If ESPN had one viewer who watched Monday Night Football from start to finish – or at least had his television on the whole time – there’s a good chance that person was Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
Having spent many a night scheming – mostly unsuccessfully – last season trying to stop Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, Capers was curious about new Vikings starting quarterback Josh Freeman, and how the team’s decision to give him the job instead of Christian Ponder or Matt Cassel might alter the Minnesota offense.
“I’ll be interested watching the game tonight,” Capers had said Monday afternoon. “That will be the only exposure we’ll see of Freeman. Obviously, we know what they’ve done every game this season, but they’ve had different quarterback combinations with Ponder and Cassel and now Freeman, so it’ll be interesting to see how they change their attack with Freeman. He hadn’t been with him a long time, so I wouldn’t think it would be too complicated.”
It may not have been complicated, but it was definitely ugly. Freeman, whom coach Leslie Frazier said Tuesday will start at quarterback again on Sunday night against the Packers, completed just 20 of 53 passes for 190 yards with no touchdowns, one interception and one sack for a passer rating of 40.6.
"We felt like we had a good plan going into the game that he would be able to execute," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said Tuesday. "(Freeman) didn't play as well as he would've liked – I'm sure he'll tell you that. Had some up-and-down moments. The ball kind of sailed on him a few different times. But I don't think it was a lack of preparation."
Worse yet, Peterson carried the ball just 13 times for 28 yards, with his longest gain being an 8-yarder. Only once in the game did Peterson get the ball on back-to-back plays, and after the game, he seemed perturbed by it.
“We just really couldn't get anything established up front, and that's where everything starts. We're just kind of out of whack,” Peterson said. “(The Giants) were bringing some stunts and a lot of movement up front. Nothing we haven't seen before, but it kind of put us in an uncomfortable position and we just struggled with that all night.
“One thing I'm going to stress on is being more physical as an offensive unit. Definitely be more physical. We were more physical last year. And that's one thing that stands out this year.
Peterson also suggested that he and the Vikings’ offensive line aren’t quite on the same page. Peterson, who came up nine yards short of breaking Eric Dickerson’s single-season NFL rushing record last year and won the NFL MVP, enters Sunday night’s game having carried 115 times for 511 yards (4.4-yard average) and five touchdowns through six games.
“It's a struggle and I've seen these guys before and I know they can do it," Peterson said of the line. "They're just kind of in a funk. They make good plays as well, but there are plays where we just don't execute like position-wise. We just can't focus on the offensive line. There are a lot of things we can do as an offensive unit as well.”
For the Packers, stopping Peterson will be the No. 1 priority on Sunday night, especially since the Vikings figure to have learned their lesson with Monday night’s imbalanced attack and given their success against the Packers running the ball last year.
Of Peterson’s 2,097 yards last season, a whopping 409 (19.5 percent) came against the Packers, as he ran for 210 yards on Dec. 2 and for 199 yards on Dec. 30. More frustrating for the Packers was that they seemed to be in good position to tackle him more often than not; according to Pro Football Focus, of Peterson’s 409 yards in those two games, 375 came after contact, or 91.7 percent
While that’s a subjective statistic – ESPN Stats & Information had 230 of Peterson’s 409 yards coming after contact, while STATS had 254 yards after contact – the bottom line is that the Packers must replicate what they did against Peterson in the NFC Wild Card playoffs last year, when he had 99 yards on 22 carries.
“I liked elements of our run defense last year – except when we played Minnesota,” Capers said this week. “We’d play pretty good for 20 plays and they hadn’t gotten anything and then about two or three plays (are huge plays). That comes from playing a rare guy like Peterson. This guy, you can’t ever relax on him. You’ve got to get two, three guys in on the tackle because he’s such a big, strong guy. If he breaks a tackle, he can explode and make those big plays on you. That’s where we had the problem last year.
“I thought we took care of that in the playoff game here. I thought we played better there. That’s going to be the challenge. You know going against them it all starts with Peterson. But I like the way our run defense is playing now. You haven’t seen many explosive plays come out. I think we’re getting more people to the ball with better leverage and tackling better. That’s what you have to do against Peterson.”
Indeed, the Packers enter Sunday night with the NFL’s 15th-ranked defense, but the Packers are ranked third in the 32-team league against the run, allowing only 79.0 yards per game. (Only Denver, at 77.1, and the New York Jets, at 77.7, are better.) The Packers also rank third in yards allowed per attempt, at 3.4. (The Jets are first at 3.1; the Broncos are second at 3.3.)
Last season – and certainly Peterson contributed heavily to these numbers – the Packers were 17th in yards allowed per game (118.5) and tied for 23rd in yards allowed per rush (4.5). The Packers have also limited the number of big runs they’ve given up, as an opponents’ longest gain was a 32-yarder by Washington’s Alfred Morris in Week 2.
While one major difference is the presence of Johnny Jolly, who returned from a three-year NFL suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy and has the Packers back to playing good run defense, just as they were in 2009, when they were No. 1 in the NFL against the run – the only time that’s happened in team history – and set a franchise record for fewest yards allowed per game (83.3).
Jolly’s presence is only one component of the improvement. According to defensive line coach Mike Trgovac, his guys are playing with better gap discipline than they have in recent years. That’s the result of a unit-wide commitment up front to not try to do too much or be the hero.
“We’re just plugging away at it. The guys have been very accountable to what we’ve asked them to do, it’s helped us,” Trgovac said. “The big thing that we stressed in the offseason was everybody being accountable to their gap and not trying to do too much, not trying to make someone else’s play, and the guys have really bought into it. Hell, you’re going to get beat every now and then, but for the most part we’ve been able to do that.
“I think what happens during the course of a game, guys, you start to see a play and you think you can make a play and you don’t make the play and then you’re out of your gap and this guy thinks you’re here, all that stuff goes on. We’ve talked about accountability, we’ve talked about leverage and we’ve talked about how we haven’t had the big run bust out on us, we haven’t had the big quarterback run break out on us, and that’s what we’ve got to keep going.”
And keep it going against one of the best in the business – assuming he gets the ball and the Vikings don’t re-use the game plan from Sunday night.
“I think we’re constantly improving. We obviously have a tough challenge this week,” defensive tackle B.J. Raji said. “But I think we’re committed to each other to play and everyone do their job and do it to the best of their abilities. It sounds simple, but at times it’s not easy.
“I know our task is laid out in front of us. We obviously have the talent, but I think it’s our will to dominate and play as well as we possibly can and try to win.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.