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Packers Face an Old Familiar Foe

Dec. 7, 2016
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Seattle has been a thorn in the side of the Packers since the beginning of the Russell Wilson era and the Fail Mary. If you were building the perfect anti-Packers, it would look a lot like the Seahawks. The Legion of Boom secondary is the perfect antidote to the pass-first Packers, and the power run game with the ever-mobile Russell Wilson behind center has confounded Dom Capers right up until the moment he first moved Clay Matthews inside. I’m sure Packer fans can remember every recent loss vividly, but...those memories tell a story that isn’t quite true. If you take a step back the Seahawks’ recent domination of the Packers looks far more like a simple run of bad luck, bolstered in all of our minds by some high leverage failures, and I would guess, a certain amount of conflation with the Harbaugh/Kaepernick 49ers who gave the Packers so much trouble in similar fashion at about the same time.

The Fail Mary and its children

The Seahawks have won 3 out of 4 games in the Russell Wilson era, which began in 2012, but that first loss was the Fail Mary, a play so improbable and so suspect that I actually refuse to count it as a loss at all. The fact is that by NFL rules the Packers won the game, and while the record book will always say the opposite, there is really no reason that we as rational human beings are bound by the record book. The Fail Mary primed all of us to (quite rationally) detest the Seahawks, and cause Packer fans everywhere to turn them into a much larger enemy than they actually are. 

The Seahawks followed up this debacle with their one legitimate recent win over the Packers, an opening game blowout in 2014. It was an impressive win, but the Packers would right the ship and finish the season 12-4. More importantly, they learned an important lesson on how to stymie the Seahawk offense, which they would put to good use in that season’s NFC Championship game. The Packer defense with Clay Matthews playing inside would embarrass the Seahawk offense for 90% of the game, failing only late when Matthews was forced to come off the field with an injury. Even in their weakened state it still took an incredible botched onside kick and an unlucky flip of the coin for the Packers to eventually lose.The Packers completely outplayed the Seahawks and It was McCarthy and Capers, not Seattle coach Pete Carroll, who managed to make all of the correct strategic decisions until a series of freak plays undid all of their good.

Last year a Lambeau the Packers, employing the exact same defensive tactics, shut down the Seahawk offense en route to a convincing 27-17 victory. They were able do so despite the absence of Jordy Nelson, and while there were some tense moments, the Packers again dictated the game.

And that’s it. In most alternate universes the Packers have won 3 of their last 4 from the Seahawks, but in this universe, a few bizarre plays have created a monster in our minds. The Packers of this season are a far cry from what they’ve been in the recent past, and the untimely suspension of Mike Pennel will hurt their run defense when they need it most,  

but this version of the Seahawks has some major problems as well, and they are probably more like the Vikings than anyone in Seattle would care to admit.  They have lackluster receiving talent outside of Doug Baldwin, they have a truly terrible offensive line, and the defense, while still good, isn’t quite what it was.

Advanced Stats and Dominant Teams 

It’s a cliche to say that there are no dominant teams, but this year that is backed up by numbers.

The top 7 teams by DVOA range from New England at 19.9% better than average to Pittsburgh at 15.4% better than average. Practically speaking, that margin is insignificant. The Seahawks are 3rd, but they are barely worse than Dallas, and barely better than Philly, to whom they bear a strong resemblance. The Packers sit at 12th, but it’s not as if they are completely outclassed by Seattle, and with Seattle having lost safety Earl Thomas to a devastating leg injury, the Packers pose an interesting matchup problem for the 5th ranked Seattle defense. 

The Seahawks are great against slot receivers and pass-catching running backs, and good against tight ends. This is generally a sign that the defense excels at controlling the middle of the field. Thomas, a hard-hitting safety and a ball hawk was a big part of that dominance. While the Seahawks held down the middle, they do show some unusual weakness on the outside, ranking 11th against #1 receivers and a genuinely poor 20th against #2 receivers. If the loss of Thomas opens up the middle of the field there may be a cascade effect across the vaunted Legion of Boom, as their struggles outside indicate less depth than usual. 

This is different from recent Seahawk defenses, who dominated outside receivers. In last year’s impressive Packer win Green Bay relied heavily on Randall Cobb, who picked apart the Seattle slot defense which was temporarily weakened by some key injuries. In 2015 the Seahawks were the best team against #1 receivers and 5th best against #2 receivers while finishing just 10th against slot receivers. Just 2 weeks ago Jameis Winston and Mike Evans put on a clinic of how to attack the 2016 version of Seattle, and I would not be surprised in Davante Adams does a reasonable impression of Evans this week. Seattle’s defense is their calling card, but don’t be surprised if they look all too human on Sunday.

The Return of Thomas Rawls

For much of the season the lead back in Seattle was current Packer Christine Michael. Michael was adept at punching in easy touchdowns, but was ineffective in every other way. The emergence of rookie C.J. Prosise made Michael expendable, and the return of 2015 breakout star Thomas Rawls came just in time as Prosise was lost for the season with an injury. Rawls struggled in his first game back, but returned to form in a big way against Carolina last week rushing for 106 yards and 2 touchdowns. Rawls is a rare every down back, possessing excellent power, speed, agility and great hands in the passing game. When Seattle has been successful against Green Bay it has had Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch working in tandem in the running game. If Rawls were still injured Seattle would be hard pressed to mount much of an offense, but with Pennel suspended, Clay Matthews still banged up, and run-stopper extraordinaire Nick Perry having suffered a hand injury last game, the Packer defense has its work cut out for it. Seattle rushed for 240 yards last week, and if Green Bay shows any weakness in run defense, they will try for a repeat performance. 

Doug Baldwin, Hidden Superstar

DVOA tells you how efficient a player is with the plays he has, and almost no receiver has been more valuable on a per play basis over the past 4 seasons than Seattle’s Doug Baldwin. Baldwin has been an analytics favorite for a long time and currently ranks 5th in DVOA, but that’s actually a drop from last year when he finished 1st, and while his 2014 was slightly disappointing, he was 2nd overall in 2013. Baldwin has an almost preternatural ability to get to the sticks, pick up first down after first down, and make big  catches. He is secretly one of the best players in football on one of the most team friendly contracts in football. If he maintains his current level of play he will be worth holding onto, but he can also be cut freely after this season. He is a ridiculous bargain.

The Packers and Texans 

Snow games always add an element of chaos, and I don’t think there is really much that we learned from Sunday’s game. The Packers did what they were supposed to do in beating an inferior opponent despite not playing their best game. The most encouraging aspect of the game was Ty Montgomery finally out-snapping all other running backs and actually grinding the game out on the ground in the 4th quarter. James Starks is really showing his age, and at this point Montgomery is superior through air, and surprisingly, between the tackles, even in short yardage. The real story on the Packers will be told against Seattle. Texas was just a warm-up. 

The Odds

The Lions’ huge upset over the Saints on the road was a big blow to the Packers’ playoff hopes, but they still did gain in Football Outsiders’ odds model which has them with about a 1 in 3 chance to make the postseason. 

The FiveThirtyEight model is far less optimistic, assigning the Packers just a 22% chance to make the playoffs. 

Catching the Lions now becomes very difficult as they draw the Bears this weekend, and even with tough games against NFC East opponents in the coming weeks, should the Packers fall while the Lions win, the Lions’ lead will be almost insurmountable.

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