The Seahawks will see a much different Aaron Rodgers this Sunday night than the one they saw in the NFC title game last January.
The MVP quarterback's mobility was severely limited during the final month of the season after he strained his calf against Tampa Bay in Week 16. It handcuffed him to the pocket and eliminated his ability to scramble. That aspect of his game was on display in Sunday’s win over Chicago, with Rodgers completing nearly 80 percent of his passes while scrambling eight times for 35 yards.
Calf injury or not, Rodgers has been human in the Packers’ three consecutive losses to the Seahawks. He has completed 68 of 106 passes for 590 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions (73.2 passer rating). Byron Maxwell’s departure in free agency and Kam Chancellor’s holdout should help Rodgers’ cause.
The Packers’ offense will need to compensate for Bryan Bulaga’s absence for at least this week. Coach Mike McCarthy wouldn’t name his replacement Friday, though it’s expected Don Barclay will get the start. It won’t be easy to keep the Seahawks’ front seven at bay — guard Josh Sitton said this week that Michael Bennett is one of the top three or four defensive linemen in the NFL — but Rodgers’ ability to leave the pocket will be the X-factor.
“The muscle strains are very disappointing and the ability to run I think is an added weapon for our offense,” Rodgers said. “I’ve always looked at it like that and enjoyed the opportunity to extend plays when I can. Offensive line blocked great in the first week. I had no sacks, I was also able to move in the pocket and extend some plays and get some positive yardage. That’s an important part of our offense when the defense is covering down.”
The Packers’ run defense will need a more inspired performance to contend with Marshawn Lynch, who has rushed for 365 yards and three touchdowns on 70 carries (5.2 yards per carry) in the Seahawks’ last three victories over the Packers. Even at 29, the 5-foot-11, 215-pound running back is one of the toughest backs to bring down in the NFL and a nightmare for would-be tacklers.
The acquisition of All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham adds a dimension to the Seahawks' offense, but its success is still predicated on establishing the run early. Lynch perennially is one of the league leaders in yards after contact. The Packers held Lynch to 41 rushing yards in the first half last January before he erupted for 120 yards on 16 carries (7.5 ypc) in the second half and overtime. His 34-year-old backup, Fred Jackson, is older than everyone on the Packers’ roster outside of Julius Peppers, but age didn’t stop him from producing 87 total yards in the Bills' 21-13 win over Green Bay last December.
The Packers, fresh off giving up 189 rushing yards to the Bears, need to have a short memory and quick turnaround.
“That’s the beauty of playing in this league,” defensive tackle B.J. Raji said. “You hit your goal or you don’t and you correct, then the next week you look up and you’ve got another back like Marshawn coming in. It forces you to have to get over what happened last week fairly quickly because you don’t want to repeat that. We’re definitely excited for the challenge.”
The Seahawks’ trade for Graham came out of nowhere, but it made a lot of sense for last year’s 27th-ranked passing offense.
After the Percy Harvin experiment didn’t work out, Seattle traded a first-round pick and veteran center Max Unger to New Orleans to acquire the 6-foot-7, 265-pound tight end. He caught six passes for 51 yards and a touchdown in Seattle’s 34-31 overtime loss to St. Louis, but was forced to be an in-line blocker due to protection issues (Wilson was sacked six times). His 26 touchdowns over the last two seasons make Graham a welcome red-zone target for Wilson.
Graham was a headache for the Packers’ secondary (five catches for 55 yards and a touchdown) in last year’s 44-23 loss to New Orleans. The Packers used safety Sean Richardson in the dime to match up with Bears tight end Martellus Bennett. Green Bay held him to three catches for 31 yards before he broke free for a 24-yard touchdown late.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers also could use Micah Hyde in that capacity. He’s not as big as Richardson, but is one of the secondary’s best tacklers. He started at free safety against the Bears with Morgan Burnett out with a calf, but Burnett's expected to play against Seattle.
“I think he gives them a real target in the passing game,” Capers said. “You look at what he’s done, obviously, the matchups, when you’ve got a big, tall athletic guy like him, it becomes a matchup issue at times.”