Time for a special NFC Championship Edition of Five Questions, Five Answers as we continue to preview Sunday’s game between the Seahawks and Green Bay.
Answering our questions is Ryan Wood, who covers the Packers for the Green Bay Press-Gazette and can be followed on Twitter at @ByRyanWood.
Wood answers our questions on the game and the Packers:
Q1: We’ve heard a lot about how the Packers are a different team than an opening night. What is the biggest change in your opinion?
A: Start with the basics. Green Bay unveiled its big offseason secret on opening night, the debacle that was its 4-3 defensive scheme. The idea was to best maximize the impact free agent pickup Julius Peppers could have on the field. I’m not sure they ever expected Peppers to make the transition to outside linebacker as smoothly as he did, not at the age of 34. Simply put, the 4-3 defense was a disaster from the start and finally scrapped at halftime of the Packers’ fourth game. The point, though, is it illustrate exactly how much has changed. Green Bay doesn’t even line up the same..
Going deeper, the biggest change is clearly using Clay Matthews at inside linebacker for the first time in his career. At the end of October, the Packers entered their bye week desperate to improve its last-place run defense. They found a solution with Matthews in the middle, taking advantage of his ability to make plays sideline to sideline. It’s made a major difference with the run defense, and it’s really the only reason they even have a slim chance of containing Seattle’s top-ranked rushing attack.
Q2: We’re also heard a lot about Aaron Rodgers’ calf injury — how big of a factor do you think that will be in Sunday’s game?
A: Rodgers’ strained left calf drastically changes the way he plays the game. When healthy, he’s the best in the NFL at extending plays and creating when protection breaks down. His mobility, as much as anything, is why he’s about to become a two-time MVP. With the calf strain, Rodgers has been confined to the pocket. He’s proven he can be one of the NFL’s best pocket passers, averaging a 124.3 rating with six touchdown passes and no interceptions in his three games with the injury. He’s also completed 75 percent of his passes. Playing the Seahawks defense in Seattle with only one healthy leg, it certainly wouldn’t make sense for Rodgers to go out and have a good game. Truth is, he’s defied logic to this point, so nothing should be that surprising.
Q3: What kind of team has Green Bay been on the road this season and will they be better prepared to deal with CenturyLink Field this time than it appeared the Packers were in the first game?
A: Green Bay did not want this game in Seattle. There’s no way around that. CenturyLink Field clearly is the toughest venue in the NFL. The Packers aren’t the only team that’s struggled there. One of the biggest reasons they would have preferred to play at home is because they’ve been the best home team in the NFL. They were one of two teams to go 8-0 at home this season, the other being Denver. On the road, they’ve gone 4-4 with three losses to stout defenses: Seattle, Detroit and Buffalo. (New Orleans was the outlier, and a puzzling game looking back, but it’s generally never easy to play the Saints in a prime time game at the Superdome.) That trend of struggling against solid defenses on the road this season certainly doesn’t bode well for Sunday.
Q4: What do you think is the biggest positional advantage Green Bay has on Seattle?
A: Packers cornerbacks against Seahawks receivers. You hear much more about Seattle’s secondary, and rightfully so. The Seahawks have the best secondary in the league. But Green Bay’s secondary, especially its cornerbacks, have played awfully well this season. Julio Jones was the only elite receiver to torch the Packers secondary all year, and they may have purposely played their coverages a little too vanilla while sitting on a 31-7 halftime lead. Green Bay held its own against Calvin Johnson and Dez Bryant in the past two games. I’d expect them to cover Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and tight end Luke Willson just fine. That’s important, because it should allow the Packers’ safeties to cheat a little more against the run.
Q5: And what do you think is the biggest positional advantage Seattle has on Green Bay?
A: Seattle’s biggest advantage is its running game against Green Bay’s rush defense. The Packers ranked dead last stopping the run at the season’s midway point. Even with Matthews in the middle, the Packers ended the year ranked No. 23. For context, that’s one spot behind Oakland, two behind Atlanta. The Packers allowed the Seahawks to rush for 207 yards on 37 carries in the opener, a whopping 5.6 yards per carry. Marshawn Lynch had a field day with 110 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. Green Bay had 18 missed tackles, with Lynch forcing eight missed tackles, according to ProFootballFocus. It was such a big mismatch in the opener, it’s hard to see how Seattle won’t have success running the football Sunday.