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Special Teams Matchup in the NFC Championship Game

The least talked about matchup could be the difference in a close game.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Basics

In broad brush strokes you probably wouldn't expect either team to dominate the game on special teams. Neither team is spectacular. Seattle is steadier overall and better at creating field position. Green Bay has more explosive play potential. In a winner-take-all scenario you'd rather be more explosive.

The chart below provides the basic comparative special teams stats from Football Outsiders. Positive numbers are better.

Seattle vs. Green Bay Football Outsiders Stats
Team (Rank) DVOA (Weighted) FG/XP Kickoff Kick Return Punt Punt Return Hidden Yards* (Rank)

Starting Field Position as Avg. Line of Scrimmage

[Offense (Rank)/Defense (Rank)]

Green Bay (31) -5.0% -2.9 -7.0 -2.9 -9.4 10.5 0.1 (16) 28.6(11)/27.39(17)
Seattle (21) -1.9% 0.8 4.5 -7.5 -4.0 -2.4 5.3 (8) 30.16(4)/25.25(1)

*From FO: HIDDEN represents the advantage teams have received from elements of special teams generally out of their control: opposing field goals, kickoff distance, and punt distance. It is listed as points worth of estimated field position, and is ranked from the team with the biggest advantage to the team with the biggest disadvantage.

What the Seahawks Must Do

It is an open secret that Pete Carroll covets field position, and pays a good bit of attention to special teams. Despite that attention, which includes fielding prominent starters and key reserves on coverage and return units, Seattle's special teams have been mediocre at best this season. With a swollen injured reserve list, it should not surprise that special teams has suffered. And, it will continue to suffer this week as Seattle must replace the injured Paul Richardson. The Seahawks have signed B.J. Daniels to the active roster, and he may well be in the mix on coverage and return teams. Otherwise, we are likely looking at Bryan Walters or Doug Baldwin returning kickoffs.

The Green Bay punt return matchup with Seattle's punt coverage should concern Seahawks fans. I get to that momentarily, but start with Seattle's potential equalizer. If you're looking for a guy whose performance will be fairly predictive in this game his name is Jon Ryan. I'm not sure we recognize precisely how much we take his performance for granted. He's not a guy who always hits moon shots. So his traditional regular season numbers don't say "game changer."

For example, his net of 38.3 (on just 61 punts) is pretty "meh" and the return average is actually an unsightly 11.5 yards per. But, that approach to understanding a punter's value doesn't quite capture what Ryan is asked to do (and does). Carroll asks Jon Ryan to create field position for his defense. In response, Ryan put 46% of his punts inside the 20. He tied for 10th in fair catches forced (22) with Andy Lee and Donnie Jones, but did it on far fewer punts than anyone else in the top 10. Ryan only allowed 17 total returns. Limiting actual returns has been crucial this season with so much roster churn. Consider the names on IR: Heath Farwell, Derrick Coleman, Kevin Pierre-Louis, and Cassius Marsh. These were all core special teamers.

That Jon Ryan is one field flippin' mo-fo. He forces offenses to start drives without the key in the ignition. Seattle's defense walks on the field with the best starting field position in the league.

Mike McCarthy simply cannot sit back and allow Jon Ryan to force fair catches that create field position for Seattle's defense. If Seattle's offense and Green Bay's defense play basically to form then they go home with an L. Sure, he'd love to force turnovers, but neither offense really gives up the ball. (Per Football Outsiders' drive stats the offenses are ranked 1 and 2.) McCarthy has to win on special teams to pull this out. Unless Aaron Rodgers just goes full-on mutant (always possible), McCarthy must try to create extra possessions and/or better field position for his offense. Thing is, he's got a clear path to do so. He'd be a fool not to pressure Ryan big time to get a block or big return.

This is no fool's errand either. Green Bay could win this game on special teams if they can also force Seattle to kick field goals. McCarthy's got the horses to make a play or two on teams. Green Bay may lack a top 20 returner based on average, but their returns have been solid. Micah Hyde is sure-handed and slithery. DuJuan Harris is explosive. Add to that, we know what Randall Cobb is about and he has returned punts in the past.

On Seattle's side of the special teams equation, we know that Carroll is not one to simply concede an advantage to an opponent. Green Bay will have to make plays, but 2014 has been a slog on coverage for Seattle. What has been missing at times is assignment correctness. The lapses have been fatal at moments (ahem, @St. Louis). At other moments the lapses (mostly dumb penalties) haven't hurt quite as much, but they have still been worrisome. On returns Carroll has emphasized ball security over explosiveness. Bryan Walters has been a fair catch machine (though a surprising 17th in punt return average at 7.7 ypr). I'd be surprised if Carroll doesn't look to create some hay on special teams himself, because it's not like Green Bay's coverage units are anything to write home about either.

In broad brush strokes, Green Bay may look incapable of stressing Seattle on special teams. But on closer inspection their return units have a potentially sizeable advantage. They are explosive, or explosive in theory (especially if they put Cobb back deep). In perhaps the most obvious conclusion of all time, if Seattle can stay ball strong and assignment correct they are easily capable of winning the special teams matchup.