Packers vs. Seahawks: Complete Guide for NFL Season Opener
Football has arrived.
Yes, it arrived in July when training camps formed. Yes, it arrived in August when the Hall of Fame Game was played. It even kind of arrived for the first half of the third preseason games.
But now—really, actually, truly—the NFL season is upon us.
The NFL's schedule makers always try to make the first game an enticing one, but they outdid themselves this time. The champions, at home, in front of the loudest sports fans on Earth. Their swaggering, dominant defense dismantled the record-setting Denver Broncos offense in Super Bowl XLVIII while the whole world watched in shock.
Their opponents? The Green Bay Packers, one of the NFL's very best offenses for seven years running. Packers fans hope Aaron Rodgers comes back roaring from the collarbone injury that affected him for much of 2014, and that he succeeds where Peyton Manning failed.
It should be a fantastic matchup for the first real NFL football of 2014, but how will it play out?
Bleacher Report's complete guide will take an in-depth look into the teams, the coaches and the matchups—and predict the NFL's first victory of 2014.
What, Where, When: The Crucial Info
What: 2014 NFL regular-season opener
Who: Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks
Where: CenturyLink Field
When: 8:30 p.m. ET
Which Channel: NBC
There should be a massive, frenzied crowd at CenturyLink Field for this one. Of course, there's a massive, frenzied crowd at CenturyLink Field for all the games, but this one especially. It's the season opener for the Seahawks; it's the season opener for the whole NFL; it's a prime-time showcase for the legendary Seattle atmosphere. It's set up to be a fantastic game.
Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll declared the game "everything that you could ask for on opening night," according to the team's official site, and it's hard to disagree.
The Seattle Seahawks are the reigning champions of the NFL, having won Super Bowl XLVIII in a stunning 43-8 blowout. The season-opening night game against the Packers kicks off their bid to become the first back-to-back champions since the 2003 and 2004 New England Patriots.
Unlike the team they crushed in the Super Bowl, the Denver Broncos, the cap-strapped Seahawks had a quiet offseason. They lost several key contributors without any big additions. The Packers will be a tough test for a defense that lost linemen Chris Clemons, Red Bryant and Clinton McDonald, plus cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond.
Can the notorious "Legion of Boom" secondary still smother high-powered offenses like the Packers? Can the underrated pass rush still hassle quarterbacks with so much of its vaunted depth depleted?
We should get an answer not long after kickoff.
The pressure is much higher on the Packers. After winning Super Bowl XLV, their nucleus has remained intact—yet they've struggled to get back to the big game. They went 15-1 in 2011 and looked like locks to repeat, but the New York Giants bounced them out of the playoffs immediately. 2012 saw them win the NFC North with another double-digit-win season, but then second-year phenom Colin Kaepernick shredded Green Bay in the divisional round.
In 2013, quarterback Aaron Rodgers missed seven games with a broken collarbone before leading a dramatic last-minute comeback road win over the Chicago Bears to clinch the division with a meager 8-7-1 record. Their postseason luck didn't turn, however, and Kaepernick and the 49ers again sent them packing.
The 2010 edition of the Packers featured the No. 2 scoring defense in the NFL—but despite adding a slew of highly drafted youngsters, the defense declined steeply. They ranked No. 24 in 2013, per Pro-Football-Reference.com, and defensive coordinator Dom Capers might be coaching for his job this season.
Rodgers still has something to prove, too. After his 2010 Super Bowl triumph and MVP-winning 2011 regular season, the Packers haven't been dominant, and he's been outgunned in the playoffs. Not many eight-win teams expect to contend for a title the next season, but the Packers do.
Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll is widely recognized as one of the best in the business, but it took him a little longer to get here than he (or most others) expected.
It took him just 10 seasons to go from his first NFL job, as Buffalo Bills defensive backs coach, to skippering the New York Jets. A hot young coach with a bright future, Carroll only lasted one season there. After a successful stint as a defensive coordinator in San Francisco, New England gave him his second crack at being an NFL head man. He lasted three years that time.
He landed at USC, where his charismatic personality and reputation as a player's coach seemed a perfect fit for the college game. After presiding over one of the most dominant nine-year runs any college program has ever had, Carroll finally made the leap back to the NFL.
Since then, he's done nearly nothing wrong. He built a power running game around Marshawn Lynch and a tremendous defense around safety Earl Thomas. When he had the wisdom to draft undersized quarterback Russell Wilson in 2012 and then start him over free-agent signee Matt Flynn, he set the table for this outstanding two-year run.
Carroll is still hugely popular with players. Per ESPN.com's Terry Blount, NFL players voted Carroll as the coach they'd most want to play for in a confidential survey. He's also popular within the Seattle community, doing lots of local charity work (as he did at USC).
The question is, now that Carroll's firm-but-friendly coaching and man management has gotten his players all Super Bowl rings, will they still listen? As hard as it is to win once, it's much harder to repeat.
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy knows this well. After taking over in 2006, he brilliantly managed the transition from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers. The Packers finished in the NFL's top five in scoring offense in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2012 (notably, in 2010, they finished 10th and won the Super Bowl).
All of this perennial success, though, has led to just one title—and a few disappointing early playoff exits. Can McCarthy and the Packers get back over the hump and again make Lambeau Field a winter fortress?
The New Faces
In Seattle, there's only one new face of real importance: defensive lineman Kevin Williams.
Arif Hasan took an incredible, in-depth look at Williams on FieldGulls.com, explaining his recent lack of production for the Vikings, his poor fit there and the ideal ways the Seahawks could use Williams in 2014. Helping replace the losses of key rotational defensive linemen like Chris Clemons, Williams will have a vital role in keeping the pass rush on full boil for four quarters.
Not technically a new face, 2013 free-agent addition Tony McDaniel, per Todd Dybas of The News Tribune, will step up into a major role for the first time, replacing Red Bryant at the 5-technique spot.
On the other side of the ball, the Packers added two big pieces to their front seven: defensive tackle Letroy Guion and outside linebacker Julius Peppers.
Bleacher Report NFL Lead Writer Matt Bowen went up to Packers camp to watch Peppers and came away extremely impressed. Peppers' "freakish" athletic ability and versatility will slot perfectly into Dom Capers' 3-4 defense. Being able to line up as a rush linebacker, put his hand down, swap positions with Clay Matthews and rotate with Mike Neal should help the Packers bring much more heat on the passer than they did in 2013.
Guion isn't nearly as flashy, talented or well-paid as Peppers, but with the loss of nose tackle B.J. Raji (biceps), he'll suddenly be anchoring the Packers run defense.
Both teams will have new faces along the offensive line, with Seahawks second-round right tackle Justin Britt joining 2012 seventh-rounder J.R. Sweezy on the right side of the offensive line. New Packers center J.C. Tretter is taking over for departed free-agent Evan Dietrich-Smith, but will be on temporary injured reserve until November 9. Instead, fifth-round pick Corey Linsley will get the start.
When the Packers Have the Ball
Aaron Rodgers was and is the straw that stirs the drink in Green Bay, and if he's in top form he's as good as an NFL quarterback gets. He has great vision, throws a very fast-spinning ball with great accuracy and is an underrated athlete. Able to make plays on the run or in the pocket, he's made stars out of lesser receivers than current starters Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb.
Of course, if any secondary can shut down the Packers' air attack, it's the Legion of Boom. Using press coverage on the outside and an aggressive Cover 1 look, the Seahawks don't leave many short routes open—and the pass rush doesn't allow many deep routes to develop.
For more, Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Cian Fahey extensively broke down how the Packers can attack the Seahawks defensive backs.
There will be a lot of pressure on the Packers offensive line. Sophomore left tackle David Bakhtiari ranked 62nd in Pro Football Focus' tackle rankings for 2013 (subscription required). Right tackle Bryan Bulaga is returning from a knee injury that cost him all of 2013; his talent should provide a boost, but his form is in question.
After years of running with makeshift committees, the Packers finally found a workhorse back in second-rounder Eddie Lacy, whose 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns earned him a Pro Bowl nod in his debut season. Lacy and Rodgers didn't get many in-form games together in 2013, but the combination of air and ground attack will give the Seahawks plenty to worry about.
When the Seahawks Have the Ball
The Seahawks winning the Super Bowl just might have signaled a changing of the guard.
For years, the Seahawks offense had been built around the power running of Marshawn Lynch. In the wake of the Super Bowl win, though, Lynch embarked upon an offseason holdout—or, as Bob Condotta of The Seattle Times called it, "an extended summer vacation." The Seahawks were never going to rip up Lynch's deal, so Lynch's absence just gave understudies Christine Michael and Robert Turbin more opportunities to show their stuff.
The Packers run defense, graded fourth worst by Pro Football Focus in 2013 (subscription required), will have to be greatly improved to stop the Seahawks ground attack and get off the field on third down.
Lynch has always been a tough man to figure out; it may be that his hunger for the game has been sated—or he may have a career year in 2014. Either way, it looks as though the Seahawks are preparing for a future without him, and in the NFL, that usually means the future's coming sooner than we think.
