On Thursday, the Green Bay Packers return to the site of the famed "Fail Mary" game to take on the defending champion Seattle Seahawks. Danny Kelly of Field Gulls was kind enough to answer some questions about the Seahawks and provide insight into their strengths and weaknesses.
APC: Though Seattle's offense finished 31st in the NFL in pass attempts, it did so almost entirely without top receiver Percy Harvin. What does his return mean for the Seahawks offense, and how will they utilize him?
Percy, when healthy, is an integral part of this offense and as we've seen in action during the preseason, he forces defenses to defend Seattle differently. Harvin has excellent speed and when used in motion prior to the snap can really confound and stress defensive ends, linebackers, and secondary players. On jet sweeps, for instance, the defenders to the side he's motioning to have to respect his speed to get to the outside and turn the corner (if he is handed the ball), and generally a lot of focus gets put on where he's going. This opens things up in the middle (if he's not handed the ball) and if Marshawn Lynch or any of the Seahawks' running backs can get through the line, there's more space with which to operate.
Also, Harvin's big play ability to take simple bubble screens and make big gains creates a similar conundrum for defensive backs - the safety over the top to his side can't just expect that whoever is matched up on Harvin will have him bottled up, so he has to tilt his coverage to protect against a jail-break. This opens up one-on-ones for Seattle's other quality receivers in Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse, and we've seen Seattle take advantage of this. Additionally, Harvin simply has the ability to win in one-on-one match ups so he's been used pretty frequently to move the chains out of the slot as a target for the Hawks on third downs.
APC: With Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, and several other star players receiving major contract extensions, and a megadeal on the way for Russell Wilson next offseason, is there a sense that this could be the Seahawks' last championship run with this current core?
I would say no, this isn't the prevailing thought for this season among fans. Seattle's real core of elite players is young and locked up long term - Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman, Doug Baldwin, and soon to be Russell Wilson (and a few others this year), and John Schneider and Pete Carroll have proven that they can mine talent in the Draft and develop their picks on the field. This means, generally speaking, the sense is that Seattle has the potential to be good or very good for the foreseeable future as the team rallies around that group of leaders. It doesn't feel like it's "this season or bust," by any means, at least not as far as I can tell.
Now, that said, with some of these guys getting big 2nd contracts, Seattle's ability to sign outside free agents and to keep all their guys going forward diminishes, so I think there is a feeling that last year's team (and this year's team, to an extent) are probably deeper than they'll ever be going forward, and that this front office will probably not be able to consistently put together such a deep, talent-rich group indefinitely.
So, in other words, Seattle fans probably should concede that we may never see as deep of a full roster as we did in 2013, but with the further development and improvement in play of the core group of players the Seahawks have locked up long term, there's the thought this team could still be better at the top, going forward (without catastrophic injuries, of course).
APC: The Seahawks have made the rather unusual decision to use All-Pro free safety Earl Thomas as the team's primary punt returner. Is this move as self destructive as it appears on its face, or is there a logical rationale that most observers have missed?
First and foremost, I think Pete Carroll views special teams as a legitimate one-third of a football game. Special teams share equal importance as the offense and defense. People could argue all day about that and try to diminish it, but I think Carroll really does believe that. If you look back at the Seahawks 2013 season, too, some of the biggest plays for Seattle happened on special teams - whether it was a huge Golden Tate punt return that gave Seattle new life when they were trailing, or a Percy Harvin kickoff return touchdown that put a nail in the coffin in the Super Bowl. Blocked punts, blocked field goals, big returns, big hits -- they all have strong momentum changing power.
Field position is huge to Carroll, and special teams have the ability to create explosive game-changing plays, and Carroll doesn't hesitate to put his best players on his special teams units if they're the best at their respective jobs on them. Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas led the Seahawks in tackles on kickoffs last year, for instance, and Richard Sherman is a regular on special teams groups. So, to Carroll, it's not an issue. It's just giving the job to the guy that does it best. He simply doesn't worry about whether they'll get hurt because he thinks that any player can get hurt on any play and there's no point in pondering that.
Now, all that said, the Seahawks did just re-sign return specialist Bryan Walters yesterday, so I am guessing that while Earl may get some punt returns, he won't get them all.
APC: If you were game planning against the Seahawks, how would you attack them on offense? On defense?
The Seahawks are tough on defense, but obviously not perfect. I'd try to run the ball against them first and foremost, because Pete Carroll's main emphasis has been to first stop the run, force the opponent to pass (force them to be one-dimensional, in essence), and when they get out of their run game, it allows the defense to pin their ears back and rush the passer.
The Seahawk run defense hasn't looked amazing in the preseason - and while much of that has been due to backups being in the game - it's something that I'd test if I were Mike McCarthy. As for the pass, I hate to say a game-plan would be to dink and dunk, but I'd attack the short and intermediate underneath zones and routes with speed players - slants, hooks, curls, and comebacks - because Seattle places so much emphasis on defending the deep pass. I'd run trips looks and bunch looks and hope to set screens and confuse coverages (and watch out for Kam Chancellor). Doing a no-huddle approach would probably be on my list too, and hope to get the Seahawks backpedaling and into a corner.
For what it's worth, I'm sure Seahawk fans would point out, this is what the Broncos tried to do in the Super Bowl, and they failed miserably at it. That doesn't mean it can't be done, though. Aaron Rodgers' mobility to escape pressure gives the Packers' offense a different dimension and one of the bains of Pete Carroll's coaching existence has been defending mobile quarterbacks. He has publicly said he hates doing it - it adds so many problems for gaps and assignments - so I would guess the Pack tries to get Rodgers out of the pocket and throwing on bootlegs and rollouts pretty often.
As for defensively, I'd probably run zone looks for the most part because of Seattle's team speed on offense. Harvin is a nightmare in man coverage, Doug Baldwin is no slouch, and Russell Wilson has shown a strong willingness to thread the needle to his receivers and tight ends being covered in man. Secondly, of course, I'd focus on taking the run game out of it. Stop Marshawn Lynch and Seattle will turn to their pass game, which last year wasn't necessarily their identity. Importantly, as I'm sure all Packer fans know, stopping the read option, which Seattle still does pretty frequently, will be key.
APC: Finally, it's prediction time. Who wins on Thursday night and why?
Well, not to be a homer and all that, but Seattle plays well at home and are pretty healthy going into this one so I have to like their chances. That said, I really respect that Packers a lot and wouldn't be surprised if it's a very close, hard fought game. I'm going with Seahawks 24-20.
We'd like to thank Danny and Field Gulls for answering our questions. Be sure to check out our Q&A session over there as well as their fantastic coverage of all things Seahawks. As always, keep your internet machines tuned to Acme Packing Company this Thursday for our comprehensive game-day coverage of Packers vs. Seahawks.