Welcome to the 2019 NFL season’s Divisional Round Weekend. Here at 300 Level Media, we will attempt to inform and educate our readers about the upcoming playoff games and what each team might do to emerge victorious.
The fourth divisional round game of the 2019 NFL playoffs will take place at Lambeau Field in Green Bay as the Packers will host the Seattle Seahawks. Here’s what you should know:
SEAHAWKS HAVE GOTTEN BACK TO THEIR ROOTS
After two Super Bowl appearances and winning a championship in 2013, the Seattle Seahawks began a gradual decline over the next three years. It was a time in which the Seahawks began to get away from their identity a bit, as then-coordinator Darrell Bevell turned his run-based scheme into one more pass-heavy and was shown the door following 2017.
Head coach Pete Carroll then came to the realization that quarterback Russell Wilson, while among the game’s best deep-ball throwers, is more suited to operate an offense that’s run-oriented and can use play-action, bootlegs and passing plays outside of the pocket – mostly due to his 5’11” frame, which limits Wilson inside the pocket. That explains the hiring of Brian Schottenheimer last year to execute this vision, and Wilson has adapted accordingly.
An underrated hire along with Schottenheimer in 2018 was offensive line coach Mike Solari, who has taken an offensive line that’s underachieved in recent years and has turned them into one of the better rushing teams in the NFL again. While Duane Brown, Mike Iupati, Joey Hunt, D.J. Fluker and German Ifedi have allowed 48 sacks – tied for ninth-most in the league – they have executed quite well in the ground game along with running backs Chris Carson, Rashaad Penny and C.J. Prosise, racking up the fourth-most rushing yards in football.
Problem is, all three of those backs are now out for the season with injuries. Enter the return of both Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin, who were both members of the Seahawks’ glory days and are still decently productive – especially Lynch in short-yardage situations. Helping out Lynch, Turbin and youngster Travis Homer sometimes is the usage of a sixth offensive lineman – backup George Fant – whose presence can create more running gaps.
Tyler Lockett possesses a ton of speed and quickness and has taken over the retired Doug Baldwin’s old slot duties in this scheme, which is based more around vertical pass routes rather than the horizontal ones in Bevell’s old one. Accordingly, the drafting of D.K. Metcalf last spring has given Seattle a wideout who can run slants, posts and go routes from a boundary ‘X’ position (the single receiver on the opposite side of a formation while others line up on another). Metcalf, while not especially quick, has excellent body control and can make contested catches along the sidelines, while Lockett and tight ends Luke Willson and Jacob Hollister can work the middle of the field.
DITTO FOR SEATTLE’S DEFENSE
The same scenario happened for their defense, as Kris Richard moved towards an approach based more off of Cover-One – man coverage across the board with one deep safety and one in the box – and not on their traditional Cover Three (three-deep zone coverage). Carroll let Richard walk before last season and replaced him with former linebackers coach and Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., and the Seahawks have gotten back to their zone-based fundamentals.
While not the feared Legion of Boom unit from earlier in this decade, the Seahawks have a youthful defense that actually finished near the bottom in most categories but still has some talent. Their best pass rushers are former Texan Jadeveon Clowney and ex-Lion Ziggy Ansah, who each have an abundance of power in their game and utilize strength and technique to get to opposing quarterbacks rather than speed. Rookie first round draft pick L.J. Collier is used for a handful of snaps a game.
Defensive tackle Jarran Reed is good at clogging gaps against the run. Linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright remain among the best in the NFL in coverage responsibilities, and the rebuilding secondary is headlined by young cornerbacks Shaquill Griffin and Tre Flowers, and two safeties on the rise in Bradley McDougald and Quandre Diggs.
With linebacker Mychal Kendricks – the third linebacker in Seattle’s 4-3 scheme – suffering a torn ACL a few weeks ago, the Seahawks will need to rely on subpackages more often than they’re used to. Kendricks’ speed, along with Wagner’s and Wright’s, allowed Seattle to use their base defense at a higher rate than other teams, and their backups aren’t quite as talented. Will Green Bay exploit this by increasing the amount of runs in their gameplan?
PACKERS’ OFFENSE STILL DANGEROUS, JUST IN A DIFFERENT WAY
After 13 years, four trips to the NFC Championship Game and a Super Bowl victory in 2010, longtime Packers coach Mike McCarthy was let go by Green Bay after last season. A sense of staleness had grown around the franchise and general manager Brian Gutekunst sought to revive his team with new blood.
First-year coach Matt LaFleur was the Titans’ play-caller last season and prior to his time in the Music City, LaFleur ran Sean McVay’s offense for the Los Angeles Rams. McVay and LaFleur go back even further than that too, with both spending time working for Mike Shanahan in Washington and for his pupils – Gary Kubiak in Houston and Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta.
Green Bay’s offensive system relies on smaller, quicker linemen who can work in unison and push defenders horizontally on outside zone stretch plays while leaving cutback lanes for running backs. Executing these blocks are longtime stalwarts David Bakhtiari, Bryan Bulaga and Corey Linsley, rookie Elgton Jenkins and free agent acquisition Billy Turner. Countless tailbacks have had success in it – including third-year ball carrier Aaron Jones, who went over the 1,000 yard rushing mark and recorded a career-high 16 touchdowns – and most of the runs are executed out of “11” personnel (one tight end, one back). The idea behind this is to spread defenses out and create more room to run against nickel and dime defenses.
Passing-wise, the Packers are aligned with the West Coast offense’s principles. A ball-control passing game that can eat up clock while stretching teams from sideline to sideline rather than vertically, this version of the system features mobile quarterbacks who can move within the pocket, especially on bootlegs, rollouts and play-action. It also will have its skill players line up anywhere on the line of scrimmage to try and get defenses to declare their coverages, and also aligns wide receivers close to the offensive line in order to give them more space to operate and to block on running plays. Their passing game makes excellent use of shifts and motions, and the receivers typically execute intertwining route combinations, especially ones involving posts, crossing patterns and flood concepts with pass options at the deep, short and intermediate levels.
Green Bay’s offense continues to run through Aaron Rodgers. Still one of the league’s best at 35 years old, Rodgers is as strong-armed and accurate as he was earlier in his career, and his intelligence and athleticism continue to remain sharp. The interesting thing about Rodgers though is that sometimes he won’t play “on schedule”, as coaches like to put it. Sometimes he will play sandlot football – meaning not looking at his first receiver and holding onto the ball too long but making a greater play than what the original call designed.
According to former MMQB/SI writer Andy Benoit: “Though he is capable of beating defenses with presnap reads and quick throws, Rodgers frequently passes up open receivers and leaves clean pockets, which would warrant a reprimand for most QBs. But he’s so exceptional that he often goes on to make a better play.
“The tricky part is that Rodgers’s approach is more conducive to spread formations and isolation routes which, when relied upon too heavily, can lead to dry spells in the passing game. The challenge is to find the proper mix.”
Rodgers’ targets include two-time Pro Bowler Davante Adams, Geronimo Allison, Marques Valdes-Scantling, Allen Lazard and Jimmy Graham and all are adept at running Rodgers’ favorite routes. Slants, posts and back-shoulder fades are staples of the Packers’ offense, and not only do they excel at such routes, they also have a great feel for how to get open when plays break down – especially Adams, who can also play in the slot.
A CHANGING OF THE GUARD ON THE PACKERS’ DEFENSE
Mike Pettine, former Browns head coach and defensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills and New Yok Jets, took over as the defensive play caller in Green Bay last year, replacing Dom Capers. While Capers was a fan of the fabled zone-blitz, Pettine favors a Rex Ryan-style system that leans on overload blitzes, man-press coverage and matchup zones. It’s also notable for having exotic blitz packages with just one down lineman and other linemen and linebackers walking around until the opposition tipped its hand – and then those front seven players would decide who rushed from where.
Sometimes the complexity of this defense, what with its emphasis on disguise and communication, can sometimes lead to communication breakdowns. But if executed well enough, the results can be outstanding.
While the Packers’ defense has been in the middle of the pack in many categories this year, they did finish the regular season third in interceptions and ninth in points allowed – numbers that are sure to make any defensive coordinator smile. The defensive backs that have been integral to those accomplishments are the tall and lanky Kevin King, second-year men Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson, veteran Tramon Williams and versatile safeties Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos.
Clay Matthews III and Nick Perry, the longtime pass rushing duo for the Packers, were replaced this past offseason by former Raven Za’Darius Smith and former Redskin Preston Smith. Each have responded with career-best statistics, as they have racked up 13.5 and 12 sacks this year, respectively. Joining them at linebacker are Blake Martinez, B.J. Goodson and rookie Rashan Gary.
Green Bay’s defensive line is unique in that they aren’t taught to control one or two gaps. Unlike other coaches, Pettine asks his defensive tackles and ends to beat their blocker first and worry about their gaps later. Pulling off these tasks are Kenny Clark, who is very athletic for his 315-pound frame, Tyler Lancaster and Dean Lowry.
There are two things to watch for this defense – will Pettine elect to cover Metcalf with the bigger King (who is 6’3”) or with Alexander, who is more physical? Hunt has also had a rocky season in pass-protection for Seattle, and Pettine has shown that he can scheme up ways to get his outside linebackers to the quarterback up the middle (especially against Minnesota, where Za’Darius Smith got the better of rookie center Garrett Bradberry). Fletcher Cox dominated Hunt in both of Seattle’s matchups with Philadelphia this year – can Pettine get his charges to do the same? Time will tell.