San Francisco has a 4-0 record against Green Bay in the last two seasons. Two home victories, two road victories. In those four games they’ve averaged 33 points.
The Divisional round in 2012/13 was a major eye-opener. Green Bay’s archaic scheming was no match for Colin Kaepernick and the read option. They had no idea how to stop it, none at all. Aaron Rodgers kept them in a game that should’ve been a total blow out. Kaepernick ran for a quarterback record 181 rushing yards and two touchdowns. The Packers looked old-fashioned, outdated and conceded 45 points on a miserable night.
They spent an entire off-season trying to fix the problem. When they faced Seattle in week three of the 2013 pre-season, they were as intense as any team I’ve seen in a meaningless sporting event. They had the 49ers in week one of the regular season and were determined to make amends. This was a chance to face a similar opponent, to test out all of the summer’s work.
They lost to the Seahawks that night. They lost to the 49ers 34-28 in week one.
Anticipating a heavy focus on the read-option, Jim Harbaugh brilliantly put the game on Kaepernick’s arm. Never known as an accomplished passer, he carved open the Packers for 412 yards in the air and three scores. A career best.
He ran seven times. The Packers probably planned for 17.
It highlighted Green Bay’s inability to adjust to an element of surprise. For what it’s worth the following week Kaepernick had a miserable turnover-laden night in Seattle.
Dom Capers is a highly respectable NFL coach and the current defensive coordinator of the Packers. He’s come in for criticism over the last two years because his defense has looked flat out bad.
According to Football Outsiders, Green Bay had the #31 ranked defense in the NFL last year. Even with Aaron Rodgers missing a large portion of the season through injury, the offense still ranked in the top ten (#9).
If the Packers had even an average defense, imagine how frightening they’d be?
With Capers still clinging to his job, they’ve only made two significant off-season additions. They drafted safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round of the draft and signed free agent Julius Peppers, who turns 35 in January.
Peppers is a generational great with 118.5 career sacks. Yet he only had seven last year on a rotten Bears defense despite playing in all 16 games. Dix meanwhile has been battling for a starting spot with Micah Hyde and according to the teams depth chart — won’t start in Seattle.
The Packers were 28th on pass defense according to Football Outsiders, but 30th against the run. Losing B.J. Raji to a torn bicep won’t help the cause.
Peppers and Clay Matthews will still cause plenty of problems this year, possibly starting in week one. Russell Okung needed extra reps in the final pre-season game to get up to scratch and rookie Justin Britt starts at right tackle. The last two times Seattle started an OL rookie this early, it didn’t go so well on debut. J.R. Sweezy and Michael Bowie were both given a baptism of fire.
You do get the sense, however, you can be creative against this Packers unit and keep them off guard. San Francisco has shown that. The Seahawks will want to establish the run of course and they could have some early success there. But this is still a Caper’s defense that has had major issues adjusting in-game. It won’t be a surprise if Russell Wilson and Percy Harvin are the X-factors in week one, perhaps more so than Marshawn Lynch. They are the two players most capable of providing the unexpected.
Even if Seattle scores points, they’ll still need to keep a lid on the Packers offense. In the four recent defeats to San Francisco they still scored an average of 25 points. In week one last year they managed 28 points at Candlestick — the most San Francisco conceded at home in 2013 and the second most overall (one point short of Seattle’s tally vs the 49ers in week two).
The Niners conceded 48 points to the Packers in two games last season. Seattle might need to exploit possible weaknesses in Green Bay’s defense to win the game. It could be a high scoring contest, maybe even a shoot-out.
Eddie Lacy is a fantastic running back but the key is Rodgers. In Green Bay’s last visit to Seattle (2012) you could see the difference between a pressured Rodgers and a quarterback allowed to get into a rhythm. In the first half he was sacked eight times and scored zero points. In the second half Seattle couldn’t get near him as the Packers upped the tempo and found a way to slow down the pass rush.
Is it optimistic to think he can play four quarters at that level on Thursday? Perhaps, especially against a defense that has taken giant strides since 2012. But if there’s one QB who can do it, it’s probably this guy.
Seattle’s new defensive line couldn’t wish for a better test.
It is a new defensive line — even if many familiar names remain. It’ll be a little strange looking at an early down without Red Bryant’s massive presence or Chris Clemons working the edge. There’s no Clinton McDonald supplying a vital interior rush. The combinations are going to be different, the looks will change. Pete Carroll made reference to a kind of evolution in the immediate aftermath of Bryant’s departure. For us observers, there’s an element of mystery to this.
For starters they have to get to the QB. Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril are as good as any pass-rush tandem in the league, but against a likely up-tempo passing attack they’ll need to work the substitutions. Can O’Brien Schofield continue his pre-season form? Can Cassius Marsh and Jordan Hill have an impact?
There were times over the last month where the defense looked a little sluggish against both the run and pass. However, key players sat out (Bennett, Bobby Wagner) and they’ll always benefit from a home crowd in Seattle.
What could be key is the return of Bruce Irvin. He had a monster performance against the Packers in 2012 and could see more reps at the LOS especially in rush situations. He could be a surprise impact player on defense.
Something else that maybe works in Seattle’s favour is the Green Bay offensive line. Center Corey Linsley makes his first start following an injury to J.C. Tretter. They’ve also lost tackle Don Barclay to an ACL injury.
Their starting line is: LT David Bakhtiari, LG Josh Sitton, C Corey Linsley, RG T.J. Lang, RT Bryan Bulaga.
If there are questions about Seattle’s defensive line after an off-season of tweaks, there are certainly a few questions that need to be asked about Green Bay’s offensive line.
Nevertheless — as with a lot of up-tempo passing games, the need for an elite offensive line is somewhat diminished. Rodgers’ quick release, superb handling of the offense and ability to find a mismatch makes for a terrific attack. He’ll make plays, but can the defense make more?
One final point on Seattle — the performance of Russell Wilson and the offense during pre-season was a major plus-point. There’s no reason why that can’t continue into the regular season — especially if Harvin remains healthy.
It’s easy to forget that in 2012 he was the most outstanding skill-position player in the NFL for several weeks. The defense has to account for him wherever he lines up. The threat of a bubble screen can free up space over the middle. A faked end-around can drag defenders out of a congested LOS freeing up running room for Lynch. His ability to run deep will create 1-on-1 opportunities for Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse.
Seattle can improve on 2013. That’s the scary thing for the rest of the NFL. The offense has major growth potential with Harvin in the line-up.
Let’s see if they can take the next step — starting tomorrow.