Packers-Seahawks: 5 things to watch
The teams: The Green Bay Packers (0-0) vs. the Seattle Seahawks (0-0).
The time: 7:30 p.m. CDT Thursday.
The place: CenturyLink Field, Seattle.
The TV coverage: NBC — WTMJ (Channel 4) in Milwaukee, WMTV (Channel 15) in Madison and WGBA (Channel 26) in Green Bay.
The announcers: Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth the booth with Michele Tafoya reporting from the sidelines.
The coaches: Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy is 88-50-1 (including 6-5 in the postseason) in his ninth season as the Packers’ coach and as an NFL head coach. The Seahawks’ Pete Carroll is 33-28 (including 5-2 in the postseason) in his fifth year as the Seahawks’ coach and is 77-61 (6-4) in his ninth year as an NFL head coach.
The series: The Packers lead the all-time regular-season series, 8-6, and had won three straight and six of seven (including two playoff games) until the infamous “Fail Mary” game two years ago. The Seahawks won that game, 14-12, on Sept. 24, 2012.
The rankings: Last season, the Packers’ third-ranked offense was No. 7 in rushing and No. 6 in passing. Their 25th-ranked defense was No. 25 against the run and No. 24 against the pass. The Seahawks’ 18th-ranked offense was No. 4 in rushing and No. 26 in passing. Their top-ranked defense was tied for No. 7 against the run and ranked No. 1 against the pass.
The line: The Seahawks are favored by 6.5 points.
The injury report:
Packers – Out: C JC Tretter (knee, placed on injured reserve/designation to return); TE Brandon Bostick (fibula); CB Demetri Goodson (concussion). Probable: ILB Brad Jones (quadriceps).
Seahawks – Out: TE Cooper Helfet (knee); G Jeanpierre Lemuel (neck); LB Kevin Pierre Louis (hamstring); RB Christine Michael (hamstring); CB Tharold Simon (knee). Probable: LB Bruce Irvin (hip); WR Kevin Norwood (ankle); CB Jeremy Lane (groin).
THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
Ground control: McCarthy took issue this week with the suggestion that his defensive line isn’t as big as it has been in the past. Apparently, he would prefer that you said the defensive line isn’t as fat.
“I feel good about our run defense. I really don’t get this, ‘We’re smaller’ [talk],” McCarthy said. “We may weigh less, but I don’t think our D-line is smaller.”
Defensive end Datone Jones, the team’s first-round pick in 2013 who has moved into a full-time role in both the base and sub defenses, felt similarly.
“6-4 1/2, 290?” Jones said, delivering his measurements with a chuckle. “That’s a big defensive end right there.”
Indeed it is, but with the exception of 6-foot, 300-pound Mike Daniels, the group is built more in Jones’ image than in that of former run-stuffing, block-eating defensive tackle Ryan Pickett, who tipped the scales at more than 340 pounds and was not re-signed after becoming an unrestricted free agent after last season. Instead, they’ll go with more svelte – relatively speaking – guys like Letroy Guion (6-4, 315) and Josh Boyd (6-3, 305) in their rotation, especially now that veteran nose tackle B.J. Raji’s season is over because of a torn biceps.
“I think we’ll be OK there,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. “We’re going to play the guys that are there, and I think we’ve got some guys that have the ability to get in the gap and also have the ability to get off the blocks.”
And that’s the key – more athleticism. Whatever they lose in bulk, the Packers are hoping they’ve added in quickness, agility and movement. McCarthy calls the group “long-levered,” meaning they have long arms and legs, and he believes both his defensive ends and his outside linebackers are capable of setting the edge in various personnel packages.
“From a personnel standpoint, I feel very good about the people,” McCarthy said. “The ability to rotate different players will be a key.”
The other key, to be sure, will be defending Marshawn Lynch, who remains one of the league’s elite backs. He finished last season having finished sixth in the league in rushing last season (1,257 yards) and remains the straw that stirs the Seahawks’ offense, despite quarterback Russell Wilson’s ascent. Other than a poor tackling effort on Oakland running back Maurice Jones-Drew’s 40-yard touchdown run Aug. 22, the run defense in preseason wasn’t an issue. Without Raji, who went down against the Raiders, defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ plan is to play Guion at nose and use Boyd primarily at end.
“[The approach to run defense] again falls under that category of knowing who you have and adjusting what you’re doing,” Capers said. “I think that maybe what we might not have in size, we gain in athletic ability. I think we’ll be a more athletic defense than what we’ve been. I think when you look at the big picture, most of these offenses you’re playing, the more athletes you can put out there on the field, the better chance of making plays.
“We’ll have to do it a little more with quickness than we will with just girth in there inside. But I feel confident we can do that.”
