There's a play from the 2012 Green Bay-Seattle game that stands out to me, and it isn't the Fail Mary that decided it, even if that is the moment etched deeply into NFL folklore.
We know the game was decided on that controversial call made by the replacement officials on the final play, giving Seattle a touchdown and a 14-12 victory, which led to a social-media firestorm and the end of the officiating strike. But that bizarre ending overshadowed what really transpired in the four quarters before it, especially in the first half, and a certain play that I'll call, "Ghosts."
Aaron Rodgers took a beating like none other that night. The Seahawks brutalized the Green Bay quarterback, tossing him around like rabid dogs with a toy doll. Since the two teams meet again in the season opener Thursday back at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, it's a good time to look back at that game, not just the ending.
Rodgers was sacked eight times in the first half of the 2012 game -- nine if you count one that was negated by penalty -- and he was pressured on 22 of the 49 times he dropped to pass.
That led to a play with 8:20 left in the third quarter, the play that stands out to me, where Rodgers saw ghosts, or as some call it "phantom pressure."
Here's a look:
The play came with Seattle leading 7-0 with in the third quarter. Green Bay faced a third-and-5 from the Seattle 10 with a chance to tie it. The Packers went to a five-wide look with an empty backfield. The Seahawks countered by showing a four-man front, but defensive tackle Greg Scruggs dropped out to create an 8-man coverage. The Seahawks zoned up on the back end, playing quarters across the goal line. They rushed three.
What I saw on this play was Rodgers feeling pressure from the three-man rush that wasn't there. He danced in the pocket when he didn't need to do so. In vintage Rodgers' fashion, though, he somehow found an open receiver, only to shoot it too high for Donald Driver to bring in.
Rodgers is a great player, and has a feel in the pocket, but this was one of those rare plays where he saw ghosts.
"If you got sacked eight times, really nine because one was negated by penalty, wouldn't you think the pressure would get to you?" said Jaguars defensive end Chris Clemons, who was with Seattle that year and had four sacks that night -- all in the first half.
So what happened? How did the Seattle defense shut down Rodgers and his explosive offense and dump him eight times?
"Uh, it was eight times in a half," Clemons was quick to point out.
The answer is simple, really. They didn't think the Packers would try and run it. In fact, they dared them to run it.
"They are built to throw, and we knew they wouldn't stick with the run," said Jaguars defensive tackle Red Bryant, who was on that Seattle team before signing with Jacksonville as a free agent this spring. "We were just getting in a sprinter's stance and going for it. I am usually taking on doubles, an offensive lineman playing on the defensive line, trying to clutter things up. Against Green Bay, I knew I could get in a sprinter's stance and get push if nothing else."
Gus Bradley, now the head coach in Jacksonville, was the defensive coordinator on that team. Bradley doesn't like talking about his Seattle days much, so he didn't want to comment for this story.
But it's easy to see what his strategy was against Rodgers: Play nickel, play coverage, and dare the Packers to run it. The Seahawks pressured Rodgers on 22 of his 49 attempts to throw it. And they blitzed just five times the entire game.
The Packers ran it only four times in the first half, and two of those were scrambles by Rodgers. Cedric Benson, the starting running back, had two carries for four yards. They did run it better in the second half when Benson ran for 41 yards on 15 carries. Not too much better but at least they tried.
"They neutralized our rush some by running it in the second half," Clemons said.
The Packers had 87 yards of offense in the first half. This was a team that would go on to finish fifth in the league in scoring and saw Rodgers throw 40 touchdown passes.
Green Bay's line struggled in a big way that night. Left tackle Marshall Newhouse, no longer with the team, was abused by Clemons at left tackle. Clemons had four sacks in the first half to tie the league record for sacks in a half held by the great Derrick Thomas. Bryan Bulaga, the right tackle, gave up two sacks to Bruce Irvin. And center Jeff Saturday was a veteran who was abused so much early in that season that he was ultimately benched.
"We knew they were going to pass it 70-percent of the snaps," Clemons said. "We knew that Aaron would hold the ball because of the way our DBs jammed their receivers. We knew their routes would be disrupted. We didn't blitz barely at all. We just rushed four."
And sometimes even three. And they still got home.
Here's a look at one of those plays where the timing was thrown off by a keen defensive strategy by Bradley.
Play: Third and 10 at the Seattle 49 with 11:31 left in the first quarter.
Offense: (Posse)Three receivers, one tight end, one back.
Defense: Nickel, two-deep shell, man under, three-man rush, nickel corner drops to make it a three-deep look instead of Cover-2.
This was the fourth offensive play of the game for the Packers and Rodgers wanted to get the ball inside tight end Jermichael Finley. But nickel corner Jeremy Lane (blue circle) sunk into the deep middle to take away the seam route to Finley. That caused Rodgers to hesitate, and that's all the time Irvin needs to bull-rush Bulaga and get the sack. The corners all manned up on the outside receivers and the linebacker Leroy Hill had the back in the flat, so there was no outlet even if Bulaga didn't get bull-rushed the way he did.
Here's another play where coverage led to a sack.
Play: Third-and-6 from the Green Bay 48 with 9:47 left in the second quarter.
Offense: Posse (three receiver, one back, one TE)
Defense: 4-2-5 (nickel) man-under, two-deep look, but robber coverage with the free safety coming down and then a rotation to a Cover-1, robber look.
Here's another play where the Seahawks took away Rodgers' primary look with a scheme. Seattle showed a two-deep look with safety Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor (red circles) lined up deep. But you can see Thomas came down as the robber to take away Finley. As Rodgers tried to reload, Irvin was pushing Bulaga into the backfield again, so Rodgers tried to get out. When he did, Clemons, who came around to the inside on a tackle-end stunt, was able to chase him down.
The good news for Green Bay is that only three offensive players from that game will start in their same spots this time around. Bulaga and Rodgers are two of them, with receiver Jordy Nelson the other. Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang were the guards in that game, but they flipped sides last season. Sitton is now at left guard, while Lang is on the right side. Both were solid against Seattle.
Seattle's defense has five starters back from that game, three in the secondary. Those three are Chancellor and Thomas and All-Pro corner Richard Sherman.
You would think the key to making sure Rodgers doesn't get hit like that again will be second-year runner Eddie Lacy. If the Seahawks counter with a nickel package against the Packers' "Posse" looks, I would imagine Green Bay would try and hit them with a big dose of Lacy.
"I would expect that, too," said Bryant. "But I bet [Dan] Quinn (Seattle's defensive coordinator) would have some new schemes to attack them this time."
It's unlikely Rodgers will take a beating like that again. That was as impressive a first half as you'll see from a defense. It's just too bad few remember it.
More thoughts on Packers-Seahawks:
• One of the things to watch in this game will be how well rookie center Corey Linsley plays against the Seattle front -- especially Brandon Mebane. Linsley is a rookie fifth-round pick who took over when J.C. Tretter went down two weeks ago. Tretter is expected back in a month or so, so Linsley starts for a few weeks. Linsley was a solid starter at Ohio State, and no matter how he does against Seattle he will be better physically than Saturday was two years ago. The problems may come with some of the calls up front, but Rodgers will help with that.
• I hate the idea of Seattle using Earl Thomas on punt returns. Why risk one of your best players, and your most valuable defensive player, on special teams? I know Pete Carroll is a big believer in using starters on special teams, but why have Thomas even in the mix to return punts. That's just too risky for my blood.
• When I talked with Red Bryant about the Hail Mary game, he said it never should have come to down to that because Green Bay kept their go-ahead drive alive on a bad call. "That was a make up for the bad PI call on Kam Chancellor," Bryant said. I went back and studied that play, and he was right. On a third-and-10 from the Seattle 47, Rodgers tried to stick in a slant to Finley. But Chancellor came up and made a great play on the ball, only to get called for PI. It wasn't even close. That kept alive Green Bay's only touchdown drive of the game.
• The 2012 game was Russell Wilson's third game as a starter in his rookie season. He looked like a rookie at times, too. Wilson completed 10 of 21 for 130 yards and two touchdowns. He did hit Golden Tate for a 41-yard score in the second quarter to get the majority of his yards. He was sacked just one time. The plan was much simpler for him then than it will be this time around.
• Seattle has five offensive starters from the 2012 game who will start in this game, but no receivers. The starters in that game were Tate and Sidney Rice, both now gone. But Percy Harvin is the X-factor in the passing game in this one. The Packers will have five starters from that game who will start in this one. Three are in the secondary with corners Sam Shields and Tramon Williams and safety Morgan Burnett.
• In the last game, Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews did not get a sack, but that doesn't mean he didn't play well. He had a bunch of pressures and did a nice job in the run game. He lined up mostly over left tackle Russell Okung, but the Packers might flop him from side to side this time around since they also have Julius Peppers. Both of those veteran would love to get shots at Seattle rookie right tackle Justin Britt, who will be making his first start.