Players to Watch: Seahawks vs. Packers
The Seahawks have giant, wall-sized photos of their greatest moments this decade lining one side of a long hallway. It’s between the locker room and the main meeting room inside the team’s lakeside headquarters.
Four of the immortalized scenes on that wall are of recent Seahawks-Packers games. That’s even more representations there than of Seattle’s two Super Bowl games.
There’s a giant photo of Russell Wilson on a stage at CenturyLink Field lifting the NFC championship trophy after Seattle beat Green Bay in January 2015.
A few feet down the wall, the play that won that trophy: Jermaine Kearse pulling down Wilson’s pass beyond Green Bay defensive back Tramon Williams to improbably win that NFC title game in overtime.
There’s Golden Tate simultaneously catching Wilson’s jump ball in the end zone with two Packers in the infamous “Fail Mary” ending to Seattle’s home win on a Monday night in 2012. The league ended their experiment of replacement officials after that botched night; the NFL gave its regular game officials a new contract and got them back on the field, pronto.
And to the left of that, there’s a enlarged photo on the wall of Wilson cocking his arm to throw against Green Bay at CenturyLink Field a few years ago.
Wilson and two-time NFL MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers meet for the seventh time on Thursday night when the Seahawks (4-5) host the Packers (4-4-1) again. This time it’s with both teams’ realistic hopes for a late-season run back to the playoffs at stake.
Wilson is 2-3 against Rodgers in the regular season. But Wilson owns that bigger prize at Rodgers’ expense, that win in the NFC title game.
Will there be another moment from this Seattle-Green Bay meeting that becomes wall worthy?
“There’s been some, obviously, great games. There’s been some great moments,” Wilson said during this short preparation week. “Definitely tough battles. Games that come down to the wire.
“Obviously, Aaron’s a great football player. One of the best to ever step onto the field. I have a great appreciation for how he plays the game, watching him. Every time you play a great quarterback and you play a great team like the Packers — they have such great history, they know how to do it — every one of those moments you cherish. And you look forward to those opportunities.”
The Seahawks are looking forward to the opportunity to make another November-December rush into the playoffs. This week they have thought about 2015.
Those Seahawks were also 4-5 in mid-November. They then won five straight games. Wilson went on a record-setting passing spurt with receiver Doug Baldwin, and Seattle clinched its fourth consecutive playoffs with two games still remaining in that regular season.
These Seahawks are coming off a 36-31 loss to the NFC West-leading Rams last weekend in Los Angeles.
Wilson is 26-7 following a Seahawks in-season loss. That’s the best such record by an NFL QB since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. Since 2012 only Tom Brady (39) has more regular-season wins in November, December and January than Wilson (38).
But if they are to rally back to the playoffs this season, the Seahawks must do it on the ground first.
This year’s team is built to run backs Chris Carson, Rashaad Penny and Mike Davis early and often in games, to set up Wilson for play-action passing. That has proven through nine games to be the only way to ensure Wilson gets consistently adequate protection from his offensive line to throw the ball down the field.
The Seahawks enter this game believing they can run on anyone. No wonder. Last weekend they rolled up 273 yards on the ground against the Rams. And that was with Seattle missing Carson (hip) and right guard D.J. Fluker (calf).
Carson and Fluker will be returning to start Thursday, coach Pete Carroll confirmed on Wednesday. Look for Seattle to begin this game with consecutive runs from Carson and perhaps Penny, before Davis, to better set up Wilson for play-action passes.
The Packers will be missing starting cornerback Kevin King. Green Bay on Wednesday listed the former University of Washington star as out with a hamstring injury. The man the Packers list as King’s backup on their depth chart, recently signed Bashaud Breeland, is questionable to play with a groin injury.
Green Bay starts at rookie at the other cornerback, 5-foot-10 cornerback Jaire Alexander. If Seattle can establish an effective running game to give Wilson more time to throw, the offense is likely to send bigger David Moore at Alexander to test the rookie deep outside.
That, in turn, could leave Rodgers having to match points.
Of course, he absolutely can do that.
Rodgers, who turns 35 next month, is having another exquisite season. He’s thrown for 17 touchdowns with just one interception in 355 throws. That’s a interception rate of 0.3 percent, the lowest in the league and lowest of his career.
