McGinn: Packers must match Seahawks' spirit
GREEN BAY - Whatever the snowfall total is Sunday won’t help the Green Bay Packers any more than the temperature of 6 below zero helped the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC wild-card playoffs 11 months ago.
When you’re playing the Seattle Seahawks, you’ve got to fight fire with fire for 60 minutes or you get beat.
“Green Bay has got to come out and be physical against Seattle and weather the storm,” a personnel director for an AFC team said. “With Seattle, you have to be able to punch them in the mouth.”
The executive made those remarks in September 2014 before the Packers and Seahawks met on opening night. The storm reference aside, his advice is as relevant now as it was almost 2 ½ years ago.
Under coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider, the Seahawks have put together a team that probably plays harder on a consistent basis than any in the National Football League.
Carroll, at 65 the oldest coach in the league, brings an energy to the locker room with his boyish enthusiasm and remarkable physical fitness that connects with today’s player.
Working in lockstep with Carroll, Schneider specifically has targeted ultra-competitive players in both the draft and free agency. Many of their best players have chips on their shoulders that seem to have grown even larger despite Seattle’s two Super Bowl appearances in the last three years.
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Fat cats? Not a chance. Just look at the passionate, relentless style of play that marks the Seahawks basically every week.
Seattle is eminently beatable. Tampa Bay proved that two weeks ago, as did the Rams in September. But you need to match or exceed the Seahawks’ fiery spirit to do it.
It’s often said by NFL coaches that you get what you emphasize. For Carroll, that would be intensity, something he preaches to his players and assistant coaches day after day. Everything in Seattle revolves around effort and physicality.
When the Seahawks struggle, it’s often because the coaches put too much of a mental burden on the players and the execution falters.
The Seahawks are at their best when the schemes on both offense and defense are straightforward. Then they can just go out and kick the stuffing out of people.
In its elementary form, football is about moving other people by out-hitting them. The players on every football team, regardless of level, look to a handful or more of their teammates who revel in contact and will take the lead in the most violent moments of the game.
Carroll and Schneider have taken as many if not more chances than any other team on players widely regarded as character risks. When these iffy players arrive, they fall under what one NFL general manager referred to last week as Carroll’s “culture of influence.”
“It’s not a heavy-handed dictatorial regime,” said the GM. “It’s more we’re all in this together but we have to do things this way. The stuff that doesn’t matter, as long you’re professional, we won’t sweat it.”
Carroll has moved far beyond the quasi-militaristic management style that remains popular in the league. Cornerback Richard Sherman, defensive lineman Michael Bennett, wide receiver Doug Baldwin and some others speak out about NFL and societal issues all the while remembering their coach’s admonition, “Don’t do anything to hurt the team.”
He encourages individuality. He doesn’t want to take away from their uniqueness. Be boisterous if you must, but protect the team first.
If Bennett wants to cut his shoulder pads down to a minimum size, Carroll doesn’t object. When players suggested standing with arms locked during the national anthem, Carroll wholeheartedly approved.
With as badly as Marshawn Lynch’s career ended last year, can you imagine other coaches permitting the retired running back to have carte blanche in the bench area last Sunday against Carolina? Lynch walked around hugging ex-teammates as the game was being played but Carroll didn’t say a word.
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Invariably, there will be a blowup on the sideline. There was one in the 2014 NFC championship game when Sherman verbally went off on the defense with the Packers ahead, 13-0.
“I see it like a bunch of brothers,” said the GM. “You have a lot of fights, and sometimes it can get ugly. But it kind of galvanizes them.”
The Seahawks have a top-heavy salary cap that has enabled them to retain nine integral players that joined their great defense from 2010-'13. That defense is on track to lead the league in fewest points allowed for a fifth straight season.
An astonishing 27 of the 53 current Seahawks entered the NFL as undrafted free agents. The Packers have 13.
“Seattle does a great job coaching and developing players,” said the GM. “That’s been the underrated thing there. They get a lot out of their undrafted players. It’s a credit to their coaching staff and their culture. They see things a lot of others don’t.”
Who does the heavy lifting in Seattle? Who sells out physically on a regular basis?
Free safety Earl Thomas might head the list. His tempo, his focus and his sheer striking power for a little man always have set him apart.
Kam Chancellor, the strong safety, is an intimidating presence for any corps of receivers. Linebacker Bobby Wagner is another wicked hitter. Defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin, a shrewd unrestricted free-agent signing from Cleveland in 2015, always goes all-out.
