The Seattle Seahawks will kick of the 2017 regular season with a road game against the Green Bay Packers, a clash between two of the best teams in the NFC. The Packers are coming off a 10-6 season that ended after a defeat to the Atlanta Falcons in the conference championship. Green Bay started off the 2016 season slow, recording a 4-6 record before running the table and winning their final six regular season contests.
If the Seahawks hope to get the Packers off on the wrong foot at the start of 2017, these are three matchups that can make a difference in Sunday's showdown:
1. Aaron Rodgers vs The Legion of Boom
The last two times Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers faced the Seahawks, the Legion of Boom (Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas) was not fully intact. That changes Sunday as Rodgers is preparing to face arguably the best secondary in the league.
Playing Rodgers will be far from an easy challenge for the Seahawks, who are looking for their first win in Green Bay since 1999, but having a healthy Thomas alongside Chancellor on the back end certainly helps their chances to slow down one of the most lethal passers the league.
"It certainly makes a difference," Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard said of having Thomas and Chancellor back. "We want to be whole, we want to be at our best, we want to have all of our best guys out there competing against one of the best who's ever done it. The past couple of times, we haven't been whole, but this time we should be. We're absolutely looking forward to the competition; we know what he brings to the table, and again, we know we're going to have to bring our best to the table, no doubt."
Added Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman: "We've usually done well when we've had everybody. We've never won in Lambeau with our group because we are always missing somebody. I think we have all the pieces in place to go out there and give them a great fight and I look forward to it. I think we are going to have an exciting game and (we're) excited to play the chess match with Aaron (Rodgers). He is always a fun opponent and a great guy to play against and plays the game the right way."
Sherman, who could be matched up a lot against Packers No. 1 wide receiver Jordy Nelson, said he's entering the game expecting Rodgers to go after him.
"I think this is the time he is going to throw at me every play," Sherman said. "We will see what happens because I think this is the one."
Rodgers has diverse weapons that could help the Packers stretch the ball across the field. A trio of wide receivers that include Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams gives Rodgers options vertically, underneath and in the red zone. He also has a new tight end in Martellus Bennett, the brother of Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett. The running back behind him in the huddle, Ty Montgomery, is a former wide receiver who can create a lot of problems for the Seahawks on the ground and obviously through the air.
"He's really a good player," Carroll said of Montgomery. "We have tremendous respect for him and to see how he emerged so quickly in the running back role after coming in as a wide receiver, it gives us all of the problems; matchup wise, the multiplicity that they present in formations and things that they can do because he can run routes just like a receiver and then carry the football."
Added Richard: "I think that he is unique in the fashion of guys, I used this term, lightly, but Marshall Faulk and guys that can run the football, be effective running the football and then when you put them on the outside, they know how to run routes. So Reggie Bush, Marshall Faulk, guys of that nature, to where you need to be aware of where he is lining up on the field."
2. The Seahawks defensive line vs the Packers offensive line
Besides being at the top of the NFC, one of the main things that has been a constant the last few matchups the Seahawks and Packers have played is the battle up front. Despite making a few tweaks the last two offseasons, the Packers' offensive line has remained one of the best.
Barring right tackle Bryan Bulaga sitting out because of an ankle injury (he's listed as questionable for the game), Green Bay will start the following line Sunday from left to right: David Bakhtiari, Lane Taylor, Corey Linsley, Jahri Evans and Bulaga.
Pro Football Focus tabbed Bakhtiari, a 2016 Pro Bowler and All-Pro, for surrendering just 20 total QB pressures, noting him as the league's only left tackle to be charged for less pressure than the QB he is protecting. Bakhtiari was one of three offensive linemen to start every game for the Packers last season (Bulaga and Taylor being the others) and led the way for a line that helped Green Bay rank in the top-10 overall in points per game, yards per game and first downs.
On Thursday, Richard was asked why Green Bay's line has always been a good challenge.
"Well it's the protection they provide for the quarterback and his ability to scramble, be elusive, their athletic ability with their run game, their zone running game, and their stretch running game," Richard said. "We just need to make sure that we are able to get off box, put consistent pressure on the quarterback and cover really tight. After that, we need to understand the tendencies of when they are going to run the football or at least when they give the illusion that they are going to run, we have to be prepared to stop the run in those situations."
The Seahawks have a new wrinkle this time around when they face the Packers in defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson, who the team traded for last week. Richard said there won't be any limitations for Richardson despite him having only a few practices under his belt and that the team will let him loose. Richardson only adds to the long list of defensive linemen the Seahawks have that can make a difference Sunday.
3. Eddie Lacy vs the Packers defense
Eddie Lacy's first game with his new team is against the one he left. With a strong performance against the Packers on the ground, he could easily set the tone and play a huge role in the season opener.
Establishing a consistent run game was an area the Seahawks struggled with last season due to injuries, but it's surely something they want to get back to with it being a big part of their identity. The Seahawks have a couple of options at running back to help with this, but Lacy's physical style against the Packers could really get things going if Thomas Rawls (questionable) is unable to play and he gets the bulk of the carries.
"Well first off, he's ready," Carroll said of Lacy earlier this week "He's had a great run with us getting to this point. He's done everything we have asked of him, for weeks and weeks now, he's made every practice, he's been able to do everything, and every rep that we have offered him. He's conditioned well and he's prepared to play. We've seen him for years; we know what kind of player he is, so he's had enough glimpses of the look in preseason that you can see him get to rumbling with the football. We're fired up about him playing and he's ready for a full load."
Lacy said yesterday he feels equipped for an increased workload and is healed from his ankle injury that cut short his 2016 season with Green Bay.
"I'll definitely take however many (carries) they give me," Lacy said. "I haven't played since October, but going through the first preseason games and getting a feel back and getting hit, and reassuring myself that my ankle is perfectly fine … I feel like I'm equipped to do what I have to do."
The Packers finished just behind the Seahawks in the top-10 against the run last year at 94.7 yards per game, so this won't be an easy challenge for Lacy. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers is also extremely familiar with his trends as a runner and has a slight edge knowing where he likes to go. Being able to outsmart Capers and what he may bring in his gameplan would not only give the Seahawks balance on offense, but a good chance to win and a nice start to get back to the style of play they prefer.