific, so Russell Wilson can be eased into games, and he can be efficient without being spectacular. I mean, his numbers, the first two weeks, have been very pedestrian, and that's by design. I thought the first week, he was a little erratic, and a little uneven, I thought he was better this week. But, he's got a run game, and a defense."
Cosell and Dilfer both acknowledge that that the Seahawks' ultra-conservative offensive gameplan is by design, and both would likely argue that's a smart course of action with a rookie quarterback. Both point out that Wilson improved dramatically from week one to week two.
The biggest question on my mind as the hours tick away prior to gametime is: how much will the Seahawks ask of Russell Wilson tonight?
This question becomes more pertinent if Green Bay clicks and gets on the board early - this conservative gameplan of controlling possession and running the ball becomes significantly more difficult when trailing early. Wilson will have to play a little more liberally, and that means his receivers must step up as well. Jump balls, broken tackles, yards after the catch. If you want to beat or be a great team like the Packers - and I'll frame it as Cosell always does - "this is no profound statement," but the Seahawks' offensive players have to make some big-time plays.
My colleague Kenneth Arthur captured this sentiment very well earlier this afternoon and it's something I'd echo. Big wins, more often than not, require big-time plays from your top talent. I know that Seattle has players capable of this - Sidney Rice, Golden Tate, Zach Miller, Leon Washington, Doug Baldwin... it's just a matter of execution. It will be an extremely tough test for this team and Green Bay is better on paper, but this is why they play the games.