If you've been paying attention to the NFL for more than the last three minutes, you likely know that for the Packers and the Seahawks, the last 6 months have been very different. Led by one of their best players morphing into a crazy person, the Seahawks defense fueled their playoff run, eventually culminating in a gruesome mutilation of the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. Following their win, the Hawks handled being champions with great decorum and...lol just kidding. Richard Sherman Twitter beefed with everyone in sight, Russell Wilson started doing awful Microsoft commercials and Marshawn Lynch not only held out, but spent the off-season roping off his Lamborghini because this is what you do when you're Marshawn Lynch. Oh, and Peter Carroll (it's fun to call him this) got fined for doing too much hitting in practice. If you'd been asked beforehand what kind of off-season the Seahawks would likely have, this is probably exactly what you'd say. Give the Seahawks credit though, they know who they are and aren't bashful about it.
The Packers on the other hand, enter 2014 coming off another kick-to-the-nuts playoff loss, followed by an off-season that has them entering what seems to be a bit of a new era. Yes, Aaron Rodgers, Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson are still here. So are Dom Capers and a handful of players from 2010's Super Bowl team. But there's a newness to this team that feels fresh and exciting. There's plenty of value in having veterans on your team, but there's also something to be said about outfitting your roster with players who are still hungry to prove something. Gone are the Charles Woodsons and James Joneses of the team. In their place are the maniacal Mike Daniels, the prodigal Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and the bulldozer, Eddie Lacy. And while most would be hard-pressed to think young players like Jeff Janis have much of a chance at standing up to the kings of the NFL tonight, these two teams are much closer than people realize. The biggest difference is that one currently stands atop the mountain, while the other is fighting to get back there. It's a new position for these Packers and for my money, there's no better way to start a new season. Let's do this.
Here are 5 things to watch tonight.
The new-look defensive line
With the emergence of more mobile quarterbacks and rules changes that favor passing, the conventional wisdom of having big, lumbering linemen in a 3-4 defense really carries no, um...weight (sorry for the bad pun). To give the Packers line more athleticism, the team let Johnny Jolly and Ryan Pickett walk (as well as C.J. Wilson), deciding instead to give players like Datone Jones, Josh Boyd and Mike Daniels more playing time. As a result, the average starting lineman's listed weight is now just 301 lbs. versus 330+ just last year. We should see early on whether or not that newfound athleticism pays off.
According to our friends over at Pro Football Focus, no quarterback utilized play action passes more last year than Russell Wilson, who had 34.3% of his pass attempts in 2013 come after a fake handoff. Thing is, the Seahawks don't just run it - they're really good at it. In fact, Wilson averaged a silly 120.9 QB rating (just below some shlub named Peyton Manning) when running play action. For the Packers, it's something they'll need to be careful not to bite on, especially with younger players like Micah Hyde and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the deep secondary. Because not only is Russell Wilson proficient when it comes to play action, no player was better at deep passes last year, completing 60% of his throws that go 20 yards or more.
Corey Linsley in the shark tank
And no, I'm not talking about the one with Mark Cuban's veneers. Our own Jason Hirschorn covered this in his matchups preview, but I think it's worth reiterating just how much Corey Linsley is being thrown into the fire here. He's played admirably in the preseason but remember, this is Linsley's first game against real NFL competition and it comes against the defense that made Peyton Manning look more like Cooper Manning back in February. Not to mention, it's safe to say the crowd at CenturyLink Field won't exactly be comme il faut, meaning good communication with Aaron Rodgers will be even harder to come by. Is he capable of putting together a good performance under the conditions? We think so, but it remains to be seen.
Creativity on defense
This past off-season, Mike McCarthy expressed his desire to make the defense more versatile by using players in multiple roles. Well, here's his chance. The Packers escaped training camp and preseason with only one key injury (B.J. Raji) on defense, meaning McCarthy and Capers will finally have a full complement of players needed to maximize any scheme or strategic trickery. Whether that makes an actual difference remains to be seen, but this Thursday should at least give us a good look at what the coaching staff has up their sleeves.
In last week's preview, I suggested the Packers could potentially use their final preseason game as a dress rehearsal to run any scripted plays for the regular season. That didn't exactly happen, but it stands to reason they still have something in store for the early parts of Thursday's game. Seattle's defense thrives on chaos and disruption, so establishing some momentum and offensive rhythm early on will be key. Expect a heavy dose of the no-huddle and at least a handful of slants, wide receiver screens and other throws that not only keep the Packers' offense on the field - but the defense off it.