Packers-Vikings: 5 things to watch
The Packers have won five in a row against the Vikings.
Packers-Vikings: 5 things to watch
The teams: The Green Bay Packers (11-4) vs. the Minnesota Vikings (9-6).
The time: 3:25 p.m. CST Sunday.
The place: Mall of America Field at the Metrodome, Minneapolis.
The TV coverage: FOX – WITI (Ch. 6 in Milwaukee), WMSN (Ch. 47 in Madison) and WLUK (Ch. 11 in Green Bay).
The announcers: Joe Buck and Troy Aikman in the booth and Pam Oliver reporting from the sideline.
The coaches: Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 79-40 (including 5-3 in the postseason) in his seventh season as the Packers' coach and as an NFL head coach. The Vikings’ Leslie Frazier is 15-22 in his third year as the Vikings’ coach and as an NFL head coach.
The series: The Packers lead the all-time regular-season series 54-47-1 and have won the last five meetings, including a 23-14 victory at Lambeau Field on Dec. 2.
The rankings: The Packers’ 13th-ranked offense is No. 20 in rushing and No. 10 in passing. Their 10th-ranked defense is No. 14 against the run and No. 12 against the pass. The Vikings’ 23rd-ranked offense is No. 3 in rushing and No. 32 in passing. Their 16th-ranked defense is No. 13 against the run and No. 20 against the pass.
The line: The Packers are favored by 3.5 points.
The injury report:
Out – S Charles Woodson (collarbone), RB James Starks (knee).
Doubtful – CB Davon House (shoulder/hip).
Questionable – WR Randall Cobb (knee/ankle).
Probable – TE Tom Crabtree (hamstring), C Evan Dietrich-Smith (knee), RB Alex Green (concussion), DE C.J. Wilson (knee), WR Jordy Nelson (hamstring), DE Jerel Worthy (hamstring), K Mason Crosby (illness), RG Josh Sitton (concussion), C Jeff Saturday (neck/shoulder).
Questionable – DE Brian Robison (shoulder) , CB Antoine Winfield (knee/hand).
Probable – RB Adrian Peterson (abdomen), DE Jared Allen (shoulder/illness), P Chris Kluwe (left knee), T Phil Loadholt (knee), CB Marcus Sherels (quadriceps).
THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
Band on the run: It’s possible that no team in NFL history has paid more lip service to the importance of running the football than McCarthy’s Packers. Remember all that talk earlier this season that it was about quantity of runs, not quality? Well, don’t look now, but the Packers are getting quality out of their quantity, and it’s making a difference.
After rushing for more than 100 yards as a team just three times in the first eight games of the season, the Packers have eclipsed the 100-yard mark in team rushing yards in six of their last seven games. During that stretch, the Packers have averaged 129.9 yards per game on the ground, which ranks seventh in the NFL in that span, behind only Seattle (195.9 yards), Minnesota (193.0), Washington (157.9), Kansas City (152.0), San Francisco (144.7) and Buffalo (129.9).
During that seven-game stretch, which began with a 176-yard effort against the Arizona Cardinals on Nov. 4, the Packers have used four primary backs – James Starks, Alex Green, Ryan Grant and DuJuan Harris, with contributions from fullback John Kuhn, versatile Randall Cobb and quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Starks hasn’t played since suffering a knee injury Dec. 2 against Minnesota, but Green is expected to return from the concussion that sidelined him last week, and Grant and Harris both were productive while Green was out. While Grant’s 20 carries for 89 yards and two touchdowns should lead to more opportunities for him, offensive coordinator Tom Clements said all three will be used.
“I think he had a good game on Sunday,” Clements said of Grant. “Just by the luck of the draw he got 20 (carries), DuJuan got eight and Alex didn’t play. That’s just the way it worked out. We have confidence in all three of the running backs, and if one’s hot, like Mike said, he may be featured, but they’re all going to get their touches.”
If they do, getting to the mystical 25-attempt mark – which may be the magic number that tells McCarthy that success is measured in attempts – usually means victory. Since McCarthy took over as head coach in 2006, the Packers are 56-10 (.848) when they have 25 or more rushing attempts in a game. The Packers have averaged 31.7 rushing attempts per game since Week
9, tied for No. 4 in the league over that span. In its opening eight games, Green Bay averaged 24.4 attempts per game (No. 23 in the NFL).
