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Seahawks vs. Packers, NFC Championship Game: Run defense an underrated priority

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The Packers are most known for their Aaron Rodgers-led passing attack and with good reason -- his ridiculous stat line in 2014 was 341 for 520 passing for 4,381 yards, 38 touchdowns to just five interceptions. Green Bay finished 8th in passing yards per game, which is good, of course, but they (meaning, Rodgers) finished 2nd in yards per attempt, which is really good. The bigger picture for this is that somewhat surprisingly, Green Bay passed the ball only 33 times per game, which was 20th in the NFL. They threw the ball less than Cam Newton and Carolina, for instance.

So, while the Packers are "Aaron Rodgers' team," and we may think of them as a pass-first offense (they are, technically), Green Bay does believe in balance, and finished 11th in rushing yards per game and 10th in yards per rush attempt. Eddie Lacy is a great thunder to Rodgers' lightning.

In terms of Green Bay's play direction tendencies, they're predominantly a wide-running team. During the regular season, they ran the ball 88 times off left end (3rd NFL), 61 times off left tackle (7th), 30 times off left guard (24th), 78 times up the middle (24th), 37 times off right guard (21st), 57 times off right tackle (11th), and 62 times off the right end (7th). Of late, they've taken to running out of a pistol formation, and have had some really nice success in their run game. Just anecdotally, the Packers came out last week against the Cowboys and ran the ball on seven of their first eight plays, moved down the field with relative ease, and that set up Aaron Rodgers' touchdown pass to Andrew Quarless.

Eddie Lacy rushed 19 times for 101 yards against the Cowboys, and against Detroit in Week 17, they amassed 152 yards as a team against the NFL's best rush defense. This Green Bay rush offense is legit.

In the last few weeks, with the pistol formation being their primary look, the Packers have done a lot of rushing where the left or right tackle is the first waypoint, if you will. At the handoff, Green Bay zone blocks up front, Lacy heads for the tackle's ass crack, then cuts upfield our bounces it outside depending on what opens up. It's been effective.

Here's a play that Lacy bounced outside Week 17 against the Lions.

They'll mix in some tosses and sweeps, and I'd expect a few draw plays as well. Here's just one example of a toss play they ran vs. the Lions.

We all know that the Packers can pass the ball so it's a given that the Legion of Boom is going to have its hands full, and that the pass rush will have to show up and show out. But, my point in all this is that Seattle can't lose focus on the fact that their run defense is going to have to be on point this week as well. This is the NFC Championship Game, the Packers are a very, very good team and they're under-the-radar balanced with regards to their run-pass ratio.

I wrote this article detailing Seattle's run defense in the run-up to Week 5's matchup with the Cowboys. At that point in time, Seattle was #1 in the NFL in rushing defense and the Cowboys were #1 in rushing offense. It was the unstoppable force against the immovable object! We all know how that game turned out, but the basics of how Seattle defends the run remain the same, and nicely enough, the GIFs I created then apply now to the game, because they featured Washington and Green Bay. Washington, of course, features a wide-zone rush offense, and Green Bay, is, well, Green Bay.

With wide-running teams, there are several factors at play in defending them. First, the interior D-lineman must move laterally with their blockers, hoping to close down any gaps or creases that the running back can cut up into. They want to avoid getting hooked or sealed, which allows creases to open up. To do this, hand use is important, to keep offensive linemen from getting into their body and controlling them.

Second, the defensive end or outside linebacker to the playside must "set the edge" of the defense and force the running back to the inside, where fellow defenders are waiting. And, third, the linebackers must flow to the football, defeat blocks, and "fit" into the gaps that are created by a constantly changing front line (as all players move in unison, new gaps are created on the fly, so linebackers must avoid over-committing down the line. This means they must often stack their defender, wait for the running back to choose a direction, then shed the defender and tackle the ball carrier. It's something that Bobby Wagner is really good at.).

Above, watch Wagner and K.J. Wright pursue down the line with a combination of patience and aggressiveness. Bruce Irvin sets the edge, and the interior line does a good job of moving down the line without giving up much ground. Richards Sherman is the "safety" over the top here.

Below, Kam Chancellor is the "force" player (the de facto strongside linebacker). As the run develops, a nice crease opens up for the running back, but Bobby Wagner lurks in and fills it with authority. Bobby is one of the best in the game at seeing through the chaos in front of him to identify the ball carrier and attack him with authority.

Also worth noting above that Kam fakes the F*CK out of the lead-blocking fullback by coming in with stance that looks like he's going to take on the block head on, but then at the last second he "ole!'s" him and he dives into the dirt. Kam helps clean up after ensuring the running back cuts inside.

Here's another play and another angle. The key components: Flow with the ball, set the edge, fill the gaps, shed blocks, then tackle. In these examples, obviously all very successful run defenses, Seattle makes it look easy. They don't always execute so perfectly, of course, but I think these show you how run defense as a whole is a really coordinated effort that relies on everyone doing their job. If one player misses their assignment or fails to disengage from a block, that's when runs turn from one or two yards into ten-plus yards.

Another example below, this time vs. Green Bay in Week 1:

The example below shows the importance of the defensive end/ouside linebacker in setting the edge. Compare this play below to the run I showed above of Eddie Lacy getting around the edge vs. the Lions. The defensive end is key. Above, he allows Lacy to get across his face. Below, the DE/OLB stays off his block, strafes/backpedals outside, and "strings" Lacy out so his cohorts can fill in and make the tackle.

Fast forward to Seattle's matchup with the Panthers last week, and while Seattle gave up 132 yards on 4.4 yards per carry to Carolina, overall I thought the run defense played well. One of my favorite plays of the game, in fact, came early in the 2nd quarter when the Panthers tried to run outside on the Seahawks on a first and ten from the Seahawks' 11 yard line.

It's just excellent run D.

Michael Bennett stands the tight end up, forces him back into the pulling right tackle, and the entire running lane for Carolina is blown up. Even though nose tackle Kevin Williams gets sealed by right guard #70 (it's a pin and pull outside run), Wright and Wagner waste no time in filling.


Cliff Avril pursues from the backside, and Bruce Irvin looks to set the edge.

Irvin actually gets beaten around the edge as he takes on the right tackle, but does enough to force Jonathan Stewart to continue running laterally. Watch how the trio of Cliff Avril, K.J. Wright, and Bobby Wagner "fill" all the potential run lanes and form an amoeba-like bubble around the ball-carrier, moving and shifting with the blocks forming in front of them.


Look for Seattle to attempt to stuff Green Bay's run game to make them one-dimensional. This won't be easy, obviously, but it's the way they've gone about playing over the last few years and it's their bread and butter. In their first matchup in Week 1, Seattle held Green Bay to 80 yards rushing on 21 attempts -- and that's a good benchmark for around what they'll try to do this week. If they can do that, and make the Packers rely on their pass game, they'll be executing their gameplan well.