Stopping, containing or even somewhat hindering Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers isn’t an easy assignment for any defense. The degree of difficulty is lowered only slightly even when he’s hobbled by a calf injury, and then just a notch further with the roar of CenturyLink Field, where the Seattle Seahawks have still somehow lost only twice during the Russell Wilson era.
But what if we conducted an experiment where a defense is repeatedly placed in the worst possible position against Rodgers during a really, really important game? Let’s make it the NFC Championship Game, and let’s put the Packers inside Seattle territory for nearly the entire first half.
While we’re tinkering with our football figurines, let’s also gift the Packers red-zone access (or thereabouts) for almost the whole first quarter. Oh, and let’s make sure the Seahawks barely retain the ball offensively during that time, giving our defensive heroes little opportunity to rest.
The game would be over by the second quarter, right?
That foray into football science was a real thing Sunday during a 28-22 Seahawks win that clinched a second straight Super Bowl appearance. The result of this creation from some madman high above was a Seahawks defense that reached another level, even when it seemed they had already scaled the highest peak.
Seattle's defense had one weakness coming into Sunday: It allowed a touchdown on 56.8 percent of the opposition’s red-zone trips throughout the regular season (20th in the NFL). While it’s true that getting to the red zone is tough against Seattle, scoring after making that journey wasn’t nearly as challenging.
The Packers’ first drive ended with an interception by Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman. It came on a play that began just shy of the red zone (Seattle’s 29-yard line). Sherman showed the concentration and ball skills we’ve all come to expect when he elevated to steal a descending throw intended for wide receiver Davante Adams.
So an early disaster was averted then, right? Nope, because a few plays later our evil experiment started.
A series of rather unfortunate but completely avoidable events followed. Wilson temporarily lowered himself to a standard we’re not familiar with from him: that of an inaccurate passer making poor decisions. And as a whole, the Seahawks offense and special teams were overflowing with slop, low-lighted by a Doug Baldwin kick return fumble.
Wilson’s early interceptions, along with that fumble and a punt brought back 29 yards by Packers return man Micah Hyde, led to a daunting situation.
|Packers field position after first drive|
|Drive||Starting position||Plays inside 20-yard line||Plays inside 10-yard line|
|2nd drive||Seattle 19||4||3|
|3rd drive||Seattle 23||4||3|
|4th drive||Green Bay 44||2||0|
|5th drive||Seattle 33||0||0|
|6th drive||Green Bay 44||0||0|
That stretch is when the game should have ended. Technically a little over two quarters still remained, but for competitive purposes all should have been lost.
Of the Packers’ first 25 offensive plays, 10 took place inside Seattle’s red zone. Worse, they ran six plays inside the Seahawks’ 7-yard line. And here’s the real hammer:
|First half offense comparison|
|Team||Total plays||Plays inside opposing territory||Yards||Yds/play|
That sure does look like the unofficial end of a game. Even one of the best defenses in recent history (or just history?) had to break against Rodgers when consistently handed a steep disadvantage.
As far as assumptions go, that seems like a fair one. It’s also wrong.
The Packers ran 75 percent of their first-half plays in Seattle territory and yet still scored only a single touchdown. They pushed the ball to the goal line twice and yet still scored only a single touchdown.
That outcome shouldn’t be possible for Rodgers. In total the Packers were held to five field goals. Of those, three came during the first half, when Green Bay had its largest lead. A 16-point gap felt insurmountable at one point due to Wilson’s spraying and the Seahawks’ general offensive stumbles.
Bridging that divide was still possible, and the game was still well within reach because of yet another remarkable defensive performance from a unit that did something new to leave us awed and amazed. Of course, the Seahawks benefited from Packers head coach Mike McCarthy and his rusty, archaically conservative approach that was accurately blasted by Grantland’s Bill Barnwell.
McCarthy might be a quarterback whisperer. But deciding to kick two field goals on 4th-and-1 is absolutely mind-numbing game management, and it made a robot cry.
Seattle put the Packers in that position and forced McCarthy to unleash his inner ultra-conservative demons. Their menacing defensive presence loomed so large that an opposing coach thought it was wise to take any points he could grab, because returning to a scoring position might not happen again.
The two goal-line stands were accomplished in classic Seahawks fashion: through swarming and punishing.
On the first one, Packers running back Eddie Lacy had a hole to the left side. He’s not a small man at 230 pounds, and he’s quite fast considering that baggage.
He knows how to hit a hole with authority. But so do Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith and safety Earl Thomas.
As Lacy marched toward that hole, he was met by three Seahawks, with defensive end Bruce Irvin also shedding his block to get in on the momentum-stopping contact.
It was all a familiar scene for the Seahawks: multiple bodies on one body, and a completely erased play.
The result was similar one drive later, though this time the Packers were stopped at the goal line because of keen anticipation.
That’s often been Thomas’ thing, as he diagnoses plays quickly before springing to action. The four-time Pro Bowler is regularly praised for his physicality despite a limited stature (he’s 5’10”). But his mental approach is really what sets Thomas apart.
The Packers had Adams and fellow wide receiver Randall Cobb stacked to the right side. Cobb ran a quick slant, and Adams was out in front to act as a lead blocker. If Adams was able to hold Thomas up for even an instant, Cobb had a shot at the end zone.
Thomas saw the play developing and gave himself an angle to avoid Adams by taking a wide stride to his left as the ball was in flight.
Then Cobb caught two items in his midsection: the ball, and Thomas’ helmet.
The Seahawks still needed bruising brilliance from running back Marshawn Lynch to complete their 16-point comeback, along with plenty of dumb luck. Every successful onside kick requires lots of rabbit-foot rubbing, as did the spinning heave for a two-point conversion. And although the fake field goal was designed beautifully, there’s also some wishful thinking involved whenever a punter completes a pass to a right tackle.
But all of that was made possible by a defense that barely bent, and certainly didn’t break.
During a run to two straight Super Bowl appearances the Seahawks defense has now defeated Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers. They’ve given up a combined 45 points to offenses led by three of the best quarterbacks in football.
Tom Brady will either be the next victim in Super Bowl XLIX or the quarterback who finally solves the great riddle that is Seattle’s defense in January. Many challengers have fallen, and we’re still waiting for a worthy opponent to defeat the Legion of Boom when it matters most.
We might be waiting for a while, too.