Next on the docket: Snapping their streak of games without a 100-yard individual rusher. It’s been 42 regular-season games since Brandon Jackson ran for 115 yards at Washington on Oct. 10, 2010, although Starks did put up a 123-yard game against Philadelphia in the NFC Wild Card playoffs on Jan. 9, 2011.
Going to Greg: Wide receiver Greg Jennings’ days with the Packers may be numbered, as he heads toward offseason unrestricted free agency, but now that’ he’s healthy after missing eight games (including seven straight) with a lower abdominal muscle tear, quarterback Aaron Rodgers wants to get him more involved in the offense. And, he has to, given what Rodgers is seeing on film.
As I watched the film back, it’s amazing how many times he’s open. He is an excellent route runner. Not getting the ball all the time, I know, it’s got to be frustrating for him know he’s open almost every single time,” Rodgers said on his weekly radio show on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com Thursday. “I’ve been talking to myself after every game. Like, ‘Greg probably needs some more opportunities here.’ I mean I had him wide open on a touchdown in the second quarter (against Tennessee) and missed him. Overthrown by a yard or two … a bad throw.”
Jennings enters Sunday’s regular-season finale having caught only 28 passes for 246 yards and two touchdowns on the season, all career lows by wide margins. Since returning from Nov. 1 surgery, he’s caught 16 passes, including a season-high seven against the Titans. With Nelson set to return after missing the past three games with a hamstring injury, Rodgers will now have to figure out how to get Jennings the ball more while re-acclimating Nelson to the offense.
“With those guys, you’ve just got to get them some opportunities,” Rodgers said. “Get them back in the mix, get ‘em feeling good and get them a ball early and they’ll be fine.”
If Cobb doesn’t play, Rodgers said the transition offensively shouldn’t be that difficult, thanks to Jennings’ versatility.
“I think if Randall doesn’t play, (it will mean) moving Greg back into the slot and giving him a lot of the plays that he’s used to running,” Rodgers said. “He’s been our slot guy and run a lot of routes from in there. That’s the beauty of Greg Jennings, he can be as effective inside as outside and there’s hardly and receivers that can do that, so he’ll be fine.”
All Day: Even though Dom Capers has been on the job for 30 years, and he knows you can’t just erase big plays that don’t go your way, the Packers defensive coordinator still went there after the Packers’ Dec. 2 victory over the Vikings, in which Peterson ran roughshod for 210 yards on 21 carries. Of those yards, 153 came on three runs, during which the Packers’ tackling was atrocious – even when grading on the curve that they were trying to corral the best running back in the game.
“If you’re off a little bit, it’s him. It was our poorest tackling game,” Capers said. “Our guys understand that we’ve got to tackle better (this game). What did he have? He had 18 runs for 50-some yards and three for 150. Those three for 150 comes down to two, three guys missing tackles on him.”
The numbers back Capers up. While their missed tackles are down – the team is averaging just 3.8 per game after averaging 6.3 per game in 2011, according to ProFootballFocus.com – the Packers missed a season-high seven tackles in the last meeting, four of them on Peterson. Two misses came from safety Morgan Burnett, who whiffed on both of Peterson’s longest runs (82- and 43-yarders) after showing solid improvement as a tackler for most of the year.
“We have to tackle better,” veteran defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said. “We watched the film and on his big plays, we missed a lot of tackles. We just have to do a better job of wrapping him up. We had guys in position, and he’s a great back. He breaks a lot of tackles. We have to do better gang-tackling. We have to get more than one person to the ball.”
Pondering the QB position: As good as Peterson was in the first meeting, the Vikings were doomed by two backbreaking interceptions thrown by quarterback Christian Ponder to Burnett, both of which squelched potential scoring opportunities. Per ProFootballFocus.com, Ponder ranks 37th out of 39 quarterbacks in their grading system, with only two positive grades on the year. Much of his problem has been when faced with pressure, as he’s completing only 40 percent of his passes when under duress.
That might explain Capers’ approach with him. In his three meetings with Ponder, Capers has dialed up a 65 percent blitz rate, which is more than double the NFL average, and well above the Packers’ own average. In those three games, including the Dec. 2 game, Ponder has five interceptions against only three touchdowns and has a 37 percent completion rate when blitzed.
“I’ve always felt that this is a quarterback-driven league and you’ve got to find some way to be disruptive on that quarterback. That’s our base philosophy is try to stop the run, make the game one-dimensional and try to disrupt the quarterback,” Capers said. “Morgan’s two interceptions were as big of plays as you can get and they totally changed the momentum of that game around. That’s the way these games normally are. You’ve got to try to somewhere in there make two, three, four plays that change the momentum around. That took two possessions away from them and took points off the board on probably both of them.”
After that game, Ponder took the blame for the loss, and he stood by that position when asked earlier in the week about it.
“As a team, we were playing really well in that game and we’re up going into the second half and everything. It was tough, but kind of like we have to do this week, I put it behind myself,” Ponder said. “I watched the film on Monday and moved on and treat it just like this past week where we watched the film against Houston and moved on. It’s behind us and obviously I learned some things from that game. The flight home was not a fun one.”
If Capers goes blitz-happy again, one option would be slot corner Casey Hayward, who was sent on a season-high 13 blitzes last week against the Titans, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
Moses makes move: The return of Clay Matthews to the starting lineup two weeks ago was met with much rejoicing, and with good reason. The Packers are a different defense when he is on the field. Not only has Matthews registered three sacks in the two games since he returned from his four-game, hamstring-induced absence, but the run defense has picked up as well. Chicago managed only 83 yards on 23 carries, and Tennessee mustered only 79 yards on 22 attempts.
But one unexpected development upon Matthews’ return has been that rookie Dezman Moses’ playing time hasn’t dropped as much as one might have assumed it would. He certainly played a higher percentage of snaps during Matthews’ time on the sideline, but he played 32 of 55 snaps against the Bears and 37 of 60 against the Titans. For comparison, incumbent starter Erik Walden played 26 and 29 snaps, respectively, in those two games.
“I’m trying to get Moses more involved. That’s probably the bigger point there,” outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene said when asked why Walden’s snaps are down. “Every time I put Moses in, good things seem to happen. He’s hitting people, he’s striking people, he’s had some nice pass rushes. I’m wanting to get him more reps in the game. We’re in this thing to win and we truly are going to put the best people on the field that give us the best chance of winning that snap and every consecutive snap after that.”
Added Matthews: “Obviously coming in as a free agent, it's difficult to not only make a team but get some playing time. Now he's a starter for this team and he's playing very well – (with a) number of sacks, number of big plays and tackles. … I think he's got a lot of potential. I think he'll continue to grow and continue to develop especially because he's such a young player.”
Just as defensive end Mike Neal’s growth has helped Matthews and the defense as a whole – the two frequently line up on the same side and run games together – having Moses play well on the opposite side would make opposing quarterbacks that much more skittish. Moses can’t simply be happy to be here anymore; he must produce.
“It’s a blessing to have the opportunity, and I’m still trying to make the best of it,” Moses said. “I’m learning a bunch each week, each game, each day, so it’s just a learning process for me. I’m trying to do my job and be where I’m supposed to be. I’m a part of this defense, and I’m held accountable, and I’d like to be a guy who is where he’s supposed to be. There’s still a long way to go, but I’m working and I’m improving each week.”
Both teams have something to play for here. It’s more or less win-or-go-home for the Vikings, who’d need significant help to reach the postseason with a loss and 9-7 record. The Packers, meanwhile, would like a first-round playoff bye before opening postseason play at home at Lambeau Field in NFC Divisional play. They’d also like to avoid a third meeting with Peterson & Co. In the first meeting, quarterback play was the difference. Despite Peterson running wild, Ponder’s mistakes sunk the Vikings. Rodgers, meanwhile, kept the Packers together, even after they coughed up a 10-0 lead and trailed 14-10. The guess here is it’s the fulcrum of the game again. Packers 24, Vikings 20. (Season record: 9-6)
– Jason Wilde
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