Here we are in week 17 and another season is nearly in the books. The Green Bay Packers end their regular season schedule with a trip to Minnesota to face the Vikings. A few years back, the NFL changed its schedule making such that the last week of the season would be a divisional game for all teams. This was in the hopes that the games would be meaningful and teams wouldn’t rest slews of their starters in preparation for the postseason.
The NFL has gotten its wish this year and with this game. Each team has something on the line. The Vikings need to win to secure a playoff spot. The Packers can clinch the second seed in the NFC with a win. Should the Vikings win, the Packers can still gain the #2 seed with a San Francisco and a Seattle loss.
Last week’s format was a success so I’m going stick with a “Keys to the Game” theme. Let’s see what will likely determine the outcome of tomorrow’s contest.
Vikings Running Back Adrian Peterson
I feel like a broken record with the thoughts I share about Peterson but given the season he is having, they bear some repeating. According to ESPN, Peterson has 1,898 yards in 15 games. 102 yards shy of 2,000 yards, an accomplishment only six other running backs can claim. Peterson is also 208 yards shy of the 28 year-old and all-time single-season rushing record set by Eric Dickerson in 1984.
Peterson is surely going to win a major award after this season. Whether it’s the Comeback Player of the Year, Most Valuable Player award or Offensive MVP, Peterson deserves at least one of those. I watched some of the tape of Peterson’s first game at Green Bay this season. He is running as quickly and as hard as ever. Many of the yards he picked up on long runs in that game came after contact. Nowadays, we see more and more backs running out of bounds or diving to the ground before the big hit. Peterson is a throwback and reminds me a lot of Walter Payton.
In tomorrow’s game, Peterson will be as motivated as ever. Ask him and he will tell you that the record means nothing without a Vikings win. He wants to put the team on his back and single-handedly carry them into an improbable playoff appearance. Peterson already runs hard and with a purpose. Now that he has an even greater purpose, the Packers’ defenders best eat their Wheaties tomorrow.
I saw some very poor form in the tackling effort by the Green Bay defense in meeting number one. While many of us just knew the Packers would pull out the win, the Vikings felt and still do feel like they let one slip away. Two very costly Christian Ponder interceptions killed Vikings drives that were likely headed for some points. The Packers have to gang tackle Peterson and he absolutely must be the focal point of the defensive game plan. I’m sure defensive coordinator Dom Capers doesn’t read these pieces, but if he does, I hope he keys in on that last sentence.
Green Bay needs a big game out of their defensive line. The line has been playing its best as of late and seems to have a solid rotation of Ryan Pickett and BJ Raji with Mike Neal, Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels rotating in. End CJ Wilson is said to have a good chance to return to action and his run-stopping ability will come in very handy against Peterson.
There’s no question Peterson will get to the second level at times. The secondary has to bring him down. It’s not fun running into a brick wall, but there is a week off at stake and Green Bay needs to take a stand in this key area. If they can hold Peterson under 100 yards and no scores, it will make for a very tough task for the Vikings to get the win.
Packers Run Game
Alex Green is back and will join Ryan Grant and DuJuan Harris in the backfield. This should give the run game a boost. Any success on the ground will do many favors for Green Bay. This controls the clock, wears down Minnesota’s front four and opens up the passing game. All of that goes without saying but with so much talk about this being a “quarterback driven league”, it still holds true that an effective ground game can be a quarterback and offensive coordinator’s best friend.
Aaron Rodgers vs. Vikings Secondary
Through 15 games, Rodgers nearly has exactly the same number of attempts and completions that he did last season. Consistency is one thing Rodgers brings to the table and the Packers are hoping that he puts up another performance like he has against the Vikings as of late. Green Bay has won five straight against their foes to the west and Rodgers has put up some big numbers.
Minnesota’s secondary is a bit dinged up with cornerback Antoine Winfield dealing with a fractured hand. Winfield is likely to play with his hand taped. We may recall that Packers safety Morgan Burnett played quite a few games last season with a club cast and while he was ample, he wasn’t as effective without the full use of both hands.
Vikings rookie safety Harrison Smith has been everything the Vikings hoped he would be when they drafted him. Smith has three interceptions this season, two of which were returned for scores. He is physical and has already taken a bit of a leadership role on the team. He will surely continue to improve and Rodgers needs to be aware of his speed and ability to close on the deeper routes. If speedy Packers wideout Randall Cobb is out in this game, the deep pass may come at a premium with Smith guarding the back end of the field.
