For the second time in less than a month, the Green Bay Packers will face the Minnesota Vikings. The last time the Packers won a game, it was against the Vikings in their last trip to Mall of America Field (The Metrodome). Since then, Green Bay has lost three straight and are seeing their postseason chances wane with each.
The stage is Lambeau Field, where the Packers have lost two straight. They haven’t lost three straight there since the early 1990’s so needless to say, it has been a long time. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has already been ruled out of Sunday’s game with his collarbone injury and Scott Tolzien will make his second straight start.
For the Vikings, this season continues to be a disappointment. After appearing in last year’s playoffs as a wild card, this year’s team has managed just two wins in 10 games. Quarterback Christian Ponder has been named the starter this week and he will make his third career start at Lambeau Field. He has lost his previous two and did not play in the playoff game last season.
For the Packers, this game is a virtual pivot point. Win and there remains hope for what their season can become as they head into a short week before meeting the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving. Lose and they face a very difficult road to any chance of winning the NFC North and making their fifth straight postseason appearance.
There has even been some speculation that Rodgers’ return and the team’s overall strategy with some of their injured starters may depend largely on the result of this week’s game against the Vikings. Whether or not that is true remains to be seen, but one truth that cannot be ignored is that Green Bay would fall under .500 with a loss.
With that, let’s look at the keys this week that will likely play out in determining the winner of this contest between the Pack and the guys in purple.
The Packers need them and they can’t afford to give up any. In last week’s game against the New York Giants, Tolzien had been faring better in taking care of the ball and moving the Packers offense down the field. They weren’t able to convert many points, but they showed signs of an offense that could move.
During the fourth quarter, Tolzien took a short drop and attempted to throw an out route to tight end Andrew Quarless. Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul made an athletic catch and took the interception back for a score, essentially putting the game way. This week, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy praised Tolzien but said, regardless, he has to take care of the football.
While Minnesota’s season may be over, they still feel like they can get after the Packers without Rodgers. Scrappy teams tend to take chances to get after the football. I would be more concerned about the Vikings front seven moreso than their banged up secondary, but if Tolzien continues to make a bad throw here or there, most anyone is capable of looking like a Pro Bowler on the back end.
With two teams who are more evenly matched at the quarterback position (opinions of Ponder aside), the team that wins in this category likely gets the win on Sunday.
This carries over from above. Last week, Tolzien wasn’t sacked by a Giants defensive line that is known for their ability to get to the quarterback. This was much of a function of how little New York blitzed as it was the Packers offensive line’s performance. They will be without right tackle Don Barclay again so expect to see Marshall Newhouse get the start. Derek Sherrod is another week into his return from the physically unable to perform list and if Newhouse struggles, we could see Sherrod for the first time in nearly two calendar years.
Left tackle David Bakhtiari continues to play well and is flying under the radar as a key to the Packers offensive success this season. Minnesota’s run defense hasn’t been great this season and this could be a game where Green Bay finds more success on the ground. Guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang have both been playing well and center Evan Dietrich-Smith has been serviceable despite a knee injury that has him playing through pain.
Vikings left defensive end Brian Robison suffered a neck injury during Thursday’s practice, although he is expected to play. This could help Newhouse, who has been a virtual turn style at the right tackle position. It’s no secret that the easiest route to getting pressure on Green Bay’s passer is through #74. Expect Minnesota to overload and draw up some blitz packages to force the Packers into long down and distance.
The best way to protect Tolzien is to establish the run. That has been a daunting task over the past three games as opposing defenses are taking their chances with putting the ball in the hands of the Packers quarterbacks. If he has time, Tolzien showed last week that he can get the ball downfield. Any added needs in coverage will naturally ease the number of guys coming through at the snap.
