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Packers-Seahawks: 5 things to watch

THE BASICS

The teams: The Green Bay Packers (1-1) vs. the Seattle Seahawks (1-1).

The time: 7:30 p.m. CDT Monday.

The place: CenturyLink Field, Seattle.

The TV coverage:  ESPN. The broadcast will be simulcast on WISN (Ch. 12 in Milwaukee) and WBAY (Ch. 2 in Green Bay) as well.

The announcers: Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden in the booth with Lisa Salters reporting from the sidelines.

The coaches: Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 70-37 (including 5-4 in the postseason) in his seventh season as the Packers' coach and as an NFL head coach. The Seahawks’ Pete Carroll is 16-20 (including 1-1 in the postseason) in his third year as the Seahawks’ coach and is 50-53 (including 2-3 in postseason) as an NFL head coach.

The series:  The Packers lead the all-time regular-season series, 8-5, and have won three straight and six of the last seven (including two playoff games). The Packers won the most recent meeting, 48-10 at Lambeau Field on Dec. 27, 2009. They also won the most recent meeting in Seattle, beating the Seahawks 27-17 on Oct. 12, 2008, at what was then named Qwest Field.

The rankings: The Packers’ 23rd-ranked offense is tied for No. 26 in rushing and tied for No. 14 in passing. Their fifth-ranked defense is No. 26 against the run and No. 2 against the pass. The Seahawks’ 28th-ranked offense is No. 7 in rushing and No. 32 in passing. Their sixth-ranked defense is No. 2 against the run and No. 14 against the pass.

The line:  The Packers are favored by 3.5 points.

The injury report: 

PACKERS
Out –  LB Jamari Lattimore (ankle).
Doubtful – CB Davon House (shoulder).
Questionable –TE Tom Crabtree (shoulder), RB James Starks (toe), DE C.J. Wilson (groin), WR Greg Jennings (groin), S Sean Richardson (hamstring).
Probable –  WR Randall Cobb (hamstring), LB Terrell Manning (concussion), LB Nick Perry (wrist), RG Josh Sitton (knee).
 
SEAHAWKS
Out –  CB Byron Maxwell (hamstring).
Questionable -- WR Doug Baldwin (shoulder).
Probable –  WR Charly Martin (chest), T Russell Okung (knee), TE Zach Miller (foot), RB Marshawn Lynch (back).

THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

Bringing the noise:  Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers rated CenturyLink Field – which was called Qwest Field the last time Rodgers played there, in the 2010 preseason – as one of the two loudest outdoor stadiums he’s experienced as a visitor, along with Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium. Under McCarthy, the Packers have traditionally handled loud venues pretty well, and the team made sure it worked with crowd noise at practice during the week given that the Packers’ last road trip was an Aug. 23 preseason visit to Cincinnati.

While the presumption is that the offense has to go with a silent count in order to combat the noise, that isn’t always the case. But there are times when it’s necessary, and Rodgers and veteran center Scott Wells were masterful in knowing what to do whenever noise became a factor. While Wells departed in free agency, Rodgers has another veteran, savvy center in Jeff Saturday, who’ll be playing his first road game with the Packers but certainly has been there, done that in his previous 13 seasons in Indianapolis.

“You have to start with the offensive line and the quarterback, that’s the biggest stress point in my opinion when you play in loud stadiums,” McCarthy said. “The perimeter group has to keep their eye on the ball. Aaron does a very good job with the cadence in a loud stadium and in our own stadium. So it’s something we put a lot of time into as far as our cadence and not just training one quarterback and one center. There’s a lot of people involved. This will be a big challenge. We’ve been talking about it all week. This is a very loud stadium.”

