The Green Bay Packers might be led by an MVP-caliber quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, but few are giving them a chance to knock off the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks on the road in the NFC Championship Game next Sunday. However, a closer look at the All-22 Coaches Film suggests the Packers' offense could have the right recipe for beating the 'Hawks, even after a disappointing showing by Green Bay in Seattle back in Week 1. After reviewing that first meeting, as well as how opponents have succeeded in attacking the Seahawks' oft-impenetrable defense, I've come up with a strategy that could help Aaron Rodgers and Co. pull off a monumental upset in Seattle -- even with the quarterback potentially limited by a calf injury.
First, let's consider what the Packers can learn from that Week 1 loss. Yes, they were blasted by the Seahawks, 36-16 -- but the experience should have given them valuable insight on the best strategies to employ in the rematch. Coach Mike McCarthy and his staff have plenty of footage on how the Seahawks will likely game plan against their personnel and schemes. Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film, I noticed that the Seahawks primarily played Cover 1 and Cover 3 "Sky" or "Buzz" for most of the game.
In the play depicted below, taken from that Week 1 matchup, the Seahawks are playing Cover 1 against the Packers' dubs formation. Green Bay is attempting to run a snag-wheel combination at the bottom, with Randall Cobb running a wheel route down the boundary. However, Seattle does an excellent job of hugging up the receivers, and Rodgers is forced to throw an alley-oop into a tight window, resulting in an incompletion. (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
COVER 3 "SKY"
In the play depicted below, also taken from that Week 1 game, the Seahawks are in Cover 3 "Sky," with safety Kam Chancellor aligned on the edge of the box as a curl/flat dropper. He is one of four underneath defenders assigned to drop to specific landmarks on the field (numbers and hashes) while keeping vision on the quarterback for a quick break on the throw. The combination of eye discipline, route recognition and anticipation allows the Seahawks to close quickly on underneath throws and limit yards after the catch on short throws. In this instance, tight end Andrew Quarless is wrapped up shortly after grabbing the football, limiting him to a 2-yard gain. (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
COVER 3 "BUZZ"
In the play depicted below, the Seahawks are playing Cover 3 Buzz, with Chancellor dropping into the box as a middle-hook dropper. The four underneath defenders are dropping to spots on the field (numbers and hashes), with the corners responsible for the outside utilizing press or bail technique.
When Rodgers hits the top of his drop, the Seahawk defenders reach their landmarks and read the eyes of the quarterback, to get a quick break on the throw. Seattle plays the defense perfectly, leading Rodgers to dump the ball off to running back Eddie Lacy in the flat. With the Seahawks tracking Rodgers' eyes before the toss, the unit is able to down Lacy for a 5-yard loss on the pass to the flat. (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
The single-high safety looks are designed to shut down throws to the middle of the field and force Rodgers to direct his passes to the sideline or settle for the checkdown underneath coverage. On the perimeter, the Seahawks' cornerbacks will challenge receivers at the line of scrimmage and disrupt their timing with physical jams throughout the route. The constant harassment not only leads to inconsistent finishes at the tops of routes, but it condenses the windows for the quarterback and drastically reduces completion rates on passes thrown outside the numbers.
The Seahawks complement their suffocating coverage with a fierce pass rush led by a number of athletic defenders. Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Bruce Irvin wreak havoc on opponents with their collective speed, quickness and burst off the edges. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn enhances their skills by using an assortment of stunts, twists and games to get them isolated against overmatched blockers at the point of attack. The constant pressure, particularly from the defensive left (the quarterback's right), quickens the clock in the quarterback's head, leading him to abandon his reads before fully working through his progressions.
So how can Green Bay counter this juggernaut of a defense?
1) Pound the ball between the tackles with Eddie Lacy.
It's not a coincidence that those who have enjoyed success against the Seahawks in Seattle have been able to run the ball between the tackles. The Seahawks' defense features a collection of explosive athletes adept at running from sideline to sideline. Thus, it is better to attack with a downhill running game directed between the tackles. By running directly at the Seahawks' swift linebackers, the Packers could neutralize the biggest strength of the corps (speed, quickness and athleticism) and make the game a street fight in a phone booth. This tactic would also allow Green Bay to control the tempo and bring quiet to a raucous stadium.
After watching the Packers lean on Lacy extensively in their Divisional Round win over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, I believe the second-year pro should be the focal point of the offensive game plan in this matchup. I would expect the Packers to use their two-back running game from an assortment of offset spread I formations with Pistol set-up (in which Rodgers is 4 yards from center in a shotgun alignment, with Lacy positioned directly behind him). Lacy is at his best attacking the line of scrimmage from a deep alignment. The offset spread I formation allows him to run between the tackles against a "light" box.
In the play depicted below, taken from the Packers' win over the Cowboys, Green Bay is aligned in an offset I formation, with three receivers on the field and Lacy at tailback. The presence of three receivers puts the Cowboys in a nickel package, leaving just six defenders in the box. With a lead blocker and slot receiver capable of digging out the linebacker or safety in the hole, Lacy is able to shoot through the crack en route to a 19-yard gain. (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Back in Week 1, Lacy was held to 34 rushing yards on 12 carries. But he should get more attempts in the rematch as part of a ball-control game plan designed to alleviate some of the pressure on Rodgers. If Lacy finishes with 25 or more attempts (Green Bay is 3-0 when Lacy receives 20-plus carries in a game this season), the Packers should be in good shape.
2) Throw the ball away from Richard Sherman.
Despite being chastised for this strategy by observers via every media outlet, the Packers were wise to throw away from Pro Bowler Richard Sherman in Week 1, and they should adopt a similar strategy in the rematch. Sherman is playing at a ridiculous level. His ability to blanket receivers, anticipate throws and make plays on the ball should discourage Green Bay from going anywhere near him.
I understand why McCarthy planted Jarrett Boykin on Sherman's side for most of the season opener, and why he instructed his quarterback to look elsewhere for completions. By aligning Boykin primarily on the right, the Packers were able to align Cobb and Jordy Nelson in the slot or on the opposite side, putting the team's most explosive weapons in favorable matchups against Jeremy Lane and Byron Maxwell. Although the plan didn't result in a win, it's still the sensible approach to take this Sunday, given the talent on the Seahawks' roster, particularly with Tharold Simon playing significant minutes on the corner. Given that the Panthers had tremendous success working to the left against Seattle in the Divisional Round, Rodgers should be encouraged to direct the majority of his passes in that direction, with Nelson or Davante Adams positioned on the outside.
In the play depicted below, the Packers break the huddle in spread I formation, with Nelson aligned at the X-receiver spot on the left and instructed to run a hinge route against Maxwell. Rodgers sees the one-on-one coverage on the outside and fires a dart to Nelson, away from Maxwell and near the boundary, for a first down. (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
In the play depicted below, the Packers are aligned in a dubs formation, with Cobb positioned in the slot and running an angle route against Lane. The fourth-year pro is instructed to take a hard angle outside before slipping underneath on a slant route. With Lane overreacting to the outside release, Cobb slips inside for a nifty 11-yard gain. (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
I know it's hard to imagine an ultra-competitive player like Rodgers avoiding a premier cornerback in a high-stakes contest, but the matchups on the perimeter suggest it could be the best way to attack the Seahawks in the passing game.
3) Use exotic packages and formations to decipher the coverage.
McCarthy is a clever schemer adept at creating mismatches through exotic formations and personnel groupings. The Packers will frequently trot out "01" (one tight end and four receivers) and "02" personnel (two tight ends and three receivers) groupings in order to put defensive coordinators in a bind with their substitution patterns. He accentuates his exotic groupings by using a number of spread or empty formations that force defenders to make adjustments on the fly. When you throw in some pre-snap motion or shifting, it's clear the Packers' willingness to put a "speed" package on the field is problematic for foes.
Looking at the Packers' matchup against the New England Patriotsin Week 13, I discovered a few exotic formations that the team could use to exploit the Seahawks' man coverage. In the play depicted below, the Packers trot out their "01" personnel package, with a bunch formation and Cobb aligned at running back. McCarthy has a version of flanker-drive called, with the three receivers running crossing routes at different depths across the field and Cobb running a rail route down the boundary. The pick action by the receivers allows Cobb to run past Rob Ninkovich on the route and haul in a 33-yard pass from Rodgers. (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
In the play depicted below, the Packers are aligned in a trips formation to the right, with Cobb positioned at RB. He shifts to the left, to put the Packers' most explosive playmakers -- Cobb and Nelson -- on the same side. Nelson will clear the zone with a go-route, while Cobb runs a quick out to the boundary. Rodgers targets Cobb -- who enjoys a speed and quickness advantage against most interior defenders -- immediately for an easy completion. (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Against Dallas last Sunday, the Packers again used their "01" personnel package and an empty formation to create a big-play opportunity in the passing game. In the play depicted below, Cobb starts out in the backfield before shifting into the slot on the left. Cobb will run a seam route down the hash, with Quarless and Nelson running stick routes on the opposite side. Rodgers sees Cobb quickly win on the route and delivers a dart to the diminutive pass catcher for a 26-yard reception. (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
4) Play "dink and dunk" football.
For all of the scheming McCarthy and Rodgers will do prior to kickoff, the veteran quarterback must take a patient approach to move the ball consistently. Instead of pushing the ball downfield into the teeth of the Seahawks' suffocating coverage, Rodgers would be wise to hit his tight ends and running backs on checkdowns underneath coverage. By targeting his safety valves quickly after reaching the tops of his drops, Rodgers can allow his pass catchers to rack up yards after the catch before defenders close to make tackles. This is the approach San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers used to move the ball downfield against the 'Hawks and control the action against the NFL's stingiest defense. If the Packers want to pull off a huge upset on the road, the ball-control tactics employed by the Chargerscould provide the blueprint.