Red Zone Offense
I’m being presumptuous here in that the Packers will find themselves in the red zone on a few occasions this week. They should. The Vikings secondary has been hit hard with injuries and this is a clear weakness for them on that side of the ball. Safety Harrison Smith has been out with a turf toe injury. Now cornerback Josh Robinson is out with a cracked sternum (ouch!). Rookie Xavier Rhodes will step in for Robinson and while Rhodes has been serviceable this season, he has also been beaten.
Green Bay’s receivers are one of the top units in the league. From inside of 10 yards, either of Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Jarrett Boykin should be able to beat their coverage and punch it in. Too often, the Packers have stalled just past mid field where a long field goal is anything but certain or they are forced to punt.
Much has been made of McCarthy’s play calling, but much of that seems to be an over-estimation of Tolzien’s ability to perfectly impersonate Rodgers. I do agree that the Packers offense was too boring and predictable last week and the “run, run, pass” scheme is outdated, to put it mildly. They have to play within Tolzien’s skill set and ability, but he has shown progress each week. This is the game where he has to punch it in and learn to make the quick throws with accuracy.
Key on Peterson
Adrian Peterson is listed as questionable for this game but he had practiced as of Friday and all indications are that he will play, despite a groin injury. Green Bay’s run defense has struggled much over this three-game losing streak and even a 50% Adrian Peterson is still better than most other backs at 100%.
Peterson is 149 yards shy of his sixth career 1,000 yard season. Last year, Peterson entered the week 17 matchup against the Packers needing just over 200 yards to set the single-season rushing record. He finished just a few yards short. Peterson is that rare talent at running back who can impose his will when he is highly motivated.
I’m not certain exactly how motivated Peterson will be this weekend to reach that milestone unless he finds it particularly satisfying to do so against a divisional rival. In the last meeting, Peterson had just 60 yards on 13 carries. This week figures to be different if the Packers are unable to pull away from Minnesota and the Vikings can continue to feed AP all afternoon.
It stands to reason that Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers could unleash his hounds and blitz the run. The Vikings are already without tight end Kyle Rudolph. Receiver Greg Jennings is expected to play, but is still nursing a sore Achilles that forced him to sit out last weekend’s game against the Seattle Seahawks. Without the passing threat and with Ponder at quarterback, period, Green Bay can probably afford to focus more attention on Peterson. And they better.
Peterson tends to have one or two runs a game for long yardage against the Packers. In the past, Green Bay has had Aaron Rodgers to help make up the ground lost. This week, they won’t and a failure to stop Peterson and get the defense off the field is likely to become a huge problem late in the game. A gassed defense against the best running back in football is a bad recipe under any circumstance.
Packers return man Micah Hyde may possibly miss this game. If he does, running back Johnathan Franklin and/or receiver Myles White will likely handle the kick return duties. Hyde was rendered ineffective last week and in fact, has done nothing with the ball since his long touchdown run against the Vikings in October. Franklin hasn’t shown anything in his few attempts either.
Field position is key and the Packers can’t afford to back up their young quarterback and drive 90 yards on every possession. If I’m the Vikings, I take my chances and force Green Bay to bring the ball out. The chances of a long return are low and the chances of a fumble are better than they would be on a touchback.
The Packers kick return unit isn’t going to suddenly decide to elevate their play so these return men have to find a way to at least get back to the 20-yard line and a respectable starting point.
On the coverage side, the Packers were burned on the opening kickoff by Vikings receiver Cordarrelle Patterson for a league-record 109-yard return score in the last game. Any such allowance this weekend is a gross failure to correct a past mistake. The Packers have to force Minnesota to earn their yards and can’t let them start drives near mid-field.
The Packers are getting some big plays on special teams. In addition to Hyde’s punt return score, they have blocked two punts so far this season and converted a surprise onside kick. There is potential to use this area as a strength, if in the right situation. This is a call on the coaching side as to when to roll the dice and get after the ball, but this is something that past Packers teams have not had as an option. This team needs a win and it’s likely going to take a few higher-risk plays to get it done.
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: