Seattle Seahawks – 36
Welcome to the season’s first edition of Pick Six, my weekly Packers and NFL blog. I’m excited and honored to be a contributor to The Squeaky Curd, and look forward to your thoughts and comments as the season goes on. Without further ado, here are my six takes on Packers-Seahawks and other events of NFL Week 1.
1. Mike McCarthy’s offensive game plan – With the schedule release each April, every fan base engages in five months of hype leading up to the week 1 match up. Film of the opponent’s previous 16 plus games is meticulously picked apart to try to gain any sort of competitive advantage in the face of what some teams say are up to 50% unscouted looks.
I’m often a fan of Mike McCarthy as a head coach and offensive mind. I think he has an excellent pulse on the locker room, has designed an offense built for success around pace/efficiency and understands that the NFL is primarily a match up game. The game is no more complicated than getting your most talented players the right amount of touches in the open field. That philosophy came crashing down in the face of Seattle’s all pro cornerback Richard Sherman.
The Pro Football Focus breakdown of the game confirmed what every viewer already knew, regarding how the Packers handled Sherman – 4 quarters, 0 receptions, 0 targets. A majority of those snaps went to Packers WR Jarrett Boykin who acted as the team’s sacrificial lamb at RWR, matched up against Sherman’s LCB position of which he rarely waivers.
Please understand, I have no qualms with being careful in how a team handles Sherman. He’s not to be frequently challenged on deep balls or tight passing windows, but he is by no means invincible. My hope was that the first half avoidance of Sherman’s side of the field was a coy game of cat and mouse played by McCarthy in an effort to force Earl Thomas to roll coverage in the direction of Byron Maxwell (9 receptions on 11 targets for 79 yards, including a gift INT that was inches from being a reception). In the second half, this might have opened up the opportunity to stack WRs Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb on the right side of the formation and catch Sherman and Thomas napping with a sprinkling of combination routes.
Instead of working toward creating a defensive imbalance, McCarthy played right into Seattle’s strength and allowed them to effectively play 10 on 10 over two-thirds of the field. Any NFL caliber defense (much less the league’s best) would be wide-eyed at this opportunity, and once the Seahawks were allowed to constrict the field in the second half, the Packers had no shot. If this was McCarthy’s intention, and he truly didn’t believe a consensus top 10 WR in Jordy Nelson and top 3 QB in Aaron Rodgers could challenge one of the league’s best cornerbacks even once, the intimidation factor ended this game long before it began.
2. Inside Linebacker/Defensive Tackle Play – If there’s one area of the team that concerns me the most regarding this season’s outlook, it’s the inside triangle of the 3-4 defense. Dom Capers gave some of the first indications that he’s recognized this problem as the Packers employed a 4-3 base defense on various drives, employing Mike Neal and/or Julius Peppers as down linemen. Even so, the inconsistent (or worse) play of Brad Jones, A.J. Hawk and the rotation of nose tackles that included newcomer and former Viking Letroy Guion and converted DE Josh Boyd rendered the middle of the defense useless for long stretches in the second half. Boyd was slightly more effective than Guion in 12 less snaps (36 to 24) but neither made an impact play and both were pushed around inside as RB Marshawn Lynch ran behind the battle tested Seahawks line to the tune of 110 yards and 2 TD on 20 carries. Looking at the level of play we saw from B.J. Raji this summer and how it compared to his last stint at nose tackle during the 2010 Super Bowl run, it’s safe to say the loss of Raji will loom large all season. Expect to see what DT Mike Pennel has to offer in the coming weeks to see if any of the three NTs currently on the roster can do something to grab and hold onto that spot with some level of consistency this season.
Even worse than the play up front was the effort in the second level from Green Bay’s starting inside linebackers. I’ve never been part of the A.J. Hawk hate club. He never lived up to his billing as a top 10 NFL pick, but has been smart, durable and consistent in his eight year NFL career. Unfortunately, age is catching up to Hawk and his already average speed has deteriorated to the point that he’s a liability in any situation that requires explosive downhill play.
I can’t say the same about Brad Jones. He was exposed in coverage and run recognition, tagged with three missed tackles (courtesy of Pro Football Focus once again, and a number that seems generous in light of my re-watch of this game) and slow to fill the hole even when a solid edge was set by Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers or one of the sub outside linebackers. At this point, his level of play is not that of a starting NFL ILB, and it’s a problem that dates back to the middle of last season.
I can’t claim to have a solution for this problem, but I do have a couple ideas for how to address it. First, Hawk and Jones have to become rotational players rather than every snap LBs. Hawk played 48 of the team’s 70 defensive snaps, and Jones did not leave the field for a single down. Allowing them to see the field in longer down and distance situations with fresher legs may give them a new lease on NFL life, allowing them a better chance at impact plays and to remain effective deeper in the season.
