Packers-Vikings: 5 things to watch

Packers-Vikings: 5 things to watch

THE BASICS

The teams: The Green Bay Packers (7-3) vs. the Minnesota Vikings (4-6).

The time: Noon CST Sunday.

The place: TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis.

The TV coverage:  FOX – WITI (Channel 6) in Milwaukee, WMSN (Channel 47) in Madison and WLUK (Channel 11) in Green Bay.

The announcers: Kenny Albert and Daryl Johnston the booth with Tony Siragusa reporting from the sidelines.

The coaches: Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy is 95-53-1 (including 6-5 in the postseason) in his ninth season as the Packers’ coach and as an NFL head coach. The Vikings’ Mike Zimmer is 4-6 in first year as the Vikings’ coach and as an NFL head coach.

The series:  The Packers lead the all-time regular-season series, 56-48-2, and the Packers have won eight of the last 11 meetings, including a 42-10 blowout victory at Lambeau Field on Oct. 2.

The rankings:  The Packers’ ninth-ranked offense is No. 18 in rushing and No. 8 in passing. Their 25th-ranked defense is No. 29 against the run and No. 13 against the pass. The Vikings 30th-ranked offense is No. 12 in rushing and No. 29 in passing. Their 12th-ranked defense is No. 21 against the run and No. 8 against the pass.

The line:  The Packers are favored by 9 points.

The injury report: Packers: Out –  TE Brandon Bostick (hip). Questionable –  CB Jarrett Bush (groin), LB Nick Perry (shoulder), DE Datone Jones (ankle), OLB Jay Elliott (hamstring).  Probable –  LB Clay Matthews (groin), G T.J. Lang (ankle), G Josh Sitton (toe). Vikings: Out –  RB Matt Asiata (concussion). Questionable –  DT Sharrif Floyd (knee), WR Greg Jennings (rib), T Matt Kalil (knee), WR Jarius Wright (hamstring). Probable –  LB Anthony Barr (knee), T Mike Harris (ankle), RB Jerick McKinnon (back),  DE Scott Crichton (hip), DE Everson Griffen (neck), CB Xavier Rhodes (ankle), TE Kyle Rudolph (abdomen, groin).

THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

The great outdoors:  From 1961 until 1981, both the Vikings and the Minnesota Twins played their home games at dual-purpose Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minn. Then the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome opened in 1982, and both teams moved to downtown Minneapolis – and years later, the land where the Met once stood became the Mall of America.

Now, with the Metrodome having been torn down and the Vikings’ new stadium rising upon that site – it’s set to open for the 2016 season – the Packers and Vikings will do battle outdoors in Minnesota for the first time since Nov. 29, 1981, when the Packers intercepted Vikings quarterback Tommy Kramer five times in a 35-23 victory.

“It’s going to be different,” veteran cornerback Tramon Williams said of playing outdoors. “Just knowing the Vikings, knowing the atmosphere, I think you’re still going to get that atmosphere but it’s going to be a little different because it’s not in a dome. But this is a division of teams that play in the cold weather. Obviously, you’ve got a couple of dome teams, but we’re in the cold weather. That’s what we’re used to.

“It’s not going to be any excuses, it’s not going to be something that we’re not used to.”

One thing few players on the Packers’ roster are used to is TCF Bank Stadium, home of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. As part of the NFL allowing the Vikings to play their home games there for two years, the stadium had heated coils installed beneath the field, as the Packers have at Lambeau Field. One major issue with the field when the Vikings were forced to play there in 2010 following the Metrodome roof collapse was that it became frozen and ice-hard. Those conditions led to the premature end of then-Vikings quarterback Brett Favre’s final season, as he suffered a concussion during a game against Chicago.

“The one game I did play up there, they said they had a heated field, but it wasn’t heated. I think it was my sophomore or junior year. It was straight ice,” said Packers nickel back Micah Hyde, who played at TCF Bank Stadium in college at Iowa. “That’s the coldest game I ever played in my life.

“I just get my two cents in, let everybody know that may be the case, but we all go out there for pregame and test it out anyway.”

Teddy Ballgame:  The Vikings aren’t asking much of rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. They just want him to be as good as Aaron Rodgers.

OK, maybe not right away. But Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer has liked what he’s seen from his young QB – even when things haven’t gone well, like last week against Chicago – and now he wants to see more.

“I think he’s improving every day. We see him in practice every day (with) his understanding of the offense, the way he’s reading defenses and the way he’s performing,” Zimmer said in a conference call with Wisconsin reporters at midweek. “He needs to take the next step as far as continually making plays with the ball – kind of like Rodgers does. We’re pleased with his progress to this point. He’s a great kid, he’s a hard worker. He’s got a lot of really good intangibles.

“I’m not a fortune-teller, but I just go by what I see and every day in practice: This guy wows me. He’s going to continue to get bigger, stronger, better knowledge of the NFL defenses, because that’s what he is: He’s a worker. Any deficiency that he has, he works extremely hard at it. We’re hopeful to that extent, and I know that Teddy is, too.”

That Bridgewater is. His best game was in his first NFL start, when he completed 19 of 30 passes for 317 yards and ran for a touchdown in the Vikings’ 41-28 victory over Atlanta. But he wasn’t able to go four days later against the Packers because of a sprained ankle, and former first-round pick Christian Ponder was poor in his place. Bridgewater brings a 75.0 passer rating into Sunday’s game, but also hope that he can be like Rodgers one day.

“I can learn a lot from Aaron, being a young guy. He’s been playing some great football this year,” Bridgewater said in a conference call. “You talk about 28 touchdowns and three interceptions with a passer rating of 120, that’s off the charts. Every time I watch him, he’s just out there spinning it. He’s in full command of his team.

“It’s pretty cool watching him, and it’s going to be exciting playing against him.”

Although the Packers didn’t face Bridgewater the first time around, they did prep for him, thinking he’d be able to go despite the ankle injury. Thus, they won’t be ill-prepared for him this time.

“You guys remember the last time we played them, we weren’t sure whether we were going to get Bridgewater, so we prepared all week for him,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “Against Atlanta, they had a big game offensively, and he had a big game, so it was quite impressive, especially for a rookie quarterback. They scored a lot of points, he made a lot of big plays.

“You see him make some throws that catch your eye. They’ve done a pretty nice job running the ball, which I think helps a young quarterback, if they can mix that run and pass. He gets the ball out of his hands fairly quick, and especially early in the game try to get him going, you’ll see the ball with quick three steps and screens. It looks to me like he’s a talented young guy that obvious he’s gained experience since the last time that we were getting ready for him. Hopefully we can keep him from having another one of those real impressive games.”

Loosening up the tight ends:  While wide receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb remain the focal points of the Packers’ passing game, and now running back Eddie Lacy is getting in on the act, the tight ends continue to bide their time in hopes of getting more involved. And over the past two weeks, although the expansion of their offensive roles has been incremental, they have done more to help the cause.

Against Chicago on Nov. 9, two tight ends – Brandon Bostick and Andrew Quarless – had the first two touchdown catches in what would end up being a 55-14 rout. And last Sunday against Philadelphia, the tight ends were vital again early, converting a pair of crucial third-downs – a 24-yard Quarless catch on third-and-18 and a Richard Rodgers 19-yard catch on third-and-10 – en route to a 6-yard Davante Adams touchdown catch.

“I just try to do my job and improve every week. That’s all I can do,” Rodgers said of his limited role. “I just try to make the most of my opportunities. I just happened to be in a situation where I was one-on-one with the safety(on the third-down play) and I was able to take advantage of it and Aaron found me.”

Entering Sunday, the Packers’ tight ends have a combined 31 receptions for 319 yards and four touchdowns. Those numbers aren’t likely to explode anytime soon, but as long as the group makes the occasional play when called upon, the offense will be better off.

“As long as our guys continue to do their job, continue to get better, then opportunities will come,” tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot said. “All that being said, yeah, it’s good to see they’re getting opportunities and the quarterback trusts them and we’re moving the ball around. Like anybody out there, they want to be able to contribute to the maximum degree, and I think that I’m always OK with us doing our job and at the very least running the route the right way. You can’t control where the ball goes. But we control things that are within our control, and that’s being where we’re supposed to be when we’re supposed to be there, catching the ball when it’s thrown to us.”

On the right track:  Bryan Bulaga was the one offensive lineman who was left out of the Pitch Perfect hysteria, as guards T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton, left tackle David Bakhtiari and last year’s starting right tackle, Don Barclay, all make cameos in the sequel to their favorite a cappella musical comedy. But after back-to-back season-ending injuries that landed  him on injured reserve the past two years – a midseason hip injury in 2012 and a torn anterior cruciate ligament in training camp last year – Bulaga has regained his pre-injury form and has been vital to an offensive line that Aaron Rodgers believes has been the key to the offense’s recent resurgence.

“He’s playing good football,” offensive line coach James Campen said of Bulaga. Asked if Bulaga is back to where he was before his injuries, Campen replied, “Oh yeah, I think he’s better than when Bryan was Bryan. He’s a better player than he was when he got hurt the last time. He is right now. He’s doing a good job.

“How do you get better? You work. He’s a worker. The guy works his ass off. He’s a true pro. He wants to be good and he is.”

For Bulaga, being part of the line again – even if he’s not on the silver screen – has been a joy, as he was reminded just how much he loves the game during his time off. In fact, missing the Packers’ Week 2 win over the New York Jets with a comparatively minor knee injury – a sprained MCL that might have sidelined others for longer than a week – irritated him to no end.

“I’m loving every minute of it, to be honest with you. Spending two years on IR – that sucked,” Bulaga said. “To finally be out here and helping your team out and winning games and playing good football and staying out there consistently, that’s fun.

“I hate missing any time. This year, when I got a little nicked up in Seattle, I was pissed that I had to miss the Jets game. I love playing the game, I love being here with these guys. It’s hard to watch. It’s very hard to watch. It’s not fun. Just the camaraderie and being around the guys and going out there and winning football games, there’s nothing better than that.”

And if Bulaga continues to play the way he has in recent weeks, his free agency after the season will be lucrative, whether it’s the Packers or someone else paying him.

“That’s really not on my mind right now. I’m more worried about just trying to be as consistent as I can for this team week in and week out and playing at a high level and being accountable to the guys next to me,” Bulaga said. “That’s my goal right now. Putting together a resume, I don’t really look into that. I’m more worried about playing good football and helping the team win. The rest will take care of itself.”

Casey at the bat:  Two weeks, two touchdowns for Casey Hayward – and that’s even with his role in the Packers’ defense diminishing. Imagine what the third-year cornerback might be doing if he were a full-time, every-down player.

“I call him a ball magnet because the ball finds certain guys,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said of Hayward, who had an 82-yard interception return for a touchdown against Chicago two weeks ago and a 49-yard fumble return for a TD last week against Philadelphia. “Charles Woodson was one that was here. Ed Reed was a guy that the ball just finds. Asante Samuel, the ball just finds him. The ball finds Casey, and he has the ability of catching it. You try to get as many of those type guys on the field.”

The problem for Hayward last season was that he was seldom on the field. A hamstring injury he suffered just before the start of training camp was an issue all year long, and he wound up playing in only three games before landing on IR. After leading the team in interceptions with six as a rookie second-round pick in 2012, Hayward is back to his playmaking ways – even if both his TDs came in garbage time of blowout victories.

“Some guys over a period of time just show up. And you’ve seen Casey show up,” Capers said. “Anytime he’s around the ball, he’s got a chance to come up with it. You’ve seen him do that. The last two weeks he’s had the interception return for a touchdown and he’s had the fumble recovered for a touchdown. Prior to that, you’d seen him make a couple other interceptions. And he did that his rookie year. So that’s one of the things we like about Casey.”

With Capers going with rookie first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at safety full-time and ending his job-sharing arrangement with Micah Hyde, Hyde has been getting the majority of snaps as the nickel defensive back. Hayward, who had been splitting time with Davon House as the first defensive back off the bench in the nickel, is now seeing most of his action when the Packers go to six defensive backs in their dime package.

“I’m not sure how it plays out. We’re trying different personnel each week,” Hayward said. “We’ve been working in the same personnel the last two weeks. It’s been working.”

Even if his role is limited, Hayward said, he expects to continue to make plays at the same rate.

“I feel like that’s how I’ve been since I’ve been playing cornerback from college to now. Ever since I’ve been here, I’ve been a playmaker,” he said. “I prepare well, I think. I watch a lot of film. I know what stuff is coming before it happens sometimes. Sometimes I’m in the right spot at the right time.

“I find the ball, I feel like. The ball don’t find me. I go out there and make the plays. Hopefully, I can continue to do it each and every week or whenever my number is called.”

THE PREDICTION

If you flipped through channels on Thursday night and happened upon the winless Oakland Raiders beating the previously smoking-hot Kansas City Chiefs, you know that the danger – of a home underdog against a seemingly on-a-roll opponent – is real. That said, Alex Smith is no Aaron Rodgers, and given the way the Packers QB is playing, it’s a safe bet that he delivers the team’s third straight triumph and seventh in its last eight games. But the guess here is that it’ll be tougher than expected. Packers 33, Vikings 24. (Season record: 7-3.)

– Jason Wilde

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