Rodgers, over and in: Much of the focus during the week – including from Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin and his prayer group, apparently – was on Packers rookie center Corey Linsley, who will make his NFL regular-season debut in one of the most challenging environments in the NFL. But there’s another rookie on offense who’ll be starting and expected to contribute: Rookie tight end Richard Rodgers
“Richard has been very mature really since he’s got here. He’s done things seamlessly,” McCarthy said. “He’s had a lot of new learning [to do with] some of the things we’ve asked him to do. I’ve been very impressed with his progress. He’ll definitely have a huge opportunity Thursday”
Rodgers, a third-round pick from California, emerged as the best of the tight end bunch, and it would appear that he would have gotten the starting nod even if Bostick hadn’t suffered a small fracture in his fibula during the team’s Aug. 16 game at St. Louis. While Bostick certainly will have a role when he returns, for now, it’s Rodgers’ gig with veteran Andrew Quarless as the No. 2 and Ryan Taylor’s role still special-teams centric.
“Richard has done a really nice job,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers – no relation – said during his weekly radio show on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com earlier this week. “He’s a smart guy – he should be, he’s from Cal – and he runs very good routes. He dropped like one ball that was high this year in training camp. It was surprising, because you hadn’t seen him drop a ball the entire camp. So, he has great hands, he has a feel for soft spots in zones. He’s a guy that you’re going to want to get the ball to a couple times just to get him comfortable.”
The quarterback may also want to get him the ball merely because the offense is better when it gets production from the tight-end position. The offense misses longtime pass-catcher Jermichael Finley, who remains unsigned after last year’s career-threatening neck injury and subsequent spinal fusion surgery, But as many recall, Finley was a non-factor as a rookie third-round pick in 2008, except when he popped off after a loss at Tennessee about his quarterback not putting an end-zone pass in the right location. Richard Rodgers has been the opposite of that guy.
“I think the relationship that he’s built with our quarterback has been real positive,” tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot said. “He’s not a real emotional kid, he doesn’t get overly excited and he doesn’t get depressed. He’s really stayed very middle-of-the-road – unless he complete goes haywire when he leaves the building, which there’s no indication of that.
“I just think that anytime you’re stepping into the first game you’ve ever played on an NFL stage, there’s always going to be some things that are unforeseen and you can’t predict. He’s dealt with adversity very well up to this point.”
He also knows what he’s up against.
“I don’t think there’s that much pressure. I have very good guys around me that will help me,” the rookie said. “Aaron is great at communicating and just putting us in the right position to succeed. So me and Corey have a tall task ahead of us, [but] we’re just going to try to do our best and we have the support of everyone else on the team.”
The silent man: Daniels doesn’t have to worry about Julius Peppers usurping him as the most quotable, talkative defensive player in the Packers’ locker room. In fact, it’s safe to say that If he weren’t so high-profile – and if he wouldn’t get fined for it – Peppers might never pass through the place during media availability sessions. It’s not that he dislikes attention or isn’t capable of being engaging – he most certainly is an interesting fellow in conversation – but he feels no need for it.
Evidently, he’s not especially conversational when the media isn’t in the locker room, either.
“Peppers, he doesn’t utter a word all day but, when you’re on the field, he turns into a raging psychopath,” said Daniels, as only he can. “I don’t want him yelling at me for not doing my job the right way. Those are the kind of guys we need out there: Guys that are going to keep each other accountable, going to stay on top of each other and make sure we get the job done. I’m looking forward to it, not so much because of what we’re doing, but because who we have out there.”
During a 4-minute session in the locker room earlier this week, Peppers sent off an anywhere-but-here vibe when asked whether, after 13 years, this opener feels different because it’s his Packers regular-season debut or his debut at outside linebacker after years of playing defensive end in a 4-3.
“No,” he replied.
And what would make it more exciting?
“I don’t know.”
Later, he expounded, saying, “We’re actually just ready to get out there and start the season off on a good note. Just want to get out there and perform and set the tone for the season.”
Peppers will certainly be expected to let his play do the talking, and even though he’s 34 years old and is not viewed as the go-to guy on the Packers’ defense, the be-a-playmaker expectations are undoubtedly there. Whether it’s drawing attention away from four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Clay Matthews or taking advantage of not getting as much attention as his long-locked running mate, Peppers needs to have an impact. He gradually looked more comfortable during preseason, when he was clearly coasting like a smart veteran would, but now it’s time for him to elevate his play, as he is one of the reasons McCarthy feels good about the team’s pass rush.
“We’re a better pass rush team today than we’ve been in a long time,” McCarthy said.
If Peppers has the impact his new teammates anticipate, they could be better than they’ve been in ages.
“It’s going to be fun,” cornerback Tramon Williams said. “It should make it easy on us in the back end. Anytime you got guys like that, the game always becomes fun at that point. It always makes our job a lot easier.”
Prime-time player: Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman spent much of the offseason in the news – oh, who are we kidding, he was in the news plenty before the season ended – but his profile certainly kept increasing. While he took some heat for his bombastic post-NFC Championship Game interview with Erin Andrews of FOX Sports, it didn’t hurt his Q-rating, as he appeared on the cover of EA Sports’ Madden 15 video game and seemed to be on your television non-stop. He also got a new contract (five years, $58.789 million, $40 million guaranteed) and laid claim to the title of the league’s best cover man.
