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Enter the Packers: Ready to separate Decembrawls from pretend Rawls

Numbers say Aaron Rodgers is surprisingly unequipped to challenge the Seahawks without Earl Thomas

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NFL: Houston Texans at Green Bay Packers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

“The game is cold but it’s fair.”

By the end of the season, Thomas Rawls will lead the Seattle Seahawks in rushing and Aaron Rodgers will lead the Green Bay Packers in the same category—rushing yards. For Rawls, that’s pretty remarkable, considering he had 25 total yards after week 2 and didn’t play again until week 11. For Rodgers it’s just sad.

Rawls is now about 240 yards behind the number Christine Michael, Sr., who is on the Packers, contributed to the Seahawks through nine games. He’s not strictly on pace, averaging a little less than 50 yards a game with four to play, but he definitely has the acceleration. And I don’t mean just because Rawls had already logged his first 100-yard game of the season by the first half against Carolina Sunday, which is skewed by a 45-yard touchdown: Rawls’s advanced metrics continue to show him doing better too.

As you know I’ve been tracking Rawls’s Football Outsiders numbers to see if he can repeat anything like a rookie performance so outstanding it raised questions about its sustainability even before the latest injury: In his first game back, against the Eagles, Rawls raised his season DVOA by 30 points—although it was still in the negative, at minus-11.5. Rawls’s DYAR was still sub-zero too, and while Samuel Gold concluded the second-year back’s true performance was better than his raw totals the next week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers his Football Outsiders stats actually dropped a little bit. I’m pleased to report that after Sunday’s outing Rawls is back in the positive in both counts.

Though still with a small sample of only 59 rushes, Rawls’s running efficiency is again better than Michael Sr’s (by six percent) and his DYAR, which remember is a cumulative stat not a rate, is already just seven yards behind Michael, Sr., with almost 70 fewer carries! You can believe this is the real Rawls showing up. Rawls, last year’s advanced metrics champion in only eight games, isn’t going to catch Ezekiel Elliott or LeSean McCoy in 2016, but he could very well reach the top 10 in DYAR or even the top five in DVOA again (and qualify sample-wise) if he keeps it up over 75 or so carries in the next month. (Todd Gurley, by the way, part of the 2015 class with Rawls, is 30th and 28th respectively. David Johnson is who Gurley was supposed to be—with a little bit of Prosise too.)

Rodgers, meanwhile, has posted less than 60 yards fewer than Green Bay’s leading rusher Eddie Lacy, who is done for the season after ankle surgery. Among the Packers’ other backs, James Starks struggled to return after early-season surgery, brief acquisition Knile Davis failed to satisfy the coaching staff and is already gone—even backup Don Jackson suffered a knee injury that ended his season; Green Bay was relying on fullback Aaron Ripowski and wide receivers Randall Cobb and Ty Montgomery to handle carries for a period, but even both Montgomery and Cobb missed a week 8 game at Atlanta. That’s why the Michael, Sr., is on the Packers. But Michael so far has 23 yards in two games. He’s still learning the offense, true—but did he ever really learn it in Seattle?

I joked on Twitter that Michael could be a subtle grenade on a mission from Pete Carroll (whether Michael, Sr., knew it or not) to undermine Green Bay’s season but I actually think he can be productive in Wisconsin, and it looks like he’ll get the chance. Packers coaches indicated they liked the way Michael ran on limited carries last week against the Houston Texans (nine for 19 yards, with a long of seven, which should sound familiar to Seahawks fans) and plan to increase his load. So I suspect, at 25 yards a game, Rodgers likely won’t beat Michael in rushing over the next four, but he will probably get to Lacy’s 360 with his big head start.

This matchup shouldn’t favor either running back on first inspection. We all know how Seattle organizes its front to stop the run, and Green Bay had the asphyxiating defense of the first few games, which had held opponents to historically-low 2.0 yards per carry while at the same time limiting those same opponents to so few rushing opportunities we knew the sample couldn’t hold up. Can something be both historical and premature? Well, Green Bay’s run defense is still good overall (3.8 yards per rush on the year, tied for fifth), but has given up an average of 4.8 per carry in the past four games.

They’ll also be without inside linebacker Blake Martinez and star outside linebacker Nick Perry, who is the Packers’ sack leader but also a key to its disciplined run-gapping. Perry broke a pair of fingers that weakened his engagement arm and he wore a club for a short time, but this week Perry is out after opting for surgery to speed the healing. When I asked Brian Fonfara of the Pack to the Future podcast how Green Bay will miss Perry, this is what he said:

“Nick Perry is the best linebacker we have at containing the edge, keeping running backs and rushing quarterbacks inside instead of bouncing out. Without him we’ve seen Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick and guys like that just run circles around guys like Clay Matthews because guys like Matthews overcommit. Without [Perry] to set the edge I am nervous about what Russell Wilson is going to do.”

So Perry is the guy who funnels the action back into the block destroyers who are the source of the Packers stout defense, Mike Daniels in the middle and the versatile Kenny Clark in both tackle and end spots. His absence is good luck for Rawls and like Fonfara said free Wilson on zone reads and other quarterback runs. Here are some shots of none other than Brock Osweiler successfully extending plays to scramble for first downs against Green Bay last week:

Wilson can do even better, even if he doesn’t dive headfirst as often. And if the ground game gets going, he ought to also be able to use his arm to take apart the Packers’ pass defense downfield, which is dead last in the NFL in yards per attempt allowed, and better than only the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers in opponent ANY/A. Indeed, Green Bay’s slip on run defense combined with its lousy pass figures and injuries at all levels saw its overall defensive DVOA fall from sixth in week 6 to 18th currently (20th by recency-weighted numbers).

