Packers rush defense on alert against dynamic Seahawks
GREEN BAY, Wis. — The two-man rushing attack of the Seattle Seahawks is on a different level from the rest of the NFL. Marshawn Lynch breaks tackles at a rate unmatched among running backs, and Russell Wilson had more rushing yards than any quarterback since Michael Vick in 2006.
With two players like that, it’s no surprise that Seattle finished the regular season No. 1 in team rushing yards. It all started Week 1 when the Seahawks ran through and around the Green Bay Packers for 207 yards on the ground en route to a 36-16 win.
In the regular-season opener, Lynch was a much bigger issue for the Packers than Wilson was. Lynch had 110 yards on 20 carries (5.5 average) with two touchdowns, and much of that damage was done after contact. Lynch broke a total of nine tackles, leaving Green Bay’s defensive players with vivid memories of that experience that they’re now trying to use in preparation for Sunday’s NFC championship game.
"I’m not one of his highlight reels," cornerback Tramon Williams said pridefully with a laugh. "But from experience of looking at his highlight reel, it’s tough. You see the guy break tackle after tackle when guys go high. Regardless if it’s a (defensive back) or a lineman, he tends to break tackles that are high on him no matter which guy it is. Obviously, it’s going to be important to get down to his legs or even in his midsection. You don’t want to go too high on him."
The Packers are emphasizing "all 11 to the tackle" this week. It doesn’t matter if it appears like Lynch is about to go down, the coaching staff wants every defensive player on the field swarming toward him.
"I think he might be the toughest guy in the league to get down with one guy," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "He’s so strong, and he runs with a very aggressive style in his lower body. He’s very strong. He’s got good size.
"But there’s no question in my mind we can tackle much better than we did. We missed too many tackles in the first game and that’s going to be very important to us."
According to data from ProFootballFocus, Lynch led all running backs during the regular season with 101 broken tackles.
"We’re going to have to gang tackle," linebacker Clay Matthews said.
Lynch’s 1,306 rushing yards ranked him fourth in the NFL this season, but he tied for first in rushing touchdowns with 13.
"In my book, he’s in the top two (of NFL running backs)," Williams said. "I don’t think guys can teach some of the things that he does."
Williams added that it’s between Lynch and Adrian Peterson, in his opinion, for the title of best running back.
If Lynch gets away from the line of scrimmage and begins to approach smaller-sized players in the secondary, good luck.
"Do the best you can," Sam Shields said. "I’m 190 (pounds), a guy like that, just try to get my head across and bring my arm, and hopefully the guys from the inside come help."
Wilson gets his yards in a much different fashion. But unlike Green Bay’s inefficiency in stopping Lynch in Week 1, the Packers contained Wilson’s ground game fairly well. Not including the three kneel-downs to conclude the game, Wilson rushed four times for 32 yards.
As the season continued, Wilson’s ability to run became a bigger and bigger part of Seattle’s offensive plans. Wilson had a stretch of six games midway through the year during which he had at least 100 rushing yards on three occasions.
"He’s a crafty runner," head coach Mike McCarthy said. "They utilize him a lot in the run game and he does a good job with his feet. I think he’s a lot better in space than people think. We’re looking at his running ability as that of a running back."
To treat a quarterback like a running back is quite the compliment for Wilson. But considering Wilson had more rushing yards than 16 NFL teams’ top running backs, it makes a lot of sense to approach him that way.
"If Peyton Manning was back there trying to do a zone-read, you’re not going to pay any attention to him running the ball," cornerback Davon House said. "Since Russell is back there, you have to keep a close eye on him."
One component of the running game that the Seahawks won’t have at their disposal compared to Week 1 against Green Bay is Percy Harvin. Of Seattle’s 207 rushing yards in that opening-game matchup, 41 of them came from Harvin. And it only took him four carries to reach that mark.
"To tell you the truth, when Percy was out there and he was doing some of the things he was doing, it kind of threw things off and it had us off-balance," House said. "From what I can remember, it’s what they did with Percy that was messing us up."
The Packers did a good enough job stopping the run in their divisional-round win over Dallas. The Cowboys boasted the league’s top individual rusher, DeMarco Murray, as well as the No. 2 overall rushing offense. Murray had 123 rushing yards on 25 carries (4.9 average), but one of the biggest plays of the game was when Julius Peppers forced him to fumble.
But whereas Murray is a one-man show, the competition ramps up even further for Green Bay in defending Seattle’s rushing offense.
"To me the difference in defending these guys, the Seahawks and the Cowboys, is you’ve got to be concerned on every play of Russell Wilson," Capers said. "Against the Cowboys, their quarterback is not going to come out there and carry the ball like Russell Wilson.
"One of the things that makes their running game as efficient as it is, is when you have to account for the quarterback, you aren’t squeezing those run lanes down quite as hard. If you do, he’s going to pull the ball and keep it outside, and so that opens up the cutback lanes for Lynch and their zone-read scheme."
The Packers’ past two postseasons have ended at the hands of a San Francisco 49ers team that had mobile quarterback Colin Kaepernick and power running back Frank Gore. Kaepernick had 181 rushing yards in the 2012 playoffs and 98 rushing yards in the 2013 playoffs against Green Bay, while Gore had 119 yards and 66 yards in those games.
To get to the Super Bowl, the Packers’ defensive efforts will begin with containing Wilson and Lynch.
"From the beginning, going against Kaepernick and now another running quarterback, it’s hard each year," Shields said. "But we go back, look at the past years playing against those guys and we correct it from there."
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