Seahawks Insider Blog

Winds supposed to calm some; SEA pass rush key to NFC title game; the pick

The Seahawks and Packers woke for NFC title game day to high winds around the Seattle area; some areas got gusts up to 40 and 50 mph. But a high-wind warning for Seattle and suburbs ended at 8 a.m., and those winds are supposed to calm somewhat to 16 miles per hour from kickoff at 12:05 p.m. through much of the game.

Even the local Puget Sound Energy folks are in Seahawks game mode while advising about interruptions of service overnight:

Kickers and quarterbacks usually too affected by rain, and officials will be swapping footballs out between almost every play today in the NFC championship. But strong winds are another matter. If these winds don't calm as predicted, look for the team to win the opening coin toss to consider taking an end of the field and play calls and punting choices to be based on which way the wind is going. When I get to the stadium I'll try to judge which way this wind is predominantly blowing, but it's often a swirling or change-of-direction wind inside CenturyLink Field just off Elliott Bay.

Our usual live game chat from the stadium gets going here on the blog around 11:30 a.m. Pacific Time. Be there or be square.

Here is my key matchup today, related to Seattle making Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers more uncomfortable than he already is:

SEATTLE DEs MICHAEL BENNETT, CLIFF AVRIL VS. GREEN BAY OTs DAVID BAKHTIARI, BRYAN BULAGA

The most important task for the Seahawks’ defense is to make Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers do what he’d rather not: Have to move to escape pressure on a partially torn calf.

People get fixated on sacks. And, sure, dumping Rodgers would absolutely be a huge plus for Seattle. But the measure of how effective Seahawks are in pressuring the league’s highest-rated passer since 2011 will be how many times Rodgers has to throw from a spot other than his prescribed drop-back point.

“We want to try to make him move,” Avril said. “Make him move his feet. No quarterback likes to move his feet to throw.”

Especially an elite one playing on only one good leg.

Bakhtiari and Bulaga are two large (624 pounds combined) reasons why Rodgers has been sacked just 30 times on 574 drop backs this season – once every 19 attempts to pass. But Dallas sacked the limping Rodgers twice last weekend.

The ultra-fast Bennett often gets off the snap so quickly his blockers are still in their stances as he zooms into the backfield. Bennett will move inside on obvious passing downs, more over rookie center Corey Linsley. Seattle may play Bennett inside more than usual in an attempt to exploit that matchup. That would leave speedy linebacker Bruce Irvin as Avril’s outside pass-rush pal against Bakhtiari and Bulaga.

For Avril, the most important key against Rodgers is not necessarily sacks. It’s “to get him off the spot.”

THE MATCHUPS

Quarterback

Carolina stacked its defense against the run and dared Russell Wilson to beat it last week. He did, with 268 yards and three touchdowns on just 15 completions. He’s also rushed for 871 yards in 17 games. As coach Pete Carroll likes to say, all Wilson does is win; Wilson is now 41-13 in his Seahawks career, including 5-1 in the playoffs and 17-3 in December, January and February. He is 7-0 against Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Tom Brady. But Green Bay’s Rodgers is even more accomplished – even with a partially torn calf. The MVP of the 2011 Super Bowl extended his NFL with his sixth consecutive season of a passer rating above 100. He went 13 games this season without an interception, the third-longest regular-season streak in league history. He’s the league’s highest-rated passer (112.6) with the best TD/INT ratio (139/25) since 2011. He’s 6-4 in the playoffs, with 22 touchdowns and five interceptions.

The edge: Packers

Running back

Marshawn Lynch had 110 yards and two touchdowns rushing in these teams’ last meeting, Sept. 4. His 1,306 yards rushing this regular season were the second-most of his eight-year career. His 17 total touchdowns --13 rushing and career-high four receiving – led the NFL. Robert Turbin is a more shifty option on third and long and in Seattle’s 2-minute offense. Eddie Lacy is a bullish running back some liken to Lynch in style. Lacy had 101 yards rushing last weekend against Dallas, and his 1,139 yards rushing was fourth in the league this regular season, 167 yards behind Lynch. James Starks is the change-of-pace back, and the Packers also line up usual wide receiver Randall Cobb in the backfield. He’s run it 12 times in 17 games.

The edge: Seahawks

Wide receivers

Doug Baldwin’s career highs of 66 catches and 825 yards cemented his top receiving role after Seattle traded Percy Harvin in October. Jermaine Kearse continued his penchant for big plays in the biggest games with his team-playoff-record 63-yard catch and run last week against Carolina. Yet the Seahawks throw it less than anyone in the league (454 times the regular season, 28 throws per game). Rookie Paul Richardson (29 receptions) is out with a torn ACL. Kevin Norwood (nine catches) will be active after inactive last week. Ricardo Lockette and mothballed Chris Matthews will also move up in prominence. Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson had 98 catches with 13 touchdowns in the regular season; Rodgers loves to throw deep with him. Randall Cobb had 91 catches with 12 scores, then eight more receptions for 116 yards last week. Davante Adams had only eight snaps, no targets in these teams’ first meeting, but the Seahawks have to worry about him now. He had seven catches last week for 117 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter of Green Bay’s 26-21 rally win past Dallas.

The edge: Packers

Tight ends

Andrew Quarless had 29 catches with three touchdowns in the regular season, then four more last week. Seattle lost standout Zach Miller early in the season to an ankle injury and has used four at this position. Tony Moeaki is back this week after missing last week with a shoulder injury. The midseason signing off a Buffalo injury settlement has gotten first downs in his last four receptions. Fill-in Luke Willson’s made huge plays, dropped other passes. Cooper Helfet is the No. 3 tight end.

