The Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers will meet for the fourth time in 11 months on Sunday night at Mall of America Field, but things have changed quite a bit for both teams since they faced off in the wild-card round of the NFC playoffs last January.
Christian Ponder will likely start at quarterback for the Vikings, but it might be a one-week engagement with Josh Freeman out because of a concussion. Greg Jennings became the latest Packer to switch sides in the rivalry. And Aaron Rodgers is relying as much on a nasty offensive line and a productive running game as he is on a receiving corps that’s been hit hard by injuries.
As the Packers try to extend their lead in the NFC North and the Vikings try to get their season headed in the right direction following a 1-5 start, ESPN Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and ESPN Packers reporter Rob Demovsky got together to break down the matchup.
Ben Goessling: Rob, one of these teams has the sixth-ranked rushing game and the third-ranked run defense in the league. And it’s not Minnesota. Those two things have been fixtures for the Vikings for years, but they’re struggling to open holes for Adrian Peterson, who has looked too anxious at times to turn everything into a big gain, and on a few occasions they’ve been whipped up front by opposing offensive lines. How strange has it been to watch the Packers play so physically, and what kind of an advantage will that create for them on Sunday?
Rob Demovsky: It’s like the Bizarro World around here. The Packers haven’t run the ball this well in a decade, not since the days of Ahman Green. And they haven’t had this kind of run defense since 2009, when they led the NFL in the category. But it’s probably the way they have to win now, considering all the skill-position guys – Randall Cobb, James Jones, Jermichael Finley – they’re missing on offense and all the pass-rushers – Clay Matthews, Nick Perry -- they’re missing on defense.
I’m used to seeing the Vikings run the ball like crazy. Are the problems at quarterback the major reason the running game hasn’t taken off, or are there other issues at work?
Goessling: Ah, yes, the old U-71 package with Kevin Barry. And then they got gun-shy in the famous fourth-and-26 game against the Eagles. Sorry, I’m probably hitting some nerves for the Packers fans out there. Moving on …
It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what hasn’t worked for the Vikings this season, but I’d start with two guys they paid handsomely over the winter -- right tackle Phil Loadholt and fullback Jerome Felton. Peterson has done his best work running behind those two guys, but Loadholt hasn’t been anywhere near the road grader he was last season, and Felton has had trouble as a lead blocker since returning from his three-game suspension at the beginning of the season. It also seems like Pro Bowl left tackle Matt Kalil and center John Sullivan (who was a Pro Bowl alternate) aren’t playing at the same level they were last season. But yes, if the Vikings could throw the ball and make teams pay for putting nine men in the box, they’d have a little more margin for error. That’s got to be on the quarterback situation; the Vikings spent plenty of money trying to upgrade their offense over the winter, but without a guy who can make it all go, it’s not going to work.
Speaking of the guy who makes it all go for the Packers, am I right in assuming Rodgers is going to be hanging on tightly this week to what Greg Jennings said about him over the summer? Those two can play nice all they want with their comments, but Jennings’ earlier remarks would seem like the type that would activate the famous chip on Rodgers’ shoulder.
Demovsky: It was funny, Rodgers talked at length this week about being focused on this game, this team -- and not about what anyone outside the organization (hint: Jennings) had to say. But when someone asked him how he could forget about that, he came back with a classic response. He said that he didn’t say anything about forgetting, just focusing. Now, does this rival the intensity behind the 2009 games against the Brett Favre-led Vikings? Not even close. But knowing Rodgers, he’ll have a little something extra for this one.
What’s the feeling about Jennings’ contributions so far? Do the Vikings feel like they’re getting their $45 million worth?
Goessling: Yikes. That does sound like a classic Rodgers response. And with the shape this Vikings secondary is in -- especially without safety Harrison Smith -- that might be bad news for defensive coordinator Alan Williams.
Coach Leslie Frazier has raved about what Jennings has meant to their receiving corps, the work he’s done to mentor young receivers such as Cordarrelle Patterson and the time he’s spent with Ponder. He’s had moments, such as the short pass he turned into a 70-yard touchdown against the Steelers, when he’s looked like the player he was in Green Bay. But it’s hard to gauge exactly what he’s done, because there’s been so much uncertainty at quarterback. He’s played with three starters in six games; he had the same number in seven seasons with the Packers. He’s also so technical as a route-runner -- and so good in small spaces – that I think he’s really at his best when he has a quarterback who understands the details in his game and can use those to exploit a defense.
Maybe Ponder can get closer to that on Sunday. He played one of his best games last December when the Vikings needed to beat the Packers for a playoff berth. Can he recreate that against what looks like a tougher defense, or will he struggle, especially now that it looks like Casey Hayward might be back?
Demovsky: This is a much different defense than Ponder saw last season, even if Hayward doesn’t return. The Packers are so much deeper in the secondary now with the emergence of Davon House, who had his first career interception Sunday against the Browns, and rookie Micah Hyde. Sam Shields has become their new shutdown corner, but that’s not to say Tramon Williams still isn’t a factor. He’s actually playing some in the slot now, so it’s a new role for him. As good as Hayward was last season, I’m not sure he’s essential to their pass defense right now. The Packers have only three interceptions on the season, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the floodgates open fairly soon.
One of the matchups I’m most interested in is Jared Allen against the Packers’ new left tackle, David Bakhtiari. Bakhtiari has played well, especially for a rookie, but he hasn’t yet had to pass-protect with the noise inside of a dome. And you know Allen will have some tricks for the rookie. How much do you think the Vikings will try to key on that matchup?
Goessling: I'm sure they're hopeful it's a productive one for them. Allen hasn't looked like the same guy this season -- although he still is on pace for double-digit sacks -- and the Vikings have had enough trouble getting to the quarterback that they've had to blitz a little more, which typically isn't a smart strategy against Rodgers. But Allen always seems to do his best work against the Packers, particularly in the Metrodome, and if the Packers leave Bakhtiari alone against Allen, he could have his hands full.
See you on Sunday night, Rob. Soak up those Metrodome memories. With these two teams in this building, something interesting usually happens.