Tice picks least-used tailback

The player who has logged the fewest carries in Minnesota's four-man tailback rotation will get the start in the most important game on the Vikings' schedule to this point.

In somewhat of a surprise, coach Mike Tice will start Michael Bennett Sunday at Green Bay, perhaps in an effort to pull the Vikings out of a nosedive that has seen their once healthy NFC North lead whittled to one game over the Packers and Detroit Lions.

Bennett, 26, who has missed 13 games to injuries since a 2002 Pro Bowl season in which he rushed for a career-best 1,296 yards, has started just one game this season. And in that game, against Tennessee on Oct. 24, he gave way to Onterrio Smith after only one snap.

Among Minnesota's cadre of tailbacks, certainly the NFL's deepest, rookie Mewelde Moore, Smith and even short-yardage specialist Moe Williams all have more rushes and more yards than Bennett's 11 carries and 38 yards for one touchdown. Smith, generally acknowledged as the team's top back, served a four-game suspension earlier this season because of a repeat violation of the NFL substance abuse policy.

Tice didn't offer much insight into his decision, except to note that Smith bruised his shoulder in Monday night's loss at Indianapolis. Smith, however, is not listed on the league injury report and said his shoulder is not a factor. While he will not start, Smith, who rushed for 80 yards against the Colts, is likely to get considerable playing time.

A four-year veteran and former first-round draft choice, Bennett has privately chafed over his lack of action and is expected to seek a postseason trade. He declined interview requests this week. The former Wisconsin star missed the first five games this season with a knee injury, and a broken foot limited him to eight games in 2003. When Bennett returned from his knee injury this year, Tice publicly noted that he would have to "earn his way" back into the starting lineup.

In his three appearances, Bennett has not carried more than five times. Since the outset of '03, he has just one game with more than 15 carries, and he has not rushed more than 20 times since November 2002.

With wide receiver Randy Moss sidelined for a second straight outing, the Vikings are expected to focus on a more balanced offense, as was the case Monday night. Minnesota is the 11th-ranked team in the league in rushing offense.

The divisional battle with the Packers is key for many reasons, not the least of which is that the Vikings have dropped two straight games after a sizzling 5-1 start in a slump that has evoked memories of last season. Minnesota lost seven of its final 10 games and failed to qualify for the playoffs in 2003 after opening 6-0.

A loss to the Packers would leave each at 5-4, tied for the division lead, and the Lions, who play at Jacksonville, could make it a threesome. A Minnesota loss also would cast further focus on Tice's future. He's in the final year of his contract, although the team has an option for 2005.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.