“Wow, there’s a lot to his game,” Carroll said. “His instincts are extraordinary... they show up in so many different ways. His ability to move in and around the pocket and find more time and create more space is as good as you get.
“He has an extraordinary motion and release on the football, with great arm strength. It allows him to use the entire field, so when you add those two elements together — when he does find the space and creates another opportunity and then has the ability to throw the ball whether it is left or right, across the field, it doesn’t matter — he just has extraordinary ability...
“He’s just as difficult as you can get. He looks as good as ever.”
Since the first half of the opening game, Rodgers has been playing with a left-knee injury that would have kept most players out many weeks. He could barely walk in that opener but rallied the Packers past the now-NFC North-leading Chicago Bears 24-23. He then wore a knee brace through games for weeks.
“He’s managing it each and every day,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said this week on a conference call. “It’s something that we knew was a big injury when it occurred. And you’ve just got to give him a tremendous amount of credit in what he does to get himself ready each and every week.”
This season Rodgers has a running game supporting his throwing, for a change. Running back Aaron Jones is averaging 6.8 yards per run, almost two full yards more than the NFL’s rushing leader, Todd Gurley of the Rams. Jones has four touchdowns.
“Aaron Jones is doing a great job finding gaps,” Seahawks strong safety Bradley McDougald said. “He reminds me of Kerryon (Johnson) from Detroit. He does a great job of giving what the defense allows him. He ran right through the Dolphins (for 145 yards on 15 carries with two touchdowns last weekend in Green Bay’s 31-12 home win).”
The Seahawks held Johnson to 22 yards on eight rushes Oct. 28 in their 28-14 win over the Lions in Michigan.
As a team Green Bay is tied for the league lead with Denver at 5.2 yards per carry.
Since the Detroit game, the Seahawks have been woeful at stopping the run. The Chargers ran for 160 yards on them two weeks ago. Then Gurley and the Rams put up 149 on the ground last weekend. Seattle set fixing its run defense inside as a priority this week, to try to make the Packers have to throw.
“It takes the element of surprise away, because once you stop the run you have to start passing the ball. At some point, you have to pass the ball,” McDougald said. “And when you’re Aaron Rodgers and you have a dynamic offense like that, you want to pass the ball. You want to get a ton of plays. But the way that you mix it in there is with the run. You start getting the linebackers to bite up and then that opens the passing game up.
“Once you do that and we take the run and we know they’re going to pass it, the linebackers suddenly are sort of able to sink into their zones and the safeties can sit comfortably in their zones. The corners are expecting the ball to come out and we’re all looking at the quarterback and we’re breaking. Once you’re able to take one of those away from the offense, they become single-handed.
“That’s exactly when turnovers happen.”
Ah, yes, turnovers.
The Seahawks forced 16 turnovers in their first seven games. They were second in the NFL entering the Chargers game with a plus-10 turnover margin.
As McDougald said, stopping the run and forcing foes to pass creates turnovers. That hasn’t happened for Seattle in weeks.
While end Frank Clark has eight sacks in nine games, the Seahawks’ pass rush has been weak against the best quarterbacks. Philip Rivers and Jared Goff have had too much time to burn Seattle’s zone coverages down the field the last two weeks in the Seahawks’ consecutive losses. Related to the lack of pressure on those quarterbacks, the Seahawks haven’t produced a takeaway in either of their last two games.
Rodgers is 6-2 in eight regular-season games against the Seahawks. His completion rate of 68.1 percent against Seattle is his second-highest against any opponent he’s faced more than twice (Atlanta, 68.9 percent in six career games).
But the Seahawks have been able to get to Rodgers in the past. They’ve sacked him 21 times in eight regular-season games. That rate of 2.6 sacks per game is his most against any team he’s played more than twice.
Of course, most of those sacks came when Seattle had Pro Bowl defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril rushing after Rodgers. Bennett and Avril are gone now.
With the damaged knee, Rodgers has been sacked 25 times in the 8 1/2 games he’s played this season. He’s on pace to be sacked 44 times this season, which would be his most times dumped in four years.
So the Seahawks’ pass rush must affect Rodgers. Or the two-time league MVP may win this game by himself.
That absolutely would not be worthy of another Seahawks-Packers photo on Seattle’s team wall.