On offense, the Seahawks will never replace Lynch’s ferocious running style but Thomas Rawls, one of those aforementioned character risks, attacks tacklers in his own gutsy way. Center Justin Britt, even tight end Luke Willson bring an extra level of toughness.
The first meeting between Carroll and Mike McCarthy was in Seattle in early 2012. Packers fans can’t get over the disputed finish even though the side judge Lance Easley, who had a better view of the play than a camera ever could, made the proper call.
Anyway, the Packers lost Game 1 because they had no answer for the whirlwind that was Seattle, rookie quarterback or not. They were overrun for eight sacks in the first half, and McCarthy’s first 30 plays included just three runs.
Two years later, the Packers appeared even less prepared for what now were the defending Super Bowl champions. For 15 first-half plays, Dom Capers used his super-secret “Quad” defense through which Russell Wilson and Lynch cut through almost unimpeded. At the same time, McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers gave away one-third of the field to Sherman, who wasn’t targeted in 34 pass attempts.
Seattle’s rampant swagger was captured in the photograph of Sherman appearing to taunt Rodgers as their paths crossed after the Seahawks’ 36-16 triumph.
Four months later the two teams were right back at one another with a berth in the Super Bowl at stake. And, for a change, the Packers weren’t backing down.
Mike Daniels shoved center Max Unger as he stood by the pile after the first play. Hustling Brad Jones forced Baldwin to lose a fumble on a kickoff return.
Julius Peppers sent right tackle Alvin Bailey flying with a hump move for a sack, then ran over right guard J.R. Sweezy for a knockdown on the next play.
Sean Richardson laid out two Seahawks on one interception return (Seattle turned it over five times). When the defense gang-tackled Lynch yet again, Letroy Guion was yakking in the great back’s face.
Clay Matthews punished Wilson on an interception return and on a sliding scramble. Jordy Nelson gave it to one of the Seahawks’ assistant coaches who was griping about a pass-interference penalty.
Taken separately, those snippets mean little. Taken collectively, they were evidence of a team that was sick of getting its noses rubbed in it and was ready to fight.
Still, the Seahawks wouldn’t be outdone.
Thomas sat out just a handful of plays in the second quarter before returning to play with a torn labrum in his shoulder that required surgery after the season. Sherman played the entire fourth quarter and overtime as if his left arm were in an imaginary sling after suffering a torn ligament in his elbow.
At the same time, Matthews traded his helmet for a stocking cap as he sat out 13 plays in the fourth quarter when the Seahawks at last dismembered the Packers’ defense. He returned for a final kneel-down and the six-snap overtime.
While Matthews’ injury-related absence never has been fully explained, the willingness of Thomas and Sherman to play through serious injury said everything that needed to be said about the culture Carroll had established in Seattle.
In the end it all collapsed in horrifying fashion for the Packers, but the lessons learned from what it took to compete with the Seahawks obviously carried over to the home opener in 2015 at Lambeau Field.
Remember what the scout said about starting fast against Seattle?
On the first play, Sam Shields knifed in to stop Tyler Lockett for no gain on a bubble screen. On the second play, B.J. Raji defeated center Drew Nowak’s reach block to halt Lynch for minus-2. On the third play, Nick Perry flattened inside on a draw to crush Lynch for minus-3.
The crowd was at fever pitch almost all night as the Packers won not only on the scoreboard, 27-17, but also in the areas of emotion and intensity.
The Packers enter this fifth game against Carroll as they always have. Under the buttoned-down approach of GM Ted Thompson and McCarthy, players are to be seen, not heard. McCarthy continues to emphasize turnover differential and offensive production based always around the quarterback.
Although not a bully-type team such as Seattle and Baltimore, Green Bay has its share of tough guys more than happy to carry the physical workload. In no particular order, the list would include T.J. Lang, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Randall Cobb, James Starks, LaDarius Gunter, Kentrell Brice, Daniels, Guion and Perry.
For Seattle, the loss of Thomas is incalculable. Lynch is gone. Sweezy, the combative guard, plays for Tampa Bay.
For Green Bay, the loss of Eddie Lacy might be every bit as damaging as Thomas is to the Seahawks with heavy snow in the offing. Perry is out, and Lang might not play. Another ringleader who knew no fear, guard Josh Sitton, is in Chicago.
The Packers owned a 5-6 record when an executive in personnel offered this appraisal.
“They don’t play like it’s any fun,” he said. “You watch Seattle play. Minnesota. They play harder on defense. There’s an aggressive nature of the game and I don’t think the Packers play that way. You’ve got to play like it’s enjoyable.”
The ways to win a game against the Seahawks are many, but the Packers should know by now that there’s no place for weakness and maximum force is mandatory.