The edge: Packers

Offensive line

Max Unger returned last week after missing six games with a high-ankle sprain and – voila! -- Wilson had time to launch deep rainbows for a change: 268 yards passing on just 15 completions. The two-time Pro Bowl center is Seattle’s best communicator on offense, a glue guy that makes the entire line better. And it’s needed to be. Right guard J.R. Sweezy has been a standout run blocker but has struggled in pass protection. So has left tackle Russell Okung and rookie right tackle Justin Britt, who is questionable to play with a knee injury. Alvin Bailey would start if Britt can’t. Seattle’s battered line has had nine different starters, including four centers. Green Bay’s has Corey Linsley, the first rookie center to start an opener for Green Bay since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. Left tackle David Bakhtiari has started every game since the first game of his 2013 rookie season. The Packers have allowed Rodgers to be sacked just 29 times in 584 drop backs. Wilson’s been sacked 44 times in 518 drop backs. Honestly, on a whole Seattle’s line hasn’t had an edge on anyone this season.

The edge: Packers

Defensive line

This is a prime time for swarming ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril to do major damage rushing a quarterback who has one good leg. Bennett has been unblockable at times on Seattle’s active, four-man front. His first step is faster than that of some wide receivers. On third downs he often moves over the center or guard to create a speed mismatch; this time he’ll face Green Bay rookie center Ryan Linsley in there. The Seahawks lost run-stuffing nose tackle Brandon Mebane in November, but 11-year veteran Kevin Williams has been a revelation filling in and devouring blockers. Green Bay has a first-year starter (right end Mike Daniels, 5½ sacks), a first-year free agent (nose tackle Letroy Guion, 3½ sacks) and second-year man (left end Datone Jones, 1½ sacks) starting on its front.

The edge: Seahawks

Linebackers

For the second consecutive Seahawks week, dynamic linebackers oppose each other. Clay Matthews, a former player for Pete Carroll at USC, has 11 sacks. He moves all over Green Bay’s 3-4 set – inside, outside, onto the line. Seattle’s line needs to find him before each snap. Julius Peppers, in his 13th season, had seven sacks in the regular season and one more last week in the playoffs. A.J. Hawk and Sam Barrington are the inside backers. Seattle’s All-Pro Bobby Wagner is as fast as wide receivers and excels at diagnosing plays. Seattle’s converted rush end Bruce Irvin has 7½ sacks and has become an every-down outside linebacker with his first two interception returns for TDs this season. Teammate K.J. Wright is almost as fast as all of them.

The edge: Seahawks

Defensive backs

The Seahawks came within two votes of having three All-Pros in their secondary. Free safety Earl Thomas and cornerback Richard Sherman got those honors again, Pro Bowl strong safety Kam Chancellor just missed. Sherman’s 24 interceptions are one short of the NFL record for most in the first four years of a career. Rodgers didn’t throw at him once in 36 pass calls in September, but the Packers vow to be more aggressive this time. Byron Maxwell is back at right cornerback opposite Sherman after missing last week’s start with the flu. Rodgers will target him often. Green Bay’s Tramon Williams ranks second in the NFL with 22 interceptions since 2010. He has three this season. Opposite cornerback Sam Shields had two interceptions this season. He’s 5-11; look for Seattle’s 6-1 Jermaine Kearse, 6-3 Ricardo Lockette and 6-5 Chris Matthews to target him. With safeties Morgan Burnett and rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Green Bay doesn’t have a starting defensive back taller than 6-1.

The edge: Seahawks

Special teams

Seattle punter Jon Ryan is one of the best in the league at controlling field position and pinning foes deep in their own end. Steven Hauschka has made 32 of 37 field goals, with an unheard-of three misses in one game last month at Arizona. The Seahawks’ kickoff- and punt-return plus kick-coverage teams have suffered from injuries to starters that have put fill-ins in unfamiliar spots. Green Bay’s Tim Masthay averaged 44.1 yards per punt in the regular season; he had two blocked. Mason Crosby has 1,037 career points, the most by an NFL player in his first eight seasons. Crosby is 29 for 35 on field goals this season, including 4 for 7 beyond 50 yards.

The edge: Seahawks

Coaching

Pete Carroll is the first coach since George Seifert with the 1989-90 San Francisco 49ers to win the Super Bowl as a top conference playoff seed then be a No. 1 seed again the following season. He’s 6-2 with the Seahawks in the playoffs during his third NFL go-around. Between them his two coordinators, Dan Quinn (defense) and Darrell Bevell (offense), interviewed for six head-coaching vacancies this month. Mike McCarthy is 101-54-1, 7-5 in the playoffs, during his nine seasons leading the Packers. He, Vince Lombardi and Mike Holmgren are the only Packers coaches to win a Super Bowl.

Edge: Even

The Pick

Rodgers, one good leg and all, is going to give the Seahawks’ top-ranked defense its biggest challenge of this season. The Packers won’t be able to get Eddie Lacy going running to keep Seattle’s heat off Rodgers late, though. And Marshawn Lynch will go wild tromping on a Packers defense that was 23rd in the league stopping the run in the regular season, making Seattle the first team since the 2004 New England Patriots to return to the Super Bowl the year after winning it.

Seahawks 20, Packers 17

--Here is my main story in today's News Tribune, on Russell Wilson's power of visualization -- and Rodgers wanting to atone for his last NFC title game four years ago.

--TNT columnist John McGrath describes how these Seahawks are no strangers to stormy weather for games.

--Fellow columnist Dave Boling is trying to spare us all the wait and says the Seahawks are heading back to the Super Bowl.

--Enjoy the game. Should be a great one.

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