2015 NFC Championship Preview: Green Bay at Seattle

The Green Bay Packers travel to the Pacific Northwest to take on the Seattle Seahawks. Sunday’s contest is a rematch of the Thursday night season opener, won by the defending Super Bowl Champions, 36-16. The 2015 NFC Championship preview gets you ready for this showdown by highlighting some concepts that stood out on the film from their Week 1 meeting.

Packers Defense against Seahawks Packaged Plays

Like many offenses, the Seattle Seahawks incorporate packaged plays into their offense. The Green Bay defense struggled to defend these plays in the season opener. Here is one example.

Play One

On this play Russell Wilson is in the shotgun with Marshawn Lynch next to him, and the Seahawks deploy their 12 personnel with a wide receiver and an in-line tight end to each side of the field. The Packers have their base 4-3 defense in for this play, with the secondary aligned in Cover 1 coverage:

SeattleGreenBayPreviewStillOne

Seattle runs the read option to the left with Wilson choosing to keep the football and attack the right edge of the defense. As he breaks toward the line of scrimmage, he puts cornerback Sam Shields (#37) in a most precarious position. The CB can either stay with the outside receiver or break forward on the QB run. Shields breaks forward:

 

The cornerback’s decision is costly. Wide receiver Ricardo Lockette runs a simple vertical route and, with Shields abandoning the WR, Wilson simply dumps the football over the cornerback’s head and into the waiting arms of Lockette.

This is the difficulty faced by a defense when confronting an offense using packaged plays. Shields is on an island with no good choices. If he stays with the WR then Wilson likely breaks this play for a decent gain on the run. Shields decides to collapse on the quarterback, but Wilson is able to get Lockette the football. From there the WR breaks a tackle and scores.

Also, a quick note on packaged plays and the “one-read” concept. In recent weeks (and in the wake of Oregon’s loss to Ohio State) many pundits question whether quarterbacks who run such a system in college can excel in the NFL. At the outset, the one-read scheme is a bit of a misnomer. While Wilson on this play has one throwing read, this is a three-step read for him: He can give the ball to Lynch, he can keep it himself and run, or he can keep it himself and pass. Additionally, as this play illustrates, the one-read concept still puts tremendous pressure on a defense, even an NFL defense. So for all of you readers suddenly down on Marcus Mariota, relax a bit.

Play Two

This is another packaged play used by Seattle: a dual screen pass concept. Wilson is in the shotgun with 10 personnel on the field, and a slot formation to each side of the offense. The Packers have a dime defense in the game, with three linemen, two linebackers and six defensive backs, and the secondary again using Cover 1:

SeattleGreenBayPreviewStillTwo

Before the snap a wide receiver comes in deep motion from left to right and, at the snap of the football, the Seahawks set up a screen to this wideout on the right side of their formation. The two slot WRs on the right block their defenders down the field, giving the Green Bay defense a screen on their left to defend.

But while the wide receiver screen develops, something more fruitful is taking place for the offense on the other side of their formation. As the defense flows to the potential WR screen on their left, the Seahawks set up a more traditional halfback screen to Lynch on the other side of the field. The remaining WR on the left blocks his defender, while the left guard, center and right guard all pull to the left to set up blocks downfield. Wilson has the option of throwing either screen pass, choosing to dump the football to his running back:

 

As you can see, the majority of defenders flow to their left to stop the potential wide receiver screen. Only two defenders are in position to combat the running back screen play. Lynch pulls in the throw and rips off a big gain.

Last week we discussed how the Carolina linebackers must be disciplined to slow down Seattle’s offense. Tomorrow, the entire Green Bay defense needs to be well-organized when facing Wilson and Seattle’s array of packaged plays.

Packers Defense against Seahawks Empty Formation

In addition to these packaged plays, Seattle went with empty formation looks in the second half to spread out the Green Bay defense and open up some throwing lanes underneath. Here is one example. Wilson comes out in the shotgun with 01 personnel in the game. The offense has a trips formation to the left with an inverted slot formation to the right. Green Bay again has a dime package on the field, showing a soft Cover 2 in the secondary:

SeattleGreenBayPreviewStillThree

Seattle executes a four vertical concept on this play. Each receiver takes a vertical release, and three of the receivers run deep vertical routes. The outside WR on the left runs a go route, while the middle trips receiver (on the left) and the inside slot receiver (on the right) run deep curls. The outside WR to the right breaks his route off to the boundary. Finally, tight end Zach Miller – the inside trips receiver – runs a short curl route:

 

With the five-receiver alignment working to spread the field – and the defense – Wilson takes the easy throw to Miller underneath. The simple throw-and-catch gives the Seahawks a 9-yard gain and sets them up for a 2nd and short.

