Dougherty: Packers-Seahawks bout pits strength vs. strength

Pete Dougherty
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Green Bay Packers tackle Bryan Bulaga (75) blocks Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett (72) during the second quarter of their game Dec. 11, 2016 at Lambeau Field.

When the NFL determines its Super Bowl match-up on Jan. 21, there’s a decent chance the NFC will come down to the two teams that open the season at Lambeau Field on Sunday: the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers.

The oddsmakers think so. The Packers (4-1, according to Bovada) and Seahawks (5-1) are the favorites to win the NFC, followed Atlanta (6-1) and Dallas (13-2).

And when it comes to Packers-Seahawks, it’s Goliath against Goliath.

The Packers should have one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses with perennial MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers at quarterback and a corps of multi-skilled weapons, including Jordy Nelson, Martellus Bennett, Randall Cobb, Davante Adams and Ty Montgomery.

The Seahawks counter with what should again be football’s best defense. They led the NFL in fewest points allowed from 2012 through 2015 and made a big personnel move last week that they hope will get them back to the top after slipping to No. 3 last year: trading for defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson from the New York Jets.

“(Richardson) is a good football player,” said a scout who works in the Seahawks’ NFC West Division. “He’s hungry, he’s in a contract year. Defensively up front they’re really, really solid.”

So this Packers-Seahawks match-up comes down to which strength prevails: Rodgers’ and coach Mike McCarthy’s dynamic offense? Or Seahawks coach Pete Carroll’s talent-stacked defense?

When you look at the Richardson trade, it’s hard not to think Carroll and his general manager, former Packers executive John Schneider, had Rodgers in mind, as well as Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan. Chances are you'll have to beat a couple of them to win the Super Bowl. And to do that, you need pass rushers.

Carroll’s Seahawks always have been about defense, and the move signaled that he and Schneider are trying to get back to their halcyon days of 2013, when they won the Super Bowl with a defense that achieved the ultimate trifecta: the No. 1 ranking in points, yards and passer rating.

That '13 team rushed the passer with a frenzy. It had a deep rotation of rushers and blitzers (Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Chris Clemons, Clinton McDonald, Bruce Irvin, Tony McDonald and Bobby Wagner) that came at the quarterback in waves.

This year before the trade, the Seahawks had three upper-echelon rushers in Bennett, Avril and Frank Clark. Richardson gives them a fourth.

He’s one of the NFL’s more talented, if inconsistent, inside rushers – he had eight sacks in 2014, five in 2015 and only 1 ½ last year. He was available because the Jets had a glut of highly regarded interior players, and he’d had multiple run-ins with a Jets teammate and coach Todd Bowles over the past year.

So Carroll and Schneider pulled the trigger and now have the makings of the league’s best front four. On passing downs, they’ll line up Avril (11 ½ sacks in '16) and Clark (10 sacks last season as a second-year pro) on the outside, and pair Richardson with Bennett (an average of 7.9 sacks the past five years) inside.

“When (Richardson) wants to play he can be as disruptive as anybody, as a pass rusher and a run defender,” said a scout for an AFC team. “He has the talent to be really good. He also has some other stuff to be a distraction. Seattle is betting on its strong locker room to temper him.”

The late date of the trade is a curveball for the Packers’ coaching staff, which had worked all offseason on a game plan for the opener. Richardson could affect some of those plans.

I talked this week with the two scouts for a collective 40 minutes about the strengths and weaknesses of the Seahawks’ defense, and how McCarthy and Rodgers might attack:

The key man: You could spark a fun discussion by asking a group of NFL scouts to pick Seattle’s most important defensive player.

The Seahawks have more candidates than any other team: Bennett, Wagner, safety Earl Thomas, cornerback Richard Sherman and safety Kam Chancellor.

Those five players are in their fifth year together, and the answer probably has changed over time. Two years ago I asked exactly that question of three scouts from the NFC West; two picked Bennett and one Wagner.

I talked to one of those scouts this week, and his answer changed. He picked Bennett then but Sherman now, based on the Seahawks’ lack of depth at cornerback. Sherman, 29, showed some signs of aging last year, but the scout from an NFC West rival still considers him a cover man who can take away half the field, which means more help for everyone else.

“He’s a lockdown corner,” the scout said. “People don’t understand his size (6-3, 195). They see him on TV and think he’s tall and thin. No, he’s tall and thick. He’s cut high, he has good movement skills still. His top-end speed is fading, but he’s smart enough to know when to get out of that backpedal, flip his hips and go. He’s still a really good football player.”

An injury to Sherman would be catastrophic for Seattle. As long as he’s on the field, it’s much more attractive to attack the Seahawks’ other corners, third-round draft pick Shaquill Griffin (4.38-second 40) on the outside, and Jeremy Lane in the slot.

“Green Bay has a chance to expose them with Nelson, Cobb, Adams,” the scout said.

Bulaga’s ankle: The Packers listed right tackle Bryan Bulaga as questionable for Sunday because of an ankle injury. If Bulaga can’t go, either Kyle Murphy (more likely) or Jason Spriggs will start, and the Seahawks surely will test either. And if Bulaga plays, you can bet the Seahawks will test his ankle.

Either way, it starts with the 31-year-old Bennett, who usually lines up across from the right tackle on early downs. The scout from the NFC West pegs Bennett as Seattle’s best defensive player and a guy who could ruin the Packers’ offense if Bulaga is compromised or doesn't play.

“Behind J.J. Watt and Von Miller, (Bennett) is probably the most disruptive player in the National Football League,” the scout said.

Earl the pearl: Last year when the Packers blew out Seattle (38-10) on Dec. 11 at Lambeau Field, Thomas didn’t play – his season had ended the week before because of a broken leg.

Thomas’ exceptional range as a single deep safety is critical to the Seahawks’ bedrock Cover 3 scheme that allows Chancellor to roam near the line of scrimmage. In the six games Thomas missed last season, playoffs included, the Seahawks went 3-3 and allowed an average of 23.3 points. In the 12 games he played, they were 8-3-1 and gave up only 16.2 points.

 “No issues,” said the NFC West scout, who’d watched video of all of Thomas’ 74 snaps in the preseason. “He had some hits that let everyone know, ‘I’m back.’ … He’s ready to go. He looks bigger and stronger, and just as fast.”

Challenge the Chancellor: Though Chancellor is a four-time Pro Bowler, twice second-team All-Pro and possibly the Seahawks’ best leader, he could join cornerbacks Lane and Griffin as Rodgers’ primary targets in coverage.

At 6-3 and 232, Chancellor is built more like a linebacker than defensive back, and the Seahawks play him that way. He usually lines up near the line of scrimmage and is a force in the run game. Against most teams he’s fine in coverage, too. But premier quarterbacks such as Rodgers are another story when it comes to finding and exploiting match-ups.

“(Chancellor) is a threat when it’s time to come down and blow things up,” the second scout said. “He falls a little short in coverage.”

So the match-up is set. Seattle's defense has had an uncommonly long run, but time is short —  Bennett (31), Avril (31), Sherman (29) and Chancellor (29) are all 29 or older. The trade for Richardson is a shot at putting that clock on hold. 

The Packers have a future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback at the peak of his physical and mental powers, plus some new weapons.

So it's strength against strength. This is only the opening round of a long season, but in four months we very well could see these same two teams going at it again, only with much more on the line.

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