The Green Bay Packers bring their three-game winning streak into Mall of America Field to face the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night football. Maybe it’s just the old school in me that “Mall of America Field” doesn’t roll easily off the tongue. It’s the Metrodome, the Humpty Dome, The Dome or in some instances, “Hell”, right?
Either way, this is the last time that the Packers will face the Vikings in that building. The plan, after this season, is for Minnesota to play their home games at TCF Stadium for two years while their new stadium is expected to be built in the same spot that the Dome currently sits.
The Vikings have to be hoping that a change in venue might lead to some improvement in their play. They currently sit at a disappointing 1-5 and just handed the previously-winless New York Giants their first win of the season this past Monday night.
While this has the makings of an easier game for the Packers, divisional matchups always carry an added element of competitiveness and especially on the road. Let’s look at the keys for Green Bay to leave Minnesota with the win that many are expecting for them.
Fast Start, Dictate the Tempo
The Vikings have struggled in nearly every area so far this season. They have trotted out three different starting quarterbacks and have not been able to establish any type of offensive rhythm at all. Defensively, they have not been much better and they are now without safety Harrison Smith, who is dealing with a toe injury. If there is one area of deficiency that can most disastrous against Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, it’s the secondary.
While the Packers will continue to showcase their more physical side and establish the run, Rodgers should be looking for the deep ball early on. Rodgers is one of the league leaders in completed passes over 25 yards from scrimmage. While Green Bay isn’t likely to find their 2011 stroke, they have had more success in pushing the ball downfield over their past three games. A quick, early strike and a quick score can set the tone and put the Vikings on their heels right away.
When teams aren’t playing well, they are looking for anything that resembles success. Most often, a team’s success starts with their quarterback. The Vikings just can’t seem to decide who that guy should be. They started the season with Christian Ponder and after he suffered a rib injury, he was replaced by Matt Cassel. Cassel led the Vikings to their sole win this season only to see himself on the sidelines after the team decided to acquire Josh Freeman following his release by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Freeman started last week’s game after just two weeks in Minnesota and posted one of the worst performances in NFL history. This led many to wonder why Minnesota decided to start him so soon. Earlier this week, it was reported that Freeman had suffered a concussion and was ruled out for this week’s game against the Packers. It seemed logical that the Vikings would turn to Cassel, however, Christian Ponder has been named the starter.
The Vikings are seemingly going to be asking whoever is out there to keep the team in games and make sound decisions. An inability to do just that would seem to be why Ponder wasn’t handed back his starting job when he returned to health. Now the Vikings are asking him to step back in and keep up with Aaron Rodgers. The quarterbacking carousel in Minnesota has me wondering if some in the Vikings’ front office aren’t also suffering from concussion-like symptoms.
At this point, the Vikings’ chances of competing this season are looking more and more bleak. As such, teams in that situation start trying to do things that they normally wouldn’t and to catch their opponent off guard. That could be as simple as throwing a deep ball into double coverage and hoping the receiver makes a great play to spark the offense. It could also mean a surprise onside kick, fake punt, flea flicker, statue of liberty. . you get the idea.
The Packers just need to be prepared to face a team that is desperate to get a big win this week. Actually, the Vikings just need to get a win. The further behind they are when they start getting away from who they really are and making fools of themselves, the better. Things can’t get any worse for Minnesota than they were on Monday night so the Vikings will come into this one with that “nothing to lose” mentality.
This is one area where the Vikings come in with more potential than do the Packers. First-round receiver Cordarrelle Patterson already has a kickoff return for a touchdown while Marcus Sherels returned a punt for a score against the Giants. The Packers, on the other hand, have been well below-average in kick coverage. This is a recipe for a big play opportunity for Minnesota. If this game were purely kickoff and punt returns, the point spread would immediately shift to the other side.
Contributing to the Packers’ lackluster play in this area are injuries to two key special teamers in that of Jarrett Bush and Ryan Taylor. Taylor won’t play this week while Bush has practiced and could be back in action. It’s not often that you’ll hear anyone say that Bush’s return would be a welcome sight for the Packers. Then again, we’re not talking about him in the defensive secondary.
Green Bay also ranks dead last in their own return game production. Having looked for a replacement for Randall Cobb on both kickoff and punt return, Green Bay has utilized different options to try and find the most effective. It’s safe to say that they’re still looking. Rookie Micah Hyde has taken over the punt return duties in Cobb’s absence to injury and has done a decent job. By decent, I really mean that he hasn’t fumbled. On kickoffs, the best thing that can happen to the Packers is the ball sailing out of the back of the end zone. Enough said there.
I noted in the Predictions post that Minnesota could possibly benefit from a return score this week. On turf and with two effective returners, the Vikings will be looking to take advantage of this mismatch. If the Vikings try a reverse and score on it, then Packers special teams coach Shawn Slocum clearly doesn’t read our work here at ALLGBP.com.
Anyone But Peterson
Vikings running back Adrian Peterson is the team’s best player and he shredded the Packers defense in three games last season. Since then, Green Bay has focused on and greatly improved in their run defense. With an effective rotation up front and stellar play at inside linebacker, the Packers have been able to sway their opponents away from the run game.
In this game and with the way the Vikings passing attack (if I can use that term) has fared so far this season, that would be the best-case scenario for the Packers. Yes, Ponder had one of his best games as a pro in last season’s finale win over the Packers, but how will he respond to playing again after being benched? In the first meeting between these two teams last season, Ponder was equally as ineffective, throwing two interceptions when the Vikings were having success moving the ball. Right now, his confidence surely has to be a bit shaken. If you just look at his body language on the sidelines over the last few games, it is evident that he is just as unsure about the direction that Minnesota is headed as anyone else.
But don’t expect stifling Peterson to be easy. He is still an elusive runner who can make things happen when nothing seems to be happening at all. The Packers were the victim of several missed tackles on Peterson last season, which led to big runs. While the Vikings offensive line has not been stellar this year, Peterson can often get it done on his own.
I’m not going to compare defending Peterson to stopping the read option, but staying disciplined and maintaining gap integrity is a huge key to bottling him up. The Packers seem to have improved in this area and opponents gaining ground in the run game has come at a premium in 2013. In a pure matchup, I like Green Bay’s defensive line against Minnesota’s offensive line but Peterson is probably the one ball carrier who would still worry me on his merit alone. He has said that this is a “must win” game for the Vikings and he’s playing on the faster turf surface. I expect a top-notch effort from #28 this week but I’ll stop short of saying he will be productive. He is said to be dealing with a hamstring injury and will have an impact on his total running ability.
Long story short, make everyone else in a Vikings uniform have to try and win this game for Minnesota. And yes, that includes a certain receiver who wears #15. Good luck with that.
Minnesota’s defense has struggled but they still get a decent pass rush from their two defensive ends, Jared Allen and Brian Robison. Allen will match up against Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari. Bakhtiari must be wondering when he finally won’t be lined up against a Pro Bowl-caliber pass rusher this season. While it’s a daunting task and the pressure has never been greater to protect the Packers $120 million prize-possession in Rodgers, Bakhtiari has been more effective than not each week.
If anyone thinks Allen is starting to decline in his effectiveness, go back and take a look at a sack that he racked up against the Giants where despite being fully engaged by the left tackle, still manages to grab a fistful of quarterback Eli Manning’s jersey and take him to the ground. It was an amazing feat, but not overly shocking considering that it was Allen. He has a high motor and he tends to show up big when playing against the Packers. Allen is the type of player who can single-handedly take over a game and become very disruptive to an offense.
While Allen is the Vikings best pass rusher, it’s the right side of the line that is more worrisome. Right tackle Don Barclay has been inconsistent this season and has allowed himself to be pushed around, at times. While Robison is far from a superior defensive end, he is a veteran and can use his savvy to outduel Barclay. With Rodgers being right handed, most roll out plays would be to his right and this moved pocket area needs to stay clean if the Packers are going to have any success with this type of play action. Look for Green Bay to utilize the strengths of their remaining tight ends and keep them in to aid in pass protection. A well-placed screen wouldn’t be a bad idea either.
All 46 Ready To Go
It sounds cynical of me to say that the Packers are going to suffer an injury during this game and that whoever is behind that player needs to be ready to go. But that’s what I’m saying. While we can’t predict injuries, the sheer history of the Packers 2013 season indicates that someone is likely to have to come out or miss time during this week’s game.
Because of injuries, we have had the opportunity to see what Bakhtiari, Hyde, Johnathan Franklin, Jarrett Boykin, Jamari Lattimore and Andrew Quarless can do. Some have flourished and are now entrenched as starters. Others are still a big question mark. Give head coach Mike McCarthy credit for having his team ready to play every week, regardless of the opponent. I expect that we will see more impressive contributions from the team’s depth this week. I’ll stop short of trying to predict who this week’s standout will be, however.
Depth is key to sustaining success over a 17-week schedule in the NFL. At some point, the injuries would become too much for even the most prepared team to overcome. Hopefully the Packers will start to see more of these injured players returning than those who are forced out.
We put up a few pieces here at ALLGBP.com this week about potential moves the Packers could make in the wake of the recent injuries to Cobb and tight end Jermichael Finley. You’re likely looking at the team that Green Bay intends to go with this season, so might as well learn the new names and get used to seeing them on the field in spots.
During his weekly radio show with ESPN Milwaukee, Rodgers stated that accountability is a big part of the team’s culture and they expect their backups to step in and play well. There were many passes thrown in Boykin’s direction against Baltimore even though they all seemed to be way off the mark. Rookie Myles White was in a primary recovery position on an obvious onside kick last week against the Cleveland Browns. The results aren’t always good, but McCarthy and the team expect these players to contribute when their number is called. As they continue to get reps and become more comfortable with the schemes, this could be a very battle-tested group come late in the season.
Watching young players having to learn the fly can be nerve-racking for a head coach, teammate and fan to watch. Mistakes are going to happen, but if the Packers continue to overcome those mistakes and win, we could be talking about a level of success that Green Bay has not had for the past few seasons.
The Greg Jennings (Non) Factor
How many of you skipped straight to this section after seeing the header? For those that did, here is a recap of Jennings’ highlights during his time in Minnesota. I started thinking about how surprised that I was that Jennings is still healthy at this point in the season, but then I realized how much time he has actually spent on the field. I guess this was the hard way for Greg to prolong his career.
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: