When: 3:15 CDT; Sunday, Oct. 23, 2011.
Where: Mall of America Field at the Metrodome; Minneapolis, MN.
TV: FOX; Thom Brennaman and Troy Aikman with the call, Pam Oliver on the sidelines.
Radio: 620 AM WTMJ (Milwaukee), Packers Radio Network, Westwood One, NFL Sunday Drive (Sirius Radio).
Series: Packers lead, 51-48-1 (Packers won the last regular season game, 31-3, in Minnesota on Nov. 21, 2010).
Five things to watch
1. A new era in Minnesota
The Vikings will be ushering in a new era at quarterback Sunday, as rookie Christian Ponder makes his first NFL start in place of veteran Donovan McNabb. Say what you want about Tarvaris Jackson, but Ponder represents the Vikings first attempt at developing a young quarterback since Daunte Culpepper in 2002. It’s been nothing but stop-gap options for Minnesota since Culpepper was traded to the Miami Dolphins before the 2006 season. At 6-2, 230 pounds, Ponder is a smart, athletic quarterback whom the Vikings liked enough to draft with the 12th overall pick last April. The majority of draft pundits said that the pick was a reach for Minnesota. But the Vikings absolutely needed to address the quarterback position and most of those same draft pundits called Ponder the most ready quarterback in the draft to play right away. While starting Ponder for the first time against the defending Super Bowl champions probably wasn’t how the Vikings envisioned their quarterback situation shaking out in 2011, McNabb simply didn’t play well enough to continue keeping Ponder on the bench. Starting Ponder is what the fans wanted. They got it. The Ponder era begins Sunday.
2. His toughest test
Packers second-year tackle Marshall Newhouse has taken on each and every challenge put in front of him this season, but he faces his toughest test of 2011 Sunday in Minnesota. Will he be up to the task?
Newhouse has filled in admirably for both Byran Bulaga and Chad Clifton in road games at Chicago and Atlanta. There has been nothing but praise—rightfully earned praise— thrown Newhouse’s way for his performance on each side of the line. He has an entirely different kind of monster waiting for him on Sunday in Minnesota’s Jared Allen. Not only does Allen lead the NFL in sacks this season with 9.5, he also has 8.5 sacks in his last four games against the Packers. If there’s a way for the Vikings to slow down Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense on Sunday, it’s with Allen consistently beating Newhouse in one-on-one matchups. In games at the Metrodome in 2008 and ’09, Allen almost singlehandedly wrecked the Packers offensive gameplan in Vikings’ wins.
It’s also worth mentioning that Newhouse missed Friday’s practice to attend to personal matters outside Green Bay. Any lost preparation time before facing Allen could prove costly, and who knows where Newhouse’s concentration level might be upon his return.
The Packers need him to play well on Sunday, but don’t be surprised if you see the offense give Newhouse plenty of help against one of the league’s premier pass rushers. As long as Allen and Brian Robison (4.5 sacks) are kept out of the backfield, the Packers offense should score points.
3. Not full strength
Even if the roster was at full strength, a 1-5 Vikings team would have their hands full against the undefeated Packers. But they’ll likely be playing several men down on Sunday after a recent string of injuries and one unfortunate incident early Saturday morning.
Center John Sullivan (concussion) hasn’t practiced all week and is listed as doubtful, which gives him a 25 percent chance of playing Sunday. His loss could be a big one. Not only has Sullivan been the Vikings best offensive lineman in 2011, but he’d also help a rookie quarterback identify blitzes and make the necessary adjustments during the pre-snap reads. Joe Berger would play if Sullivan can’t go. RT Phil Loadholt (knee) missed Wednesday’s practice but is probable.
The Vikings secondary has also taken some big hits this week. Antoine Winfield (neck) was limited in all three practices and is listed as doubtful. Jamarca Sanford (concussion) is almost certainly out after missing the entire week of practice. They’ll both be game-time decisions, but the Vikings aren’t expecting either to play.
If losing your best cornerback and starting safety wasn’t bad enough for the Vikings, the secondary situation got worse on Saturday morning when cornerback Chris Cook, who would have started for Winfield, was arrested on domestic battery charges. Cook will be held at Hennepin County jail until Monday as he awaits a preliminary hearing. The Vikings have already ruled him out for Sunday.
The Vikings will likely start Cedric Griffin and Asher Allen on Sunday, with rookie Brandon Burton playing plenty of snaps as the nickelback. Fourth-year safety Tyrell Johnson would start for Sanford. Those aren’t the names you want to throw at Aaron Rodgers and Co. on Sunday if you’re the Vikings.
