Keys to Victory: Previewing the 2015 NFC Championship

The 2015 NFC Championship features a rematch from Week 1, with the Green Bay Packers visiting the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks won handily in September, but the NFC championship will have different key players, schemes, and match ups:

WHEN GREEN BAY HAS THE BALL:

Green Bay cut the field in half when they chose not to attack the right side of the field to avoid Richard Sherman Week 1; Green Bay aligned #11 Jarrett Boykin to the right on the vast majority of snaps. The Packers must attack all parts of the field in order to be successful this week.  While the Packers will almost certainly line up #87 Jordy Nelson to the right more often, the emergence of rookie #17 Davonte Adams gives Green Bay a viable threat even when Jordy Nelson is on the left side of the field. However, attacking the right side of the field doesn’t necessarily mean attacking Sherman 1 on 1. Look for Green Bay to manipulate formations to move Sherman away from the outside most Receiver. Dallas was able to do this from a Trips tight formation, with the TE as the lone eligible receiver to the left, and 3 Wideouts to the right:

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Sherman moves with Dez Bryant to the slot

This formation moves Richard Sherman to the slot against Dez Bryant. The Packers Wide Receiving core is deeper than the Cowboys’ WRs, and this alignment would put the Seahawks in a bigger bind than against Dallas. If Seattle aligns Richard Sherman over Jordy Nelson in the slot, Sherman is not at his absolute best without the sideline as a defender. On the other hand, if Sherman stays to the outside, Green Bay can use #18 Randall Cobb, Adams or Nelson on the right side of the field without ever testing Sherman. This play results in a 20+ yard gain with the whole field to work with, and a penalty on Sherman:

The trips tight formation makes Seattle’s Cover 3 slightly more challenging to play. The play above is Cover 1, and Green Bay should try to exploit it like Dallas did. Another way Green Bay can attack the right side of the field is by splitting either Running Back #27 Eddie Lacy or #44 James Starks out wide with Randall Cobb in the slot right:

Sherman aligns against Welker in the slot with the RB to the outside

Sherman aligns against Welker in the slot with the RB to the outside

In the picture above, the Broncos place a Running Back out wide to move Sherman to the slot. If Green Bay can manipulate formations to get Randall Cobb on Sherman, especially in the slot, this is the most favorable matchup for Green Bay. Like other big corners, the hardest matchup isn’t necessarily the best or biggest Receiver; in fact, the shiftier, quicker types give Sherman slightly more trouble.

As for the running game, Green Bay must establish it early. Eddie Lacy was unable to finish the game Week 1 with a concussion, but his presence will be huge on Sunday. He started off the game gaining yardage while breaking tackles and being agile enough to juke out the best safety in the NFL, Earl Thomas; no small task:

Runs like this are essential for multiple reasons: Green Bay will probably spend 95% of the game in either Shotgun or Pistol due to Aaron Rodgers’ hurt calf. The Packers must be able to run the ball regardless. Lacy is a versatile back: he is a viable threat in the passing game, can run defenders over, and also can make defenders miss. Look for Lacy and Seattle’s Cam Chancellor (#31) to provide some of the hardest collisions the NFL has seen all year. If Lacy can stay healthy for the whole game, look for the Packers to improve on the 16 point output from Week 1.

WHEN SEATTLE HAS THE BALL:

Seattle drove Green Bay crazy Week 1 with various versions of Jet Sweep and read option. However, with Percy Harvin long gone, Seattle will come up with new wrinkles to attack the Green Bay run defense. Green Bay’s run defense has improved greatly over the course of the season: Since Clay Matthews moved to Inside Linebacker, Green Bay is in the top-10 against the run. (GB was in the bottom 10 prior). Green Bay has also recently gotten major contributions out of Defensive Lineman #76 Mike Daniels in stopping the run. Daniels will sometimes be lined up against a hurting Max Unger (Seattle’s Center, #60) and could be the key to getting interior penetration against Seattle’s run game with efforts like this, causing Running Backs to hesitate and freeing up Clay Matthews from the middle:

This matchup is key and simply about execution, not X’s and O’s. Seattle will look to dominate the line of scrimmage and Daniels like in the Week 1 matchup:

Seattle will certainly use some read option, but look for them to use the split zone concept as well. Split zone may look like zone read and is meant to freeze linebackers, but the Quarterback is only a decoy as a running threat. It is blocked similar to Zone read in the sense that a defender is left unblocked at the snap of the ball and the Tackle can aggressively down block. However, a Tight End or fullback will come across the formation to block the defensive end or linebacker. The direction of the Running Back and the Quarterback’s action will make it look like Read Option, and create a natural crease for the blocker and the running back to cut back. Seen below is a Week 1 Split Zone run to perfection. Green Bay’s Clay Matthews (#52) plays this as zone read, only to be blocked completely out of the play by Luke Willson (#82) who is coming across the formation. Russell Wilson (#3) sells read option action, but is never actually a running threat:

Finally, when it comes to the passing game, look for the key matchup to be #56 Julius Peppers against banged up Rookie Right Tackle #68 Justin Britt. (If Britt can’t play due to injury, Alvin Bailey would be next in line). Peppers has been on fire recently, forcing fumbles from both Tony Romo and Demarco Murray last week. His pass rush ability must make Russell Wilson uncomfortable in the pocket.

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