The Green Bay Packers survived DeMarco Murray only to look up and find Marshawn Lynch bearing down on them.
Murray got his yards last weekend in the NFC divisional round game, but it wasn’t enough to stop the Packers advancing past Dallas. That sends Green Bay on to the NFC Championship Game Sunday in Seattle.
“(Lynch) is a bigger back,” Packers linebacker Nick Perry said. “He can break through tackles. The main thing is getting all hats to the ball and trying to get him down. That’s the approach every week.”
It is an approach that has been working better lately. Green Bay ended the regular season with the No. 23 run defense in the NFL, but that’s an average of two dramatically different halves of the season.
Over the first eight games, Green Bay stuck stubbornly around the bottom of the league’s run defenses. But over the final eight games of the regular season, the Packers ranked in the top 10 in key statistics: sixth in rushing yards allowed (691), seventh in rushing average (3.6), and tied for first for fewest rushing touchdowns (two).
“Our guys have stepped up here the second half of the season,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “When the Eagles came in here, they were one of the top offenses in the league. We had to deal with the Patriots. We had to deal with the Cowboys.”
Murray, the NFL’s leading rusher with 1,845 yards, ran for 123 yards at Green Bay on Sunday. But the Packers advanced, 26-21.
Next up are the Seahawks and Lynch, who finished fourth in the regular season with 1,306 ground yards. However, Lynch’s powerful running style is on the Packers’ minds as much as his numbers.
“He is one of the hardest runners in football in my opinion,” veteran linebacker Julius Peppers said. “He is a very physical and violent runner. That is definitely a challenge for us this week, going up against a guy of his skill set.”
Lynch picked up 110 of his rushing yards in the September opener against the Packers. Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy has been professionally steady in his meetings with media this week. But he seemed to lose patience Thursday when asked what he through of his team’s tackling at Seattle.
“I think you know the answer to that question,” he said. “It wasn’t very good.”
Seahawks defense end Michael Bennett apparently through the same, and was quoted after the game saying some of the Packers didn’t want to tackle Lynch.
“When you win you can talk,” linebacker Clay Matthews said Thursday when reminded about the quote.
Most of the Packers have simply praised Lynch.
Cornerback Tramon Williams noted gratefully that he doesn’t show up on Lynch’s highlight tape as one of those defenders just bouncing off of him.
Williams added he ranks Lynch as one of the top two runners in the NFL, along with Adrian Peterson of Minnesota.
“(Lynch) might be the toughest guy in the league to get down with just one guy, because he’s so strong,” Capers said. “He runs with a very aggressive style. In his lower body he’s very strong. He’s got size. But there’s no question in my mind that we can tackle much better than we did. We missed too many tackles in the first game, and that’s going to be very important to us. He’s one of those guys that seldom do you see one guy make a hit and get him down. You’ve got to get the second and third guys there.”
In the opener, Lynch’s power was complemented by the speed of Percy Harvin, who added another 41 yards on four carries for Seattle. Harvin has since been traded away, but the Packers still feel challenged by the thunder-and-lightning combination of Lynch and quarterback Russell Wilson.
“To me, the difference in defending these guys — the Seahawks and the Cowboys — is you’ve got to be concerned on every play with Russell Wilson,” Capers said. “… He’s a threat with the ball in his hand, he can make the big play at any time. And one of the things that makes their running game as efficient as it is, when you have to account for the quarterback, you’re not squeezing those run lanes down quite as hard.”