The Seahawks are in Green Bay this weekend to face the Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs, Seattle's seventh time advancing at least that far in the postseason in their 10 years under Pete Carroll and John Schneider. The Packers are also in the divisional round for the seventh time since 2010, and this will be the second playoff meeting between the teams in that span (Seahawks fans probably don't need help remembering the last one).
To learn more about the Seahawks' divisional-round opponent, we reached out to Packers.com senior writer Mike Spofford (you can find Mike on twitter here) with five questions about the Packers.
Q: Matt LaFleur is new to the Packers since these teams last met. How has the new head coach changed the way Green Bay plays?
Spofford: If I were to point to one thing, it would be the usage of running backs in all facets of the offense – the running game, the screen game, downfield passing, pre-snap motions. Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams and even newcomer Tyler Ervin are doing all of those things. There's an unwavering commitment to their involvement, because so much of the rest of the offense opens up based on their activity and production. But some things haven't changed. The insistence on ball security and winning the turnover battle remains, as does the desire for Aaron Rodgers to create explosive plays and take shots downfield. Those Packers are much the same.
Q: Aaron Jones' role has obviously increased a lot under LaFleur. Just how important to Green Bay's offense has Jones become this season?
Spofford: Extremely. He nearly matched Ahman Green's franchise record for touchdowns in one season, coming up one short with 19. But it's not just that. When Jones produces, the Packers win. He had six 100-yard rushing games this season, and Green Bay went 6-0. That improves to 7-0 if you include his 100-yard receiving game at Kansas City. The other way to look at it is this: Jones had a total of 89 rushing yards, and just 125 yards from scrimmage, in the Packers' three losses combined. The Packers need him to produce. He has been this team's offensive MVP.
Q: Much like the Seahawks, the Packers are in the playoffs in part because of their ability to prevail in close games. What has allowed Green Bay to succeed in games that go down to the wire?
Spofford: I think it's belief more than anything. This team started LaFleur's tenure by winning back-to-back division games over Chicago and Minnesota in the final minutes, making key plays at key times. That beginning went a long way to establishing a confidence level in crunch time, that someone is going to step up and make the play that's needed at the right moment. The Packers have pulled out close games by intercepting passes in the end zone in the fourth quarter and by kicking walk-off field goals. They've won a lot of different ways, and they always believe they'll find a way.
Q: The Packers ranked ninth in scoring defense this season, their best ranking in that category in years. What has led to the team's defensive improvement this year?
Spofford: The ability to pressure quarterbacks and stand tall in the red zone. The Packers' total sack numbers aren't that much different from a year ago, but the defensive results are starkly different for a couple of reasons – they're affecting QBs on a lot of plays when they don't necessarily get sacks, and they're able to generate that pressure without having to rely on blitzes. The overhaul at edge rusher, which featured signing Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith in free agency and drafting Rashan Gary at No. 12 overall in the first round, changed the look of the defense. The Smiths have combined for 25½ sacks, the first duo in team history with at least a dozen apiece, and Za'Darius was credited with the most pressures in the league by Pro Football Focus. Kenny Clark's half-dozen sacks have given the pass rush an inside presence as well. As for the red zone, the Packers tied for sixth in the league, allowing TDs on only half (24 of 48) of opponent possessions inside the 20. That has kept point totals down.
Q: Outside of the obvious big names, tell us about a Green Bay player or two who you think could be an X factor in this game?
Spofford: On offense, I'll go with RB Jamaal Williams and WR Allen Lazard. For everything already said about Jones, Williams is a great complement to him in the backfield, with more of a power running style plus good hands and blocking skills. He could be especially important in short-yardage or goal-line situations. Lazard has gone from an undrafted find to Rodgers' No. 2 receiver very quickly. He's made some clutch catches this season and has the QB's trust. On defense, it's whoever might end up spying Russell Wilson to limit his scrambling. The Packers have several candidates for the job – Kyler Fackrell, Adrian Amos and Ibraheim Campbell are just some possibilities – and how they handle Wilson's incredible improvisational abilities will be a huge factor in this game.