Speaking of throwing downfield, you expect Aaron Rodgers to be excited to take advantage of the Seahawks without Earl Thomas, and try to turn the game into a shootout if his defense falters. But, as Chuck McDonald and Justis Mosqueda discussed on the Setting the Edge podcast this week, Rodgers has not been all that effective throwing deep this year. The 2014 NFL MVP has completed only 38.6 percent of his deep passes, according to NFL GSIS charting, 18th in the league. Apparently uncomfortable with the lengthy throws, Rodgers is 25th in air yards per attempt (3.57 per throw), among quarterbacks with at least 1,000 yards passing. His game looks more like Brock Osweiler or Sam Bradford in that regard than the Gravity’s Rainbow arm we’ve come to see from Rodgers.

You can cast blame elsewhere, like how Jordy Nelson doesn’t have the vertical speed after his recovery from ACL surgery, or the rest of the Green Bay receivers (Devante Adams, Cobb) are slant, in, out, curl and other slot-combo possession guys—or wonder if it’s because defenses can use alignments that aren’t scared of the potpourri running backs, or maybe injury, because Rodgers can’t generate the power with his legs owing to a lingering hamstring issue. Either way it’s happening—and it leaves Rodgers poorly set up to expose Steven Terrell: The Packers’ offense is worst of all at throwing to the deep middle, where Rodgers is only 34.8 percent (28th) for only about 10 yards per gain (27th). By comparison, Wilson is 73.3 percent throwing to that area, for a 23.7-yard average gain, both best in the NFL.

Take a look at this play (and forgive the poor diagramming) when Cobb runs a double move to the deep corner on top of Nelson’s square out. Rodgers has Cobb open for a moment as one cornerback tries to split the patterns while the other camps in the seam ready for Nelson to break, before safety Corey Moore (in the Thomas/Terrell role) can close over the top. But whether it’s lack of confidence in himself or Cobb, Rodgers elects to trust Nelson on the shorter sideline throw. It’s a first down completion, but it could have been a touchdown.

That’s not how you beat Seattle, and Terrell has the speed to get to that deep option, in case Rodgers tries him Sunday. It will be a cool opportunity to glimpse what a later transition from Earl Thomas, as well as Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Bobby Wagner—to a Seahawks defense of the future.

Nevertheless Aaron Rodgers is like a weird god. You can make fun of his lifestyle choices and slumps of power and he appears inattentive to the world before him at times, but if you turn your back he can still destroy you. Because of all these inconsistencies, Green Bay is a hard team to scout. For all the deficiencies on offense (the Packers also turn the ball over 12.7 percent of drives, almost twice as often as Seattle), Green Bay remains fairly efficient at scoring (2.35 points per drive, sixth best in pro football, compared to 1.75 for the Seahawks) and is approaching 50 percent conversion rate on third down.

The Packers should be able to press those efficiency advantages by turning Sunday’s game into a shootout, but they probably won’t. Green Bay settles for scoring only 2.6 more points per game (24.6) than Seattle (22.0), because Mike McCarthy prefers to slow the game down. Indeed, another reason it’s hard matching the Packers’ performance with their rate stats is this identity conflict.

Now that all teams have played 12 games, you’d think that many stats are a level comparison, but Green Bay has actually had the ball the third-fewest drives of any team in the NFL. Playing fewer drives comes from slower paced play, a defense that doesn’t get off the field, or special teams/defense scores. Detroit is the king of this snail’s crown, with by far the least efficient defense by the clock and the second-most methodical offense, but the Packers are near the top of both lists: eighth in average drive length on defense but fourth on offense. That seems like it would put a cap on Green Bay’s scoring potential, but perhaps it’s McCarthy’s design to limit exposure of its defense. The Packers are also worst in the league in points allowed per drive.

Further limiting the offenses will be playing conditions, which should be another turn of the Christine Michael screw. Will Michael, Sr., slip in a slushy melt zone? Or will he just start throwing snowballs at his quarterback in the middle of a blitz pickup? Last week, in even milder snow than is forecast for week 14, both Green Bay and Houston fumbled on their opening drives. McCarthy’s conservatism might be what protects him in the winter months at Lambeau Field where Green Bay hasn’t lost a December game with Rodgers since 2008.

I tried to figure out the last time the Seahawks played a snow game. We all remember the negative temperatures against the Minnesota Vikings in the playoffs last year, and Seattle has faced adverse windy or wet weather at home plenty of times, but I don’t think has played in the snow in the Russell Wilson era. According to my research the last snow game the Seahawks had was the 2010 divisional round game against the Chicago Bears (the game right after the Marshawn Lynch “Beastmode” run versus the Saints, right before the Jay Cutler MCL/Caleb Hanie NFC title game that Packers fans should remember)—and that was only the narrowest film of snow, flakes more in the air than on the ground.

Before that was the divisional-round affair in Lambeau after 2007 when Seattle still had post-2005 Super Bowl aspirations and went up 14-0 but lost 42-20 in a dreadful final few quarters—probably my third-least favorite game of the Mike Holmgren era, even worse than the Matt Hasselbeck overtime game in Green Bay in 2003. Even so, these teams have played some memorable contests over the years, including the famous Monday Nighter when, well, the Seahawks sacked Rodgers eight times, and a wild conference championship in vivid memory.

The shared connections from Holmgren, Hasselbeck, even Ahman Green, to John Schneider and Michael, Sr., give the matchup a fancy narrative, but the onfield events keep it such a fun ongoing series. Game still recognize game.