Playoff Preview: Vikings Offense vs Packers Defense
By Brian E Murphy, PackersInsider.com senior analyst
~Five weeks ago, the Minnesota Vikings took a lead into halftime at Lambeau Field against the Green Bay Packers.
Thanks to some T.J. Rubley-like play in the second half by Christian Ponder, the Packers were able to weather the storm and come back and defeat the Vikings. Had they not, the Vikings would have left Green Bay with the division lead.
Four games later, all wins by the Vikings, Ponder is a much more confident quarterback and the Vikings will take the field Saturday night believing not that they can win, but that they are going to win.
The Packers, on the other hand, have to shake the feeling that they’re headed down that one-and-done path again, like last year and the 2009 season. If not for the win at Philadelphia in the 2010 Wildcard game, Aaron Rodgers’ Packers might be 0-3 lifetime in the playoffs. They are not nearly as dominant as many a Packer fan wishes them to be.
This will be the third game between these two teams in less than a six week time span. They each know each other very well, and it will mostly come down to execution, timing of the play-calling, and the breaks of the game.
Whether they are the close calls by the refs (Minnesota got most of them in week 17, forcing McCarthy to throw challenge flags but never Leslie Frazier), the fortunate bounces of the ball (remember Ponder’s tipped pass that was up for grabs, only to see two or three Packer defenders fail to get it and a Viking receiver use the ground to catch it for a gain), the good and bad breaks often help a close game go one way or the other.
Looking at the Vikings offense versus the Packers defense, the Vikings have some advantages obviously. First and foremost, the Packers defense has been labeled as “soft” by many scouts and opponents, and the Packers defense has done little to dispel that label.
Obviously Adrian Peterson has torched more team than the Packers. But in two games against the Packers this season, he’s averaging 7.4 yards per carry and has 409 yards. He’s also added a touchdown receiving against Green Bay, who somehow forgot about #28 after the fake hand-off.
The Packers have invested heavily on the defensive line in the past few years, with B.J. Raji, Jerel Worthy, and Mike Neal all being high picks. Ryan Pickett is the unsung hero in the middle, but because his range is limited, he’s mostly only effective on short yardage plays inside. Raji played very well last week in Minnesota with a few tackles for loss. But Neal, Worthy, C.J. Wilson, and Mike Daniels didn’t do enough to keep Peterson from getting to the second level for much of the game and they will have to do better Saturday night.
The linebackers, particularly the inside linebackers A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones, will be the keys to limiting Peterson.
Hawk had a poor game last week, but he’s brought it well all season long. Jones, on the other hand, is not a natural inside backer and too often takes the wrong gaps. Against Peterson, that leads to big gains.
Clay Matthews and the other outside backers Eric Walden, Dezman Moses, and Frank Zombo, have to do a better job of containing Peterson around the edges. They need to hold the edge and force him back inside. The problem with this is that the defensive backs, as a whole, are very weak in run support. There is no strong safety in the box who seems capable of stopping Peterson consistently one-on-one.
The cornerbacks Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, Casey Hayward, and Davon House if he was out there, are all of the thin or small variety. They’re not big hitters like you see in Seattle or San Francisco.
Jerron McMillian is built strong, and M.D. Jennings is willing, but as a whole, this unit’s tackling leaves a lot to be desired, which is obvious in what they’ve put on film against Peterson twice this past month. It had to be better Saturday.
To do it, defensive coordinator Dom Capers is going to have to do what Fritz Shurmur did against Barry Sanders and the Lions back in 1994.
In that game, with Sanders in the middle of his prime, Shurmur made some adjustments and the result was they held Barry Sanders to an all-time, by far, worst game. Sanders finished the game with -1 yards total on 13 carries.
For this strategy to work, it means the defensive backs are going to have to hold up on one-on-one coverage. It takes a lot of run blitzing, and fundamental tackling, for it to work, not backfire. There will be guys into the backfield early and often, but if they miss tackles, big plays can happen.
For the Reggie White Packers back in ’94, they didn’t whiff, even on the slipperiest of backs. They at least held Sanders up, and gang tackled him down. We’ve seen too many Packer DB’s completely whiff on Peterson. Last week, Morgan Burnett was brought up and he found the gap in the OL, and came in untouched towards Peterson. Unfortunately for him and the Packers, Peterson cut around him untouched.
This will also, in theory, force Leslie Frazier to keep Kyle Rudolph in as an extra blocker. As a receiver, he’s a tough matchup with his enormous size and catching ability up high.
This strategy also could expose the cornerbacks on an island deep. We saw 5′ 10″ rookie receiver Jarius Wright get behind Sam Shields for a deep completion from Ponder. We also saw Tramon Williams struggle with the physicality of Viking receivers Michael Jenkins and Jerome Simpson.
I expect Capers to take a page out of Shurmur’s 1994 playbook. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the same tough personnel.
While there are a few tough guys on the Packers defense, too many of the guys at LB and DB are soft, finesse guys who prefer to avoid big contact than get their hands dirty. I wish I was wrong, but I can only go by what I’ve seen and what they’ve put on the field.
Another interesting thing is how the Packers have handled Matt Forte over the years. They have always, until this year with the arrival of WR Brandon Marshall, made stopping Forte the number one and two priority, and they have bottled him up better than any team.
Even if the Packers can’t bottle Peterson up like they did Forte, or Sanders, the Packers can still win if Peterson has a great game, as we saw back in week 14 when Peterson ripped off 210 yards. The problem is it took an extremely horrible game from Ponder to make that happen. The key will be for the Packers to swarm to the ball, and to limit him to 5-10 yard runs, and not the 15-20 yard runs he seemingly enjoys all the time against this defense.
Desmond Bishop’s value is really shown in games like this. With Bishop, the Packers have at least shown they are capable of limiting Peterson. In the game at Green Bay last year, won easily by the Packers, Peterson was held to 51 yards rushing on a 3.6 per carry average, and his longest run was 13 yards. Other than that game, however, Peterson has basically owned this defense.
That’s why Capers has to do something to justify him being labeled by many as one of the best defensive minds in the game.
He can’t just cross his fingers and hope the same guys suddenly develop toughness, proper tacking fundamentals, technique and discipline.
However, and here’s the scary part for Packer fans, even if Capers makes the right calls and gets the DB’s freed up and to Peterson near or behind the line of scrimmage, the finesse defensive backs Williams, Burnett, Hayward, and Shields have to consistently come up with strong tackles time after time.
The ironic thing here is that following the loss in the playoffs last year to the Giants, where there were multiple missed tackles on lesser players than Peterson, McCarthy and Capers made “tackling” their number one issue for improvement on defense in 2012.
We did not see the results in 2012, but now it’s 2013. Will the results of their labor bear fruit in this new year?