Seattle’s offense has many ways of pressuring a defense, and they all begin with the man under center. Wilson’s ability to throw on the run, deliver the football accurately, and make plays with his feet allows the offense to implement a variety of schemes. The Seahawks can incorporate the read option in the running and passing games with the threat of Wilson running the ball forcing defenders out of position. They can give Wilson multiple options on a given play, trusting he will put the ball in the right receiver’s hands. Or they can spread the field and let the QB sling the ball around the stadium. Clay Matthews and the rest of his teammates will have their hands full Sunday dealing with all these threats.

Jordy Nelson’s Deep Curl against Seattle’s Cover 3

The Seattle defense, particularly the secondary, is highly regarded as one of the best in the NFL. The secondary, led by superstar free safety Earl Thomas and cornerback Richard Sherman, implement a hybrid Cover 1/Cover 3 concept that has slowed down many passing games over the past few years. In their Week 1 meeting, Aaron Rodgers completed 23 of 33 passes for only 189 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. But the Packers might have found a way to combat this coverage: Jordy Nelson and the deep curl route.

Play One

On this play from late in the first quarter, Rodgers is in the shotgun and the offense has 11 personnel on the field. Nelson is the single receiver split to the left. The Seahawks counter with their nickel defense, showing Cover 3 in the secondary:

Nelson runs a deep curl route against cornerback Byron Maxwell:

 

Here is an isolated view of Nelson’s route that illustrates why the deep curl is effective against Seattle’s Cover 3:

 

The CB is in press-man alignment. Nelson breaks to the outside on a vertical release. Because of the coverage, Maxwell cannot expect help from a safety on a deep route, and his first responsibility is to prevent a deep play. This forces the CB to turn and run with Nelson’s vertical release. But just as Maxwell is catching up to Nelson – and getting to top speed – the WR throttles down and breaks back to the quarterback. The defender cannot stop in time and break back to the football, creating separation between wide receiver and defensive back. As a talented pilot once said, “I’m gonna hit the brakes, he’ll fly right by.”

Finally, the fact that the defender is in press-man alignment increases the difficulty in covering this route. If the cornerback were aligned deep, as in traditional Cover 3, he would see the play develop and be able to break forward on the route. Because of his starting point, he needs to turn and run with the potential deep route, making it difficult to stop and break back toward the throw.

Play Two

Seattle must have discussed this route during halftime. Here the Packers run the same pattern to Nelson early in the third quarter, from the same formation:

 

The defense tries to take away Nelson’s curl route, not by helping the cornerback with a safety deep, but with the flat defender trying to break underneath Nelson and step between Rodgers and his WR. The linebacker can’t get there in time, though, and the QB places the football perfectly along the sideline for another big play on the deep curl route.

Play Three

Finally, Seattle’s concern over Nelson’s deep curl route on the sideline opened up the middle of the field for other receivers. On this play from later in the third quarter, Rodgers is in the shotgun with 10 personnel on the field. A single receiver is split to the right, while the offense has a trips formation to the left. Nelson is the outside receiver and he runs – you guessed it – a deep curl. Randall Cobb, the middle receiver in the trips, runs a post pattern. The Seattle defense has its nickel personnel on the field showing Cover 2 in the secondary, which they roll to Cover 3 at the snap:

SeattleGreenBayPreviewStillFive

Watch how the Seahawks defend Nelson’s route – and what it opens up for the offense. Maxwell again lines up across from Nelson, but he stays deep on this play. Slot cornerback Marcus Burley (#28) sets up across from Cobb, but as the play develops he races to the sideline and puts himself between Nelson and Rodgers:

 

The QB can’t get the ball outside to his WR on the deep curl route because Maxwell and Burley have Nelson bracketed. But the effective coverage on Nelson leaves a linebacker isolated on Cobb’s post route in the middle of the field. This is a matchup the Packers will happily exploit. Rodgers delivers the football to Cobb, who rips off a 23-yard gain.

Nelson led all receivers with nine catches for 83 yards in the Week 1 meeting. You can be sure that Green Bay will use the deep curl route again this Sunday against Seattle’s Cover 3 defense. You can also be sure the Seahawks will have ways to try to neutralize that pass pattern – and Rodgers’ favorite target.

Prediction

These two teams are the class of the NFC and, even with Rodgers hurt, I expect a tight contest. In the end the Seattle defense makes one big play, and the Seahawks win a close one.

Seattle 27, Green Bay 21

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.

Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.

All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.

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