For the remaining snaps, it’s time for the Packers to see what they have in Jamari Lattimore, Sam Barrington and rookie Carl Bradford, who recently converted from OLB to ILB. All of these players have higher ceilings than the incumbents, and Barrington especially brings a level of physicality that can only be matched on this roster by Clay Matthews, Mike Daniels, and occasionally Sean Richardson. If the Packers put these players on the 53 man roster for any reason outside of special teams, it’s better to find out if they can play sooner than later, and take the lumps from inexperience in exchange for a forced fumble, sack or tackle for loss. Without it, this team and defense will likely not reach the next level.
My only other idea, should the one above be attempted by Dom Capers and fail, is to supplement Hawk and Jones’ snaps by moving Clay Matthews inside and playing him out of position. He’s the defense’s best player, but the Packers have a bevy of capable players behind him at OLB including Mike Neal, Nick Perry (who seems to make a few head turning plays per game when healthy) and preseason all pro Jayrone Elliott. Speaking on Perry specifically, he played only ten snaps but was credited with one defensive “stop” (tackle or sack resulting in an offensive failure) and one pass defended. He needs to see the field more, and is the best bet to give the Packers the freedom to move Clay around the second level of the front seven.
Of course, the most likely scenario is that Hawk and Jones remain the “reliable standbys” in a Capers-led defense that will be serviceable all season only to be torn up by talented QBs and bow out early in the playoffs. Here’s to hoping that’s not the case.
3. In The Trenches – Over recent years, I’ve kept more of an eye on who wins at the line of scrimmage, especially on my second or third viewing of games. One positive to take away from this game is the incredibly solid play of rookie center Corey Linsley. He was in the crosshairs of the pre game hype including the “prayers” being sent by Seattle DE Bruce Irvin for the rookie in his first NFL game. I sent a tweet before the game that the Seahawks should be more worried about their rookie right tackle than the Packers should be about a rookie center from a Big 10 school, surrounded by two quality guards and a quarterback who knows every protection check in the book. For the most part, I was correct. Outside of a single communication error with Rodgers, Linsley graded out positively for the night (+2.2 from Pro Football Focus, and definitely a plus in my eyes as well). He can reach block, down block, combo block, and may actually be more physically capable than the injured center he replaced in J.C. Tretter. Having seen Tretter live once at camp and once in person for a significant period of time in the third preseason game, I feel safe in saying the Packers have two young, quality starting NFL centers on the roster. It’s a great problem to have.
The same cannot be said at right tackle. With the unfortunate preseason loss of swing tackle/guard Don Barclay, the Packers knew they were thin at the bookends coming into week 1, and those fears were confirmed when right tackle Bryan Bulaga went down with an injury to his surgically repaired left knee. Before the injury occurred, the Packers were treading water with the Seahawks, which at the very least gave them hope of mounting a comeback and hoping a few breaks went their way to pull the upset. Even when former first round pick Derek Sherrod entered the game in Bulaga’s place, he held down the fort admirably for the remainder of the first half. Sherrod, who carries himself much better on natural grass than turf, and seems to have lost some of the pop he had before his career was derailed by a severe leg injury, fell apart in the second half. The ferocity of defensive ends Bruce Irvin and Michael Bennett overwhelmed Sherrod, who gave up a key fourth down sack and a strip sack/fumble that resulted in a safety on back to back plays, effectively ending the Packers’ hopes of a comeback.
Luckily, sources have reported that Bulaga’s injury is a minor MCL tear, which should keep him out 0-4 weeks. There remains a chance as of this writing that he will practice Wednesday and join the active roster for Sunday’s game. If not, Sherrod will return to the friendly confines of Lambeau Field against a capable New York Jets front seven. Should Bulaga’s injury problems become frequent throughout this season, the Packers would be wise to reach out to former Arizona Cardinal Eric Winston who remains on the open market.
4. Random Game Observations:
– The Packers introduced a nice wrinkle on offense out of their 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR). We often see the left outside WR drive the corner up the field while the left slot WR (normally occupied by Randall Cobb) runs a flat route to the sidelines. This is a heavily scouted route in the Packers playbook, and McCarthy dialed up a flat-stutter-slant that caught the Seahawks flat footed for an early first down.
– For all of his pre game talk and proclamations of adding dimensions of toughness and nastiness to the Packer defense, DE Mike Daniels sure was quiet on the field and dominated in just about every facet of Thursday’s game. They’ll need him to be better if this defense wants to take a step to playoff caliber.
