GREEN BAY, Wis. – Facing Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson is a lot like facing a vintage Aaron Rodgers in that the defense can do everything right and still get embarrassed.
“It’s tough because we talk to our guys about defending both plays – the intended play that they called in the huddle and then the extended play,” defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said on Thursday.
If the Packers are going to knock off the Seahawks on Sunday and advance to the NFC Championship Game, it will require a total team effort to consistently take care of both of those plays.
The pass rush must attack Wilson with just the right amount of caution.
“I don’t think you can go into the game with the mind-set, ‘Keep him in the pocket,’ because I think that slows guys down when they have that mentality that they’re almost afraid to rush,” Pettine said. “We want to be aggressive, but we understand, hey, we know who he is and what he can do. We’ve studied the tape, so hopefully our guys will have a pretty good sense of that and be able to make plays.”
When those rushers have a chance to make a play, they must get Wilson to the turf. Wilson was sacked a league-high 48 times but his elusiveness got him out of a lot tight places.
“We always tell them, as much as we don’t want it to happen, we always have to assume he’s going to make the first guy miss. He’s probably the best at it,” Pettine said.
The players in coverage must be prepared to cover longer than they have all year. It’s those breakdowns, when the cornerback loses track of his man after 3 seconds, when big plays result.
“Their receivers, because they’re used to it, they do such a good job uncovering late in the down, knowing he’s out and where am I headed,” Pettine continued. “There are scramble rules: ‘I’m headed deep, I’m running back to him, I’m crossing the field.’ That’s the frustrating part. I told our guys: ‘Prepare to run more this game. The GPS tracker numbers are going to be through the roof because you’ll run more in this game than probably any other game we’ve played.’ That’s the nature of it, that he extends plays so well, that if he’s not happy and the first read isn’t there and he doesn’t want to pull the trigger, then he’s confident enough that he can escape and make plays. That’s just a huge reason for why they’ve had the success that they’ve had.”
The challenge is Wilson is quick to scramble – the fastest in the league, according to Pro Football Focus – but he’s also tied for the league lead with 10 touchdown passes when under pressure. When he holds the ball for more than 2.5 seconds, he’s got a 102.2 passer rating with 15 touchdowns vs. three interceptions.
“Not let him scramble, not let him get out of the pocket,” outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith said. “If we’re going to make a move, we’ve got to make our move quick because, if you miss him, man, we’ve watched film so many times where he got out of a sack and made a big play. I feel like if we can keep him in the pocket and cage him in …
“Don’t let him get comfortable, don’t let him get hot or let him get in rhythm,” fellow outside linebacker Preston Smith jumped in. “We’ve got to do our part up front and help the guys on the back end because we know he can extend plays once he gets out of the pocket. We don’t want to put our DBs in a situation where they’ve got to cover forever. We’ve got to make sure we apply pressure, keep him caged in and don’t allow him to get out and make big plays.”
In Seattle’s win last year, Wilson threw for 225 yards and two touchdowns. While Kyler Fackrell had an unlikely three-sack game, this will be a different defense for Wilson. First and foremost, that starts with the Smiths, whose combined 25.5 sacks is just 2.5 less than Seattle recorded as an entire defense.
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“The Smith Brothers have been lights out all year,” Wilson told reporters in Seattle on Thursday. “They’re as good as it gets up front. The good thing for us is we’ve played a lot of great defensive lines this season. I think our offensive line’s done a great job battling. These guys, they bring a lot of speed, a lot of power, a lot of quickness. They’ve been able to get after the quarterback like crazy.”
And Wilson has driven defenders and coordinators crazy for years.
“I think the extended plays is No. 1,” Pettine said of what his defense needs to take away on Sunday. “That’s where so much of their success has come. It’s easy to say, but that’s difficult to do.”