Packers Offensive Line
Every week we talk about the importance of giving Rodgers time to throw and opening lanes in the run game. This week is no different. Minnesota is likely to throw pressure at Rodgers from every angle possible. Any defensive coordinator knows that the key to stopping the Green Bay offense is to harass Rodgers.
Vikings defensive end Jared Allen is always active and seems to give Packers left tackle Marshall Newhouse fits. Green Bay will once again have to slide protection to the left side to neutralize pressure. Rodgers has had some success with the quick pass and that is another good way to beat the Minnesota pass rush. The challenge with Allen is that he is very athletic and has the ability to get up and knock passes down. Against Rodgers, Allen seems to have a knack for snatching the ball out of mid air for an interception. Allen has to be accounted for on every snap.
Green Bay has moved Even Dietrich-Smith to starting center in favor of Jeff Saturday to try and boost the run game. This is where the Packers offensive line earns their paycheck. They have to get off the ball and win their individual matchups in order to create lanes. This is always a physical matchup and everyone from the line to the backs and receivers need to bring some “nasty” to the party on Sunday.
Make Christian Ponder Win It
In order to accomplish this, Green Bay essentially would have to stuff Peterson. No defense can really do that for 60 full minutes. But if Peterson’s yards aren’t as gashing as they were in the first meeting, Ponder will have to make the plays to win this game. That’s not something he has done with any regularity in his short time in Minnesota.
Last week, Ponder didn’t have to do much beyond not turn the ball over. The Houston Texans offense was very anemic and kept Minnesota in a position where they could keep feeding Peterson and relying on the short pass. Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph is a favorite target of Ponder’s and this was a bit too obvious in the first meeting. Both of Ponder’s interceptions were attempts to Rudolph.
If Green Bay can force Ponder to have to move and throw, they have a chance to create some turnovers. Ponder can run, so forcing him out of the pocket isn’t always the best idea. Without Percy Harvin, Minnesota is depleted at the wide receiver position and as well as the Packers secondary has been playing, I expect that they can cover with minimal help. This is a matchup that Green Bay should win.
Assuming Cobb doesn’t play, Green Bay is also losing it’s returner. Jeremy Ross would be expected to replace Cobb in that capacity and while he had a good return last week against Tennessee, Minnesota’s coverage units are more solid.
Field position is a big key. The shorter Green Bay’s field is, the better although Rodgers has driven the team down 80+ yards on multiple occasions this season. The longer Minnesota’s field is, the better as long as they don’t let Peterson hit the home run and scamper 80 yards for another score.
One area where the Vikings hold a clear advantage is in the place kicking game. Vikes kicker Blair Walsh was just named to the Pro Bowl. Green Bay has. . Mason Crosby. Crosby made all of his attempts last week with one banking in off the upright. Was that a sign of a turnaround? I’m not holding my breath but I certainly hope so. No better time to right that ship than now.
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy has to find a way to get his team off to a fast start. Green Bay needs to come out strong and try to get up a few scores early. One knock on coach Mac is that he can’t seem to keep the team’s foot on the gas in games that it clearly should be. Minnesota is surely more formidable this season than anyone thought but Green Bay is deeper and more talented.
In a game where there is something big to gain, the Packers have to come out and impose their will on the Vikings. Avoid the costly turnover and big mistakes and do the things that have gotten them to this point. On third down and a yard to go, don’t run the dive to John Kuhn. Put the ball in your best player’s hands: Rodgers. And for crying out loud, leave the gadget and trick plays in Green Bay! The Packers can and should win this game by playing their style of football.
On the defensive side of the ball, Green Bay has to find a way to get to Ponder and this falls on defensive coordinator Dom Capers. While the Titans are clearly on a different level than are the Vikings, the fact that the blitz had success last week is something to build on. Every level of the defense had a sack.
The biggest impact was the return of Clay Matthews. Minnesota will have to account for Matthews and they won’t get away with putting their tackles one-on-one all day long. It’s everyone else that has to capitalize and get home with all of the focus going to one area.
Here’s hoping that it’s two more weeks until the next “Keys to the Game” post!——————
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: