The NFL Regular Season is finally upon us! It’s an especially exciting time to be a Seahawks fan as the defending Super Bowl Champions kick off the new season in prime time on Thursday night vs. the Green Bay Packers. The Packers come into 2014 with high expectations, boasting an improved defense to go along with a high-powered offense that is consistently near the top of the league.
There may also be a revenge factor, albeit two years later. After all, who could forget this night?
Scouting the Green Bay Packers
The Packers are led by three-time Pro-Bowl Quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers played well last year, but was forced to miss seven games with a broken collarbone. During his absence, the team struggled with Matt Flynn, Scott Tolzien, and Seneca Wallace playing quarterback, going 2-5-1. Rodgers is surrounded by great receiving talent with Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, although sure handed James Jones departed to Oakland via free agency. Nelson has been one of the best wide receivers in the league over the last few years and Cobb is an emerging playmaker with incredible speed and quickness. Rookie Richard Rodgers of Cal figures to get the start at tight end.
Eddie Lacy enters the season as the workhorse running back for Green Bay and looks to build on a successful rookie campaign in which he rushed for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns and averaged over 4 yards per carry. Lacy is a physical, downhill power back, checking in at 230 pounds. He was also a surprising contributor to the passing game last year, catching 35 balls. Fan favorite John Kuhn returns at fullback. Kuhn is a versatile player who contributes in pass protection, run blocking, catching passes, and playing special teams.
The performance of the offensive line in 2014 will be key for the Packers if they are to make a serious playoff run. After a brief stint at left tackle last preseason, Bryan Bulaga moves back to the right side of the line where he found success before season ending hip and knee injuries in 2012 and 2013, respectively. The last time Bulaga visited Seattle in Week 3 of 2012, he was burned by then-rookie Bruce Irvin for 2 first half sacks. David Bakhtiari is back at left tackle after a promising rookie campaign protecting Aaron Rodgers’ blindside. Solid veterans Josh Sitton and T.J Lang will man the guard spots. J.C. Tretter was projected to be the starting center but is out with a knee injury, so rookie 5th round draft pick Corey Linsley will make his NFL regular season debut on Thursday night. All in all, this should be a solid offensive line group.
The defense is hoping to be much improved from last season when it ranked 25th in the league. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers has a new weapon to work with in Julius Peppers, who will play outside linebacker opposite Clay Matthews in Capers’ 3-4 scheme. Ends Mike Daniels and Datone Jones should be solid once again. The big question on the defensive line is at nose tackle. B.J. Raji is out for the season with a torn biceps, although his play had dipped off in 2013. His likely replacement is Letroy Guion, who has spent his six NFL seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones will be the inside linebackers.
In the secondary, Green Bay drafted safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix of Alabama in the first round, but he appears to be losing the starting free safety battle to Micah Hyde. Morgan Burnett will play strong safety. Cornerback Sam Shields signed a big deal in the offseason to stay in Green Bay. He boasts excellent closing speed, but is sometimes caught gambling too often. Tramon Williams is the other starting corner and is in the last year of his contract. His play has steadily declined from its peak during the Packers’ 2014 Super Bowl run.
Kicker Mason Crosby was 33 for 37 on field goals last season and is one of the better kickers in the league. Tim Masthay is the punter and Brett Goode will handle the long snapping duties. DuJuan Harris will likely be the kick returner, but Randall Cobb will return punts, despite now being a full-time starting receiver.
Doug Baldwin is moving outside this year as opposed to playing in the slot as he’s done so well in the past. Jermaine Kearse figures to get most of the reps as the slot receiver. I do have to say, though, I always liked how Kearse played on the outside and what Baldwin did in the slot. Kearse has both great speed and jumping ability and often demonstrated his knack for catching the deep ball last season. Baldwin was always reliable in the slot and consistently made tough catches when the team needed them most. Ultimately, it comes down to play time, and with Baldwin as the overall better receiver and the offense running a majority of 2 receiver sets, it made sense to ensure he was on the field as much as possible. It will be interesting to see how they line up when the Hawks go to 3, 4, and 5 receiver sets though.
Byron Maxwell enters his first full season as a starting cornerback. Maxwell struggled at times during the preseason, so hopefully he can clean things up and continue the tradition of shutdown pass defense in the Pacific Northwest. He will draw a challenging assignment on Thursday with Pack receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. Jeremy Lane takes over as the nickel back and has proven more than capable in that role.
It appears Earl Thomas will be the starting punter returner going into Thursday night. Coach Carroll doesn’t seem worried about injury risk and neither am I.
Things to Watch For
1) Contact in the secondary – Much has been made about the NFL’s “point of emphasis” (already sick of that term) on defensive holding for 2014. Apparently, the Seahawks’ dominance may have had something to do with hit. Regardless it will be interesting to see how pass coverage is officiated on Thursday night. Will the officials let the secondaries play a little or call things ticky-tack? This could have a huge impact on the game with the Packers pass-happy offense and the Seahawks shutdown secondary (LOB). There should be some great matchups with Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb going head to head with Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell.
2) Wilson on the verge of “Elite” – Will Russell Wilson’s outstanding preseason carry over into the regular season? It was great to see him take total control of the offense this August. He seemed to be on another level and virtually unstoppable. Can he approach the “elite” group of Manning, Brady, Brees, etc? For that to happen, OC Bevell will need to open up the offense a bit more than last year, something I don’t think he’ll be afraid to do with Russell behind center. Thursday night on national TV will be a great opportunity for Wilson to show the country that he’s ready to take that next step in his 3rd year as a pro.
3) Pass rush – Seahawks D-line vs. Packers O-line – 2 years ago, the Seahawks made the Packers offensive line look pretty silly to the tune of 8 first half sacks. However, some of the faces that contributed on that night (Chris Clemons, Red Bryant) are now gone. Will the Packers be more prepared in pass protection this time around? Or will Bennett, Avril, Irvin and crew have their way with them and throw Rodgers off his rhythm?
Hawks 27, Pack 24.