Still a rookie:  No matter how beloved Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is in the state of Wisconsin – and let’s face it, while Wilson isn’t in the pantheon of Bart Starr, Brett Favre and Rodgers, what he did in one year at UW made him some lifelong fans around here – he’s still a rookie quarterback making his third NFL regular-season start, as McCarthy made sure he pointed out during the week. The challenge for the Packers is to make him look like a rookie, and to do that, they’ll first have to shut down the Seahawks’ running game and Marshawn Lynch.

Defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Saturday that he’ll have to be cautious with his blitzing because the Seahawks’ zone running scheme makes it dangerous to blitz liberally, as it can create large holes in the defense. The goal is clearly to get Wilson into third-and-long situations where he’ll have to make plays, and that’s not something the Dallas Cowboys were able to do last week, when Wilson took advantage of favorable down-and-distance situations during a highly efficient day.

“If you watch the way they beat the Cowboys last week, they didn’t give the Cowboys a lot of opportunities to blitz,” Capers explained. “You’ve got to be careful, because when you’re playing a team goes laterally (with its blocking scheme), and you’re (going upfield), there’s going to be some big seams open in that run game. And that’s when you see Lynch come out of there for 20, 30 yards. So you have to pick your spots and be conscious of it. They did such a good job of running the ball last week.

“He’s a good athlete. He certainly has the ability if you don’t have rush lane integrity, he can pull the ball down and make big plays by running with the ball. Also I think he’ll scramble to throw the ball, too. That’s where you’ve got to be careful because you’ve got to really plaster in your coverage because if he does buy time and let’s say he gets outside of your rush lanes, he can buy time for the receivers to uncover.”

The Packers will combat some of that with veteran safety/cornerback Charles Woodson, who has registered eight interceptions in eight games against rookie quarterbacks since joining the Packers in 2006.

“Charles is a smart guy. He sees the big picture,” Capers said. “He’s played enough football – over 200 games now – that he tries to use that to his advantage. Monday night, everything is going to start with our ability to not let them control the down-and-distance situations by running the football. If they do that, then they take a lot of pressure off the rookie quarterback.”

Back in action?:  It’s easy to dismiss his importance because of the bevy of other pass-catching talent the Packers have at their disposal, but it would be a huge boost to the passing game – an aspect of the Packers’ offense that simply hasn’t clicked through two games the way it did last season, when it was otherworldly – to get Jennings back after his groin injury sidelined him for the victory over Chicago.

The attention Jennings commands and his play speed – even with a nagging injury – not only creates decisions for defenses on which potential pass-catcher to focus upon, but given that the Cover-2 defense has been a thorn in the Packers’ side the first two weeks, Jennings’ return would be helpful against a Seattle defense that prefers keeping one safety high. In theory, the Packers should have more opportunities to take down-the-field shots Monday night, and Jennings is key.

“We’re going to have to be a patient. This week could be different with the way they play — a little more one-high (safety) compared to the Cover-2 that we saw the first couple weeks. Hopefully, that will present more opportunities to go up the field,” wide receiver Jordy Nelson said, while also allowing for the possibility that the Seahawks will step out of their normal approach and could play more Cover-2. “I think teams are going to make us go the long way and keep everything in front and have us run the ball. We ran the ball real well last wee against Chicago and hopefully we can continue that get them out of their shell.”

With big, strong cornerbacks and a pair of Pro Bowl safeties, the Seahawks aren’t pushovers in their pass defense, so Jennings could be a vital piece of the game plan if, from an endurance perspective, he can handle a close-to-regular workload. Given Jennings’ training-camp concussion, which sidelined him for two weeks, and now this groin injury, his absence may have as much to do with the passing game being a tick off than anything.

“(The connection with the quarterback) comes back pretty fast. I’m not too concerned about that. I don’t think Aaron’s too concerned about that,” Jennings said. “It’s just a matter of getting out there and being out there consistently. That’s been the issue, not being out there on a consistent basis to develop that timing. That comes back like riding a bike. So I’m not concerned about that. It’s just making sure that I’m ready to be out there when I am out there and when I am out there I can have endurance to stay out there.”

Ground control:  Cedric Benson’s 20 carries (for 81 yards) in the Packers’ victory over Chicago marked a curious milestone. While it kept alive the team’s now 29-game regular-season streak of not having an individual 100-yard rusher, it also marked the first time since Dec. 19, 2010 that one running back received 20 or more carries in a single game. (On that night, at New England, Brandon Jackson got the call.)

“We made a lot of progress,” said Benson, who signed with the Packers off the street on Aug. 12. “The timing, I think we meshed together between myself and the offensive line. They did a good job of coming off the ball, which made it easy to get a good feel for the flow of the run game.”

Now the question becomes, will Benson be the workhorse back in the Packers’ run game, or will he share the load with second-year man Alex Green and Starks, who entered camp as the starter before an Aug. 9 turf toe injury put him on the shelf. Starks is unlikely to play Monday night but was able to practice throughout the week and figures to be close to returning, and McCarthy went out of his way recently to say he wants to get Green more involved in the offense.

“The run game, the protections in the pass game, it really comes down to working the plan throughout the week. You have to trust the practice process,” McCarthy said. “If you don’t, then why do it? It affects the way I call the game, getting comfortable with certain concepts, certain individuals running the ball … We have a plan (for the running game), we’re trying to keep everybody involved because it’s important to have more than 11 guys on each side of the ball ready. And that’s always been our approach.”

Something special:  While punter/holder Tim Masthay’s 27-yard touchdown flip to tight end Tom Crabtree – the guy who had to do most of the work – on the Packers’ successful fake field goal against Chicago got most of the attention, it obscured a more pertinent fact: The Packers special-teams units have grown into a legitimate strength. Once a problematic area under McCarthy, coordinator Shawn Slocum has presided over improvement both with the specialists (Masthay, kicker Mason Crosby and returner Randall Cobb) and with the coverage and blocking units.

“I really like the way this group has grown the last couple years. We changed a number of things about three years back as far as our playbook, our approach, our philosophy,” McCarthy explained. “Shawn and I had a chance to sit down in one offseason and just kind of change a number of things the way we go about it. And Shawn Slocum and Chad Morton have done a great job coaching that group and it’s been fun to watch them grow. And I clearly think it’s going to be our best year in my time here.”

The group will be challenged by Seattle, however. The Seahawks blocked a punt for a touchdown last week in a victory over Dallas, have a dynamic returner in Leon Washington, a very good punter in ex-Packer Jon Ryan and solid coverage units that include another Wisconsin connection, ex-UW safety Chris Maragos. Then again, in the first four weeks, including next Sunday’s game against New Orleans, the Packers will have faced special-teams outfits that ranked first, third, seventh and eighth last season.

“It seems like it’s a challenge every week,” said second-year tight end Ryan Taylor, one of the Packers’ core special-teamers. “We’ve played three of the top special teams in the league the first three weeks. I think we’ve risen to the occasion (so far). We know these guys are pretty good with their return game and Washington is a pretty good returner. At the same time, we’ve got some pretty good cover guys. I think we’ll keep rising to the occasion and keep playing well.

“We know what we can do. Rankings are rankings and they’re all good and well, but it’s about us. We’ve got areas of improvement, as we always do. Even if we were No. 1 in every single thing, there’s obviously stuff you can improve on. We just want to keep getting better every week.”

THE PREDICTION

There was some temptation here to pick against the visitors, given the environment, Seattle’s strong ground attack and Rodgers’ record in road Monday nighters (0-4). But after a get-back-on-track victory over Chicago, 10 days to prepare and a rookie quarterback who is mobile but could have some trouble if his line can’t protect him from Clay Matthews & Co., the guess here is that the Packers silence the boisterous home crowd with a few big plays as the just-a-smidge-off offense gets untracked.  Packers 31, Seahawks 17. (Season record: 1-1.)

– Jason Wilde

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