Then came the NFL and its points of emphasis, one of which was an effort to curb physical play in the passing game, with a focus on grabbing and pushing. The general feeling was that the emphasis was in direct response to Sherman and his guys, but Sherman, for one, doesn’t think it will hurt the Seahawks one bit. In fact, he likes the idea.
“We’ve played the game [during the preseason] exactly how we’ve been playing it,” Sherman said. “And the rules continue to be what they were. We didn’t change anything. We were playing by the rules before and we continue to play by the rules. Every now and then, you get tangled up and you get hit for illegal contact. We had a few fluke ones in there, but for the most part I feel like we try to play within the rules and play our scheme. We’re happy the emphasis is there because it’ll give people less excuses.”
Players spoke all exhibition season long about whether the emphasis would continue into the regular season, and at one point quarterback Aaron Rodgers joked that he hoped Ed Hochuli’s crew, which worked the Family Night practice, would work this game because of the number of flags it threw. But no one knows for sure how the game will be called.
What the Packers do know, or think they know, is that Sherman will be lining up to the right side of their offense. He could move around, and perhaps match up with Jordy Nelson, even though McCarthy said he hadn’t seen Sherman do that on film at any point.
If he stays put, No. 3 receiver Jarrett Boykin is likely to see Sherman the most.
“We’ve noticed that a lot on film. Of course, you get unscouted looks. They could come out there and do something totally different,” Boykin said. “If anything else happens otherwise, we’ll adjust to it.”
Asked if he relishes the challenge of facing Sherman, Boykin replied, “You want to go against the guys who consider themselves the best in the league or whatever the case may be. You want to go out there and prove yourself over and over.”
Jordan rules: Searching for insight on how to follow up last year’s title, Russell Wilson sought out His Airness. That’s right, the Seahawks quarterback – and former University of Wisconsin star – made a point of picking the brain of NBA legend Michael Jordan during Jordan’s annual golf tournament in Las Vegas.
“That was an amazing experience for me,” said Wilson, who posted a photo of himself with Jordan on his Instagram account.
Wilson asked Jordan, who has also befriended Aaron Rodgers, if he had any advice for him as the Seahawks’ leader, given that Jordan led his Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles in an eight-year span.
“The thing that he said is, [it’s all about] being able to lead,” Wilson said in a conference call with Wisconsin reporters earlier in the week. “Being able to bring the others with you and, also, being the one that’s always the first one there and the last one to leave, to take the extra shots, to help the young guys and do all the things that you can. You just have to do that much more.
“Human nature wants to fight against that. Human nature wants you to naturally relax and not improve. One of the things I’m trying to do and our team collectively is to fight that and to continue to improve and continue to stay focused on one mission.”
Recent history is against the Seahawks repeating; in fact, the last nine Super Bowl winners didn’t even win a playoff game the following year. (The 2011 Packers, for instance, secured the No. 1 seed in the NFC with a 15-1 regular-season record but lost at home in the Divisional playoffs to eventual the Super Bowl-champion New York Giants.) But in Wilson, they believe they have the perfect guy to push them through any potential complacency.
“Russell’s an extraordinary leader and an amazing kid to be coaching,” Carroll said. “It’s the thrill of a coach’s life to have a guy like that that you’re battling with each week.”
But Wilson isn’t merely defined by intangibles. Now in his third year, he has a more global understanding of the offense and the Seahawks know that they can count on him to make big plays with both his arm and his legs, not just avoid mistakes.
“First of all, he’s a lot more confident. You can tell that,” Packers cornerback Tramon Williams said, comparing 2014 Wilson to the one he faced in 2012. “You can tell that he understands the game, what he’s trying to do, what they’re trying to get out of their offense. You can tell that he understands his receivers, the guys that he trusts, he gets them the ball when he gets in trouble. Overall, he’s just become a better all-around player.”
Said Wilson: “I just try to do my part. That’s always the case, whether I’ve got to throw it 40 or 50 times or just 25 to 30 times. There’s a balanced attack to it, and that’s what we do so well. With a great defense, we have a physical running game, we have a great play-action game. We try to get the ball out on time. Obviously, going into Year 3, I’ve learned so much more, I’ve played in so many big games and been a part of something special.”
The obvious pick here is the home team, right? After all, the Seahawks are an astounding 17-1 the last two years at CenturyLink, and the reigning Super Bowl champions have only lost twice since the league went to this format of having the defending champs open at home in prime time a decade ago. But there was something about the way McCarthy spoke so confidently about how much better his team came out of training camp this year than in years past. He’s not one for bravado – although he did say at the Wisconsin Sports Awards this spring that his team was “going out there to kick ass” – so the out-on-a-limb guess here is that McCarthy’s guys make an opening-night statement, and save themselves a trip back in the postseason. Packers 27, Seahawks 24. (2013 season record: 12-4-1.)
– Jason Wilde
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