– Despite getting caught with cement feet in the open field on Russell Wilson’s first TD pass, I was encouraged by the play of rookie safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. He was credited with his first career sack, played a deep ball down the left sidelines extremely well and nearly intercepted it, and played downhill (FAST) in run support to stuff an off left tackle running play for no gain. Every week will be a learning experience, but early indications are that he has the chance to be special.
– The Seahawks are extremely talented and poised especially at home. Russell Wilson’s first effort at showing he’s a next level quarterback for an entire season was as smooth and efficient as Seattle could have hoped for, and Wilson looked sharp and on point all night.
– Head coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell have built this offense around the talents of their three best players: Wilson, Marshawn Lynch and WR Percy Harvin. It’s also easy to see that teams are willing to use the 49ers blueprint (frequent use of read option to challenge DEs/OLBs, bunch formations to challenge secondary). The read option pop pass that froze Sam Shields and resulted in the missed tackle by Clinton-Dix mentioned above was beautifully designed, and a play I’ve only seen run on the college field before Thursday.
– We saw the Packers unveil their 2014 iteration of what was previously referred to as the Rhino package – three running backs along the goal line including one defensive lineman. Mike Daniels filled the fullback role traditionally occupied by B.J. Raji. The result was a fullback smash play for a John Kuhn touchdown.
– A healthy Percy Harvin will spell trouble for the rest of the NFC. He looked explosive on jet sweeps, bubble screens, and other quick action that isolated Harvin with tacklers in space. The Packers should watch how the Seahawks use Harvin and mimic that in their use of Randall Cobb.
5. A Look Ahead – The New York Jets come to town for a late afternoon kickoff next Sunday at Lambeau Field. In future weeks, I hope to at least take one look at the last game broadcast for the upcoming opponent, but I only caught bits and pieces of the Jets’ 19-14 victory over the Oakland Raiders from this past Sunday. The team is not nearly as much of a pushover as their 2012 and 2013 efforts would indicate. Quarterback Geno Smith is notably improved, and the Jets are stout up front behind quality 3-4 defensive ends Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson. The Jets are weak in the secondary, however, and if the Packers fashion themselves a contender for a deep playoff run, this is just the type of game they need to set the pace for and win convincingly. I expect them to do just that.
6. Around The Division – The most likely contender to topple the Packer reign of dominance in the NFC North is the Chicago Bears in their second season under coach Marc Trestman. Their first effort was not a good one, as they allowed the visiting Buffalo Bills to sneak out a close victory in overtime. The Vikings handled the St. Louis Rams behind a big performance from the shockingly athletic Cordarrelle Patterson. Their quarterback situation will limit them until Teddy Bridgewater is ready to be the guy, but expect their quality of play to improve this year. As I finish typing this write up, I just watched the Lions handle a poor Giants team. If Stafford and that offense can maintain that level of consistency all year long, and they can find some pieces in the secondary to match the production of their front four and linebacker DeAndre Levy, the Lions could make waves in the chase for the NFC North crown, as well. It will be interesting to see the first wave of divisional match ups as the Packers will play consecutive divisional games following their battle with the AFC East in week 2.
Extra Point – I usually won’t weigh in on NFL story lines that don’t directly impact the Packers, but I felt the need to add my two cents to the thousands of dollars already floating around on the web regarding the Ray Rice situation. As of this writing, we are less than 24 hours from the shocking footage of Ray Rice physically assaulting his then-fiancee. The action from the Ravens and the NFL was swift, with the team terminating his contract and the league banning Rice indefinitely.
What is unknown at this point is the level of knowledge both the league and team had regarding the specific actions of Rice on the night of the assault. TMZ claims to have additional information that will be brought to light soon, and if we learn that both parties were privy to this video and settled on a “slap on the wrist” two game suspension that is less than Wes Welker (4 games) and Josh Gordon (16 games) received for various substance-related infractions, the league and NFLPA should push for justice all the way up to Roger Goodell himself. This entire situation stinks of the NFL attempting to protect its brand from another black eye and placing some level of blame on a victim who certainly did not deserve it. I hope the evidence is presented and we learn that neither the league or Ravens had seen the video prior to taking menial action against Rice, but I can’t believe a corporation the size of the NFL, fully lawyered up, would not have access to this piece of evidence.
More importantly than any of the politics outlined above, please keep Janay Rice in your thoughts/prayers, as she’s being forced to relive this abuse months after the fact as a result of today’s information release.
I hope you enjoyed what I hope is the first of many editions of Pick Six, and we’ll see you next week.