The Seattle Seahawks lost their 5th one possession game of the 2018 season on Sunday against the Rams, and will now have to try and bounce back against the Green Bay Packers in their biggest game of the season. Green Bay, meanwhile, are coming off one of their best performances of the year, a 31-12 beat down against the Dolphins.
The Packers have fallen behind in the NFC North race and find themselves, along with the Seahawks, in the middle of the wildcard race. Both are currently on the outside looking in, and it’s entirely plausible neither team makes the playoffs. The loser on Thursday night would find themselves in a terrible spot for the final six games.
Beyond the obvious stakes of Green Bay’s trip to Seattle, it’s a prime-time game at CenturyLink Field. If the Packers’ last three trips are any indication, we’re in for a thriller.
Offensive and Defensive Primers
Aaron Rodgers—one of the two most skilled quarterbacks to ever play football—being handcuffed to Mike McCarthy through his age-35 season is a crime against football. Rodgers is as physically gifted as it comes at the position, and his intelligence is perhaps even more impressive than his lightning quick release. Yet, he’s been bogged down by McCarthy through his prime.
McCarthy’s roots are in the West Coast offense, and his scheme has remained largely unchanged over the course of his time in Green Bay. At the core of the West Coast offense is an emphasis on yards after the catch. Though the Packers do rank highly there—averaging the seventh most yards after reception in the NFL—McCarthy’s biggest downfall is his aversion to route concepts. As a receiver corps of Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Randall Cobb aged and became ineffective, McCarthy continued to depend on them to separate in 1-on-1s; that hasn’t changed, even as an influx of young talent has come in.
The arrival of new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was supposed to mark the end of an under-performing Green Bay defense. Pettine’s defenses have ranked in the top-10 in every season he’s been a coordinator, while the Packers haven’t had a top-10 defense since 2010.
Instead, it has largely been more of the same, as Green Bay’s defense has been less than the sum of its parts. Entering Week 11, the Packers’ run defense is 26th by DVOA, while their passing game is a much more respectable 9th. (They’re tied for 16th in points per game, which feels like the most fair representation of the unit; middle of the pack.)
Pettine’s defenses are extremely versatile. He runs multiple fronts, utilizes both double A-gap and zone blitzes, and likes to balance his secondary with different skill sets. However, there’s one constant: His defensive lines attack up-field. With such an emphasis on pressure and winning at the line of scrimmage, Pettine depends on his defensive backs to excel in man coverage—highlighted by the selection of the fearless Jaire Alexander in the first round this year.
Numbers that Matter
15: Getting Aaron Jones back from suspension in Week 3 was a huge boost to Green Bay’s offense; McCarthy finally making Jones the clear lead back in Week 8 was an even bigger boost. After frustratingly flip-flopping between Jamaal Williams and Jones upon Jones’ return, the Packers have given the lead role to their best runner. Rodgers did his part, mentioning his desire for more touches for Jones several times.
Jones has paced Green Bay’s backfield over the last three weeks, highlighted by a 15-carry, 145-yard and two touchdown performance last week. Since returning from suspension, Jones has posted a brilliant 6.7 yards per carry, and the uber-athlete has continued his habit of creating big plays. Jones leads the league in runs resulting in first down (39.7%) and is averaging an even more ridiculous 8.1 yards per carry on first down.
Now that McCarthy has stopped doing the defense’s job in taking out the Packers’ best runner, it’ll be on the Seahawks to slow down an explosive, dangerous tailback.
72: Seattle likes to run the ball on first down, and often, on second down too. The Seahawks’ 72 runs on first down is the 4th highest total in the NFL. The three teams ahead of them—the Chiefs, Saints and Patriots—have run at least 40 more plays on first down. Despite the running game being the center of Seattle’s offense, their attachment to running the football has been detrimental.
The Seahawks are expected to have their lead back, Chris Carson, healthy for Thursday night. Carson’s return combined with the fine form Mike Davis and Rashaad Penny find themselves in should lead to more of the same from Seattle’s offense. Green Bay’s struggles defending the run should only increase Pete Carroll’s conviction. However, while the Packers’ run defense has been poor this year, they’ve actually done quite well stopping it on first downs. The 22nd ranked run defense in yards per game ranks a much more respectable 7th on first down.
Maddeningly, this won’t have any affect on the Seahawks’ game-plan. They’re going to run the ball on first down and on second down. Their unwillingness to adjust to their opponent will make them face an increased number of third-and-longs on Thursday night, and in their biggest game of the season, it could prove to be their downfall.
48: Seattle’s ability to defend the deep ball without Earl Thomas has been one of the most harped on topics in recent years. It rose back to the surface following Thomas’s season-ending injury earlier this season. And while teams have been more fearless in attacking downfield since Thomas went down, it hasn’t been nearly as big a factor as in 2016.
Before Thomas went down against the Cardinals, opponents completed three passes on 10 attempts of 20+ air yards. Since Thomas’s injury, opponents are 6-12 (plus a 56-yard defensive pass interference penalty) on passes of 20+ air yards.
Though the numbers aren’t too different, the reality remains, the Seahawks haven’t done a good job in defending the deep ball in 2018. Seattle’s deep ball defense is the fourth worst in the NFL by passer rating, and will be tested on Thursday night.
