Seahawks vs. Packers: Unheralded Players Who Will Determine Thursday Night Clash

Chris RolingFeatured ColumnistSeptember 3, 2014

Seattle Seahawks cornerback Byron Maxwell runs out of the tunnel before a preseason NFL football game against the San Diego Chargers, Friday, Aug. 15, 2014, in Seattle. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)
John Froschauer/Associated Press

Thursday, the Green Bay Packers get the first shot at the reigning Super Bowl champs and a chance at revenge for the "Fail Mary" game two seasons ago when the team makes the trip to Seattle to take on the Seahawks.

Rightfully so, the spotlight will be all about the familiar names. Aaron Rodgers. Russell Wilson. Marshawn Lynch. Percy Harvin. Clay Matthews. Etc.

But as NFL aficionados like to brag, football is the utmost example of a team sport. Rodgers can't do his thing if he's on his back. Lynch can't plow over defensive backs with no offensive line (OK, maybe he can.). Matthews can't get to the passer if he gets stonewalled in a one-on-one encounter.

The point is, plenty of underrated players will greatly influence the outcome during the NFL's opening game of the 2014 season. The most important follow below.


Seattle OT Justin Britt

Aug 7, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Seattle Seahawks guard Justin Britt (68) warms up before the preseason game against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Thanks to stellar play this offseason and missteps that eventually led to Michael Bowies' release, second-round rookie Justin Britt is the starter at right tackle.

Talk about a trial by fire. 

Britt's reward for winning the starting job? Shutting down Matthews, of course. 

"Yeah, he’s got [Julius] Peppers and Clay Mathews," coach Pete Carroll said, per Bob Condotta of The Seattle Times. "Julius Peppers is about as good as you can get on the other side. He will get tested in a big way. He’s worked a ton against Cliff Avril all camp in preparation for the speed and the strength and hopefully he will be ready to handle that."

As Sports Illustrated's Doug Farrar pointed out, though, Britt looked very much like a rookie against a Chicago line that included Jared Allen and ranked up near the top in pressures allowed overall:

Britt will of course get help from tight end Zach Miller and a host of others, but there will surely be snaps where he is placed alone on an island with Matthews or Julius Peppers.

How he handles the situation could decide the game outright considering that even a single pressure on Wilson could be the difference between a touchdown for the Seahawks and a turnover that leads to a score for the Packers.


Green Bay DE Datone Jones

Nov 28, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Green Bay Packers defensive end Datone Jones (95) against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Datone Jones is one of those players fans know the name of but forget and will kick themselves if they can't remember.

One Google search later reveals all.

Green Bay's first-round pick in 2013 did a full-on face-plant last year, generating just 3.5 sacks in a limited role before seeing his playing time get stolen by fourth-round rookie Josh Boyd.

“I think I am leaps and bounds ahead of where I was,” Jones said, per ESPN Wisconsin's Tony Cartagena. “Last year I got hurt, suffered a terrible injury and missed like half the preseason. But, now I feel like I got a lot off my shoulders, I can really relax and focus and just play."

With nose tackle B.J. Raji out for the season, Jones' potential second-year leap better come to fruition if the Packers hope to form a wall against the run and provide an additional rush out of the trenches.

It needs to happen as soon as Thursday. If Jones provides more of a bark than bite, the Seattle offensive line will be free to dial in on Matthews and Peppers. The inverse, obviously, means Wilson will be on the run all night.


Seattle CB Byron Maxwell

Aug 7, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Seattle Seahawks cornerback Byron Maxwell (41) before the preseason game against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Despite being a member of the so-called "Legion of Boom," most members fail to escape Richard Sherman's shadow in the name-recognition department.

Take 2011 sixth-round pick Byron Maxwell, for example. With Sherman playing only the left side of the field, the Clemson product was tasked with performing at a high level last season to keep the secondary as a whole strong.

He did just that, ranking as the No. 16 overall cornerback in the league last season, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

Thursday, it is safe to bet No. 41 will be Rodgers' main target, and wideouts such as Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson will be flexed to his side of the field with some frequency to avoid throwing the ball Sherman's way.

Should Maxwell allow a few big plays, the Seattle offense will be forced from its run-first comfort zone. From there, anything can happen, home-field advantage or not.


Green Bay C Corey Linsley

Aug 22, 2014; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers center Corey Linsley (63) against the Oakland Raiders at Lambeau Field. The Packers defeated the Raiders 31-21. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

No player has a bigger task Thursday than fifth-round rookie Corey Linsley, who gets thrown to the wolves in the utmost sense of the cliche phrase as the man responsible for getting the ball to Rodgers and the play calls at the line correct despite the noisy 12th man.

Seattle linebacker Bruce Irvin breaks down the situation best, via's Curtis Crabtree:

If I'm a rookie and I've got Brandon Mebane my first game—he's one of the best nose tackles in the league—it's going to be big for him. I'm gonna pray for him. It's going to be a long night, man.

All the weaknesses that [Linsley] shows us, we've got to expose it. Hopefully, Bane going to do what I know he's going to do to him. So, we've just got to be ready.

While Linsley did wind up as the league's No. 6 overall center after the preseason at PFF, Irvin has a point—Brandon Mebane was the No. 3 overall tackle in the league last season at PFF and graded out well both against the run and as a rusher in most games.

Coach Mike McCarthy understands better than anyone that his rookie center will be on an island that even Maxwell would shy away from, as NFL Network's Albert Breer illustrates:

With all due respect to Michigan, the Ohio State product is not on his way to The Big House. CenturyLink Field is a completely different animal, and if Linsley is not up to the task, the Green Bay offense will fail to launch Thursday.


Note: Stats courtesy of Advanced metrics via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).


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