4. Stopping AP
While the Vikings passing game ranks 31st in the NFL (168.7 yards/game), the running game has continued to thrive with Adrian Peterson running the football. Minnesota is third in the league at 142.2 yards a game on the ground, and Peterson is having another All-Pro season with 537 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has to get AP going early with a rookie quarterback starting his first NFL game. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers is obviously well-aware of this fact. He’ll likely give the Vikings offense plenty of eight- and nine-man fronts to keep Peterson in check. With limited options at receiver for the Vikings, Capers can feel confident that Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson can handle one-on-one matchups if he needs extra help stopping Peterson. In theory, that all sounds like a sure-fire way to eliminate Peterson. But he’s hurt the Packers plenty of times in the past in these same situations, with a 192-yard effort in the Dome in ’08 sticking out among them. And don’t forget the struggles the Packers had stopping Rams running backs Steven Jackson and Cadillac Williams a week ago. Peterson running wild is one way for the Vikings to hang around Sunday.
One injury to keep your eye on pre-game is DL Ryan Pickett, who suffered a concussion on Thursday and might be unavailable. He’s a big part of how the Packers want to defend Peterson and the Vikings running game on Sunday.
5. Return of YOTTO
We haven’t heard much from Jermichael Finley in recent weeks, as teams have focused on taking away the Packers tight end more and more. This week might be different. Both Leslie Frazier and Lovie Smith come from Tony Dungy’s coaching tree, with defenses that have Cover-2 tendencies. Finley obliterated the Bears’ version earlier this year, catching seven passes for 85 yards and three scores. With the Vikings likely missing starting safety Jamarca Sanford and middle linebacker E.J. Henderson still battling a bad knee, Finley will have the chance to get himself back on track statistically on Sunday. And don’t forget about the last time Finley played in the Dome. He caught six passes for 128 yards and a score in the Packers 30-23 loss in 2009. Would anyone be shocked if he matched those numbers on Sunday?
Prediction: Packers 27, Vikings 17
I made my initial prediction before Chris Cook’s arrest, which I think could be a big factor in this game. Cook has played well this season, and he gives the Vikings a big, physical corner that can disrupt timing in routes when he’s on the field. His absence, coupled with both Winfield and Sanford likely being out, creates a huge hole in the Vikings secondary that the Packers can exploit all afternoon. They still need to do a good job of keeping Allen and Robison out of the backfield, but they can keep extra blockers in and still feel confident in receivers getting open. I’ll keep my original 27-17 scoreline, but I’d bank on the Packers scoring 30 or more points on Sunday as they roll to 7-0.
As I’m sure you saw, the Michigan State beat Wisconsin last night on a Hail Mary pass with no time left. The play went to review, and the replay official determined the player crossed the plane for a touchdown. Considering I went to UW, I felt compelled to express a few thoughts on the game.
Watching the play live, I thought it was a touchdown. It looked like the last swing of the arms got the ball across the goal line. The replay was less conclusive that I thought it’d be, and I’m not sure I saw enough evidence to overturn the call on the field. It was awfully close and could have went either way. At that point, don’t you have to send the game into overtime?
Bret Bielema is taking a lot of heat for calling timeout on Michigan State’s final drive. I have no problem with it. He went for the win, and if the Badgers get a stop on third down, who knows what happens on the following punt. They nearly blocked the previous punt and Jared Abbrederis had a big return. He trusted his defense to stop a 3rd-and-8 and give his team the opportunity to steal a game. In the process, a chance to win was stolen from him. Hindsight is always 20/20, but I liked the timeout, and I’m sticking with that opinion.
Finally, no man in Wisconsin should be sicker than Abbrederis, who dropped what could have been a long touchdown pass in the second half and then whiffed horribly on the final pass. Why wasn’t Nick Toon, who is two inches taller, not in Abbrederis’s position in on that play? He probably bats the ball down without a jump.
The National Championship hopes are dashed for UW, and the Rose Bowl is now the only thing left to play for. College football is such a downer in that way. Not so in the NFL. Even if the Packers lose to the Vikings on Sunday, we still know that they have a chance to play for the ultimate prize.——————
Zach Kruse is a 23-year-old sports journalist with a passion for the Green Bay Packers. He currently lives in Wisconsin and is working on his journalism degree, while also covering prep sports for The Dunn Co. News.
You can read more of Zach's Packers articles on AllGreenBayPackers.com.Follow @zachkruse2