A pillar of Green Bay’s offense, as ingrained as receivers being forced to get open with no help from their playcaller, is the deep ball. This year, the Packers are 5th in the NFL in attempts of 20 yards or more, and Rodgers is completing 38% of his downfield shots. Teams will test Tedric Thompson every single week down the stretch, and excluding Patrick Mahomes’ upcoming game against the Seahawks, this will be the toughest test he’ll face.
4.5: There are a number of gripes you could make about Seattle’s offense in 2018. One thing not worth complaining about, however, is the offense’s red zone production. Despite losing one of the NFL’s best touchdown makers in free agency in Jimmy Graham, the Seahawks have been one of the league’s best teams inside the 20.
Seattle is scoring touchdowns on 73.08% of their trips to the red zone, the 4th best mark in the entire NFL. Wilson’s the 9th best passer inside the opponent’s 20, despite his most prolific red zone weapon being Jaron Brown. (Seriously, Brown leads the team in red zone receptions.)
Thursday night will see the Seahawks get more opportunities to continue their production in the red zone. In 2018, Green Bay is allowing 4.5 red zone possessions per game on the road, the highest in the NFL. Seattle’s commitment to early down runs could set the offense back, and force them to fall behind, but the red zone opportunities they get will be key to remaining in the game.
Matchups to Watch
Shaquill Griffin versus Marquez Valdes-Scantling: A Packers offense desperate for a shot in the arm at wide receiver got one this spring, when Green Bay triple dipped on the third day of the draft, selecting J’Mon Moore, Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown. Valdes-Scantling, a 6-foot-4, 204-pound receiver who moves fluidly in the open field, has been the one to claim a place in the Packers’ offense.
The rookie’s role in the offense has grown over the last month and culminated in Valdes-Scantling seeing a quarter of Green Bay’s targets last week. His breakout performance came on Sunday Night Football the previous week, where he caught three passes for 101 yards against the Patriots. Valdes-Scantling’s versatility as a receiver is a tremendous fit in the Packers’ offense; he will align tight or in the slot on the offense’s right.
Valdes-Scantling’s alignment should see him lining up across from a childhood friend in Griffin. Aside from the receiver’s obvious size advantage, he has one trait that could prove to be difficult for Griffin to defend. Valdes-Scantling is terrific at waiting until the last moment to lift his hands and pluck the ball out of the air, leaving the defender little chance to react. For Griffin, who has consistently struggled with finding the ball, this is a brutal mismatch, and one Rodgers will try to capitalize on often.
Tyler Lockett versus Jaire Alexander: We’ll be treated to an excellent WR-CB matchup on both sides of the ball. While Green Bay’s best offensive rookie will take on Griffin, their best defensive rookie will have to slow down Lockett out of the slot.
Alexander’s excellent rookie season was brought into the mainstream ahead of the Packers’ game against New England, when Bill Belichick was asked about Alexander:
“He’s a great kid. He’s got great energy. He loves football and has great football skills; fast, athletic, good hands, good ball skills, can tackle, can play inside in the slot, can play outside on the perimeter, good zone vision, break on the ball, good man-to-man coverage, has good quickness, can match up with fast receivers, can match up with quick receivers.”
The flexibility in Alexander’s game Belichick mentioned will be key to his matchup against Lockett. Through nine games in 2018, Lockett is producing at a ridiculous and perhaps unsustainable pace:
Tyler Lockett is producing at a ridiculous level for the volume he sees. It may not be sustainable, but right now, he's justifying his extension without touching the ball more than 5 times a game— Alistair Corp (@AlistairCorp) November 14, 2018
As compelling as this matchup is on the surface, the most interesting part will be watching the two with the ball in the air. As Lockett has consistently produced touchdowns, he has started to be excellent at subtle contact to create separation just before the ball arrives. Alexander, meanwhile, is unafraid of contact and closes on the ball with aggression and certainty.
Opponent to Know
Kenny Clark, DT: The duo of Clark and Mike Daniels are fearsome, flexible and dominant; luckily for Seattle, they should have D.J. Fluker back on Thursday night. Despite Fluker’s presence, and the play of the Seahawks’ interior, Clark will make an impact on the game.
Clark, like Seattle’s own Jarran Reed, has made the leap in 2018 due in part to a rise in production. The former Bruin has five sacks, six tackles for loss and eight quarterback hits on the year, and has added a finesse element to his game.
Though Clark’s jump in production has been a welcome addition to Green Bay’s defense, his ability to take on double teams and free up the criminally underrated Daniels is just as valuable:
Kenny Clark is a full grown man. Burst onto the scene last season for being a stout run-defender. Good example here taking on the C/LG double.— Brandon Thorn (@VeteranScout) October 9, 2018
Shoots his hands into the C, stands him up, turns his shoulders to absorb the drive man (LG), drops to a knee, and holds his ground: pic.twitter.com/LzdcyekFBr
At 4-5, the Seahawks really must win at home against the 4-4-1 Packers if they’re to remain a legitimate part of the wildcard race. The competition around them is tight and Seattle’s schedule down the stretch is daunting. If they can’t take care of business at home against Green Bay, the Seahawks’ 2018 playoff hopes may be dead.