There's another possible change that we may see in 2014: the transition of the Seahawks from a power-running team to a passing team. As many headlines as quarterback Russell Wilson (deservedly) made in his first and second seasons, his prowess was more about wisely taking what the defense gave him than it was imposing his will on the game.
Wilson finished just 22nd in the NFL in pass attempts, per Pro-Football-Reference.com, and the Seahawks were one of just two teams that ran more often than they passed. Though Wilson's rate stats are tremendous, his defense and running game allowed him to be selectively aggressive.
Can he step up and win more games for the Seahawks by himself? Will he need to?
If the rebuilt Packers front seven can generate a lot of heat on Wilson, and if first-round rookie safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix can shore up the Packers' leaky back seven, the Seahawks will struggle to keep up with the Packers offense.
Key One-on-One Matchups
Packers C Corey Linsley vs. Seahawks DT Brandon Mebane
Fifth-round pick Corey Linsley will get the start at center. Seahawks outside linebacker Bruce Irvin said he's "gonna pray for" the young rookie as he squares off against Seahawks nose tackle Brandon Mebane, per Curtis Crabtree of ProFootballTalk.
Mebane is one of the NFL's most dominant run-stuffers, receiving Pro Football Focus' second-highest run-stuffing grade in their defensive tackle ratings (subscription required). Mebane was an underrated part of what made the Seahawks defense go in 2013, and Linsley will need to hold up against him if the Packers run game is to get going.
Seahawks CB Byron Maxwell vs. Packers WR Jordy Nelson
All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman rightly gets lots of attention. But he called this game a "chess match" in a recent press conference, per Fox Q13 in Seattle, and he's absolutely right.
Sherman usually stays on the left side of the field, so Aaron Rodgers and the Packers will be able to game-plan around his location. By shifting around No. 1 receiver Jordy Nelson and slot spark plug Randall Cobb, the Packers should be able to test Maxwell early and often.
Packers DE Datone Jones vs. Seahawks LG J.R. Sweezy
Datone Jones, a 2013 first-round pick thought to be a perfect fit for Dom Capers' defense, came out of the gate slowly, mustering just 3.5 sacks. J.R. Sweezy, a 2012 seventh-round defensive tackle converted to guard, had such a strong preseason that he was named Pro Football Focus' fourth-best guard (subscription required).
If Jones gets the best of Sweezy, with Julius Peppers coming around the same corner, it could be disastrous for the Seahawks offense—running or throwing. If Sweezy stands tall, it'll give the Seahawks flexibility to pay more attention to Peppers.
Harvin's the ultimate NFL X-factor. Not only are his talents versatile and his explosion prodigious, his spotty health and iffy practice track record has made him seem like an apparition who shows up, wins Super Bowls and disappears again.
Harvin's ability to stretch the field isn't just an X-factor for this game; it's an X-factor for the whole season. If he shows up in top form and stays there for 16 games, the Seahawks could shred people. If he gets hurt again or is ineffective, the Seahawks will struggle to take the top off of defenses.
Packers Tight Ends
Packers tight end Andrew Quarless and third-round rookie Richard Rodgers could be the key the Packers need to unlock that Seahawks secondary. Their matchups against the Seahawks' inside cornerbacks and outside linebackers will be critical on 2nd-and-long, 3rd-and-long and red-zone situations.
If either can have a big night on Thursday night, it could force the Seahawks safeties to respect them over the top, opening up opportunities for lethal slot threat Randall Cobb.
As Bleacher Report NFC North Lead Writer Zach Kruse broke down, both Wilson and Rodgers are huge threats to make plays on the run. For all scheming and game-planning and adjustments both coaches will do, the game will very well turn on which quarterback makes something out of nothing more often.
CenturyLink was a fortress for the Seahawks in 2013, and most of their truly dominant Super Bowl-winning squad is back intact.
Yet Rodgers and the Packers have to be much hungrier this season, not to mention much improved and more balanced on both sides of the ball.
Though both teams have questions on their offensive and defensive lines, Rodgers' ability to take over a game from both outside and inside the pocket give them a distinct advantage. Eddie Lacy might not have the daylight to outrush Marshawn Lynch, but Lynch might not have much daylight, either—and it remains to be seen how committed he is to going full "Beast Mode" in 2014.
Even if the Packers didn't have a motivational and offensive advantage, Week 1 is always full of surprises. At the time of this writing, OddsShark had the Packers as six-point underdogs, but Green Bay looks like a very dangerous upset threat.
Prediction: Packers 23, Seahawks 20