As Dom Capers recalled on Friday, "Hey, we did it last year, held him to 50-some yards," the Green Bay Packers' defensive coordinator said of last year's 45-7 victory at Lambeau Field in which Peterson was held to 51 yards on 14 attempts.
Stopping Peterson doesn't call for Superman. It does call for a super group effort. The defensive linemen and linebackers absolutely must stay in their gaps. If there's a defender in every gap, Peterson will have to fight for every yard he gains. If a gap is left free, either with the defender being blown out of it or by losing discipline, Peterson is bound to see it and explode through the void.
"A game like this, you have to be real disciplined," defensive end Ryan Pickett said. "I've been playing against him for years now. You have to be disciplined, you have to be gap sound. You can't leave your gap to go try and make a play, because wherever that open gap is, he finds it. Just watching him on film, it's like he just waits and he watches the d-line and then he has a real good feel and vision. If you go in, he's going to go out and get into your gap. You have to be disciplined. That's the only way you can try to contain him."
If Peterson gets through the front seven, it's going to be up to the defensive backs to prevent an explosive gain from turning into a game-changer.
"You can see it in his face that he's looking to deliver the blow more so than take it," safety Morgan Burnett said. "He has good vision and he's not going to only use his power to run you over but he's capable of making good cuts and making moves in the open field."
In 10 career games against the Packers, Peterson has carried 202 times for 1,033 yards and seven touchdowns. In the game at the Metrodome last season, the Packers won 33-27 despite Peterson's 175 yards. Five of his 33 career 100-yard games have come against Green Bay. A first-round pick in 2007, Peterson has 7,988 rushing yards. That's the seventh-most in NFL history for a player in his first six seasons. Peterson, of course, has five more games to add to that tally. While Eric Dickerson's 9,915 yards is well out of reach, there's a good chance he'll pass No. 6 Earl Campbell (8,296) and No. 5 Walter Payton (8,386).
Numbers aside, Peterson is arguably the NFL's most complete back since Payton. With the ball in his hands, he's as apt to run through a defender as run around him. He's got explosive open-field speed. He can also catch the football and stop a blitzer in his tracks.
"He's a rare guy where he attacks tacklers," Capers said. "He isn't going to wait for them to come tackle him, he attacks them. He's always seeking contact. You see him on the sideline, he's not going to run out of bounds."
The Packers will be without two of the top three or four run defenders, with outside linebacker Clay Matthews (hamstring) and defensive end C.J. Wilson (knee) on the sideline. The key to the game will be how the Packers replace Wilson, an underrated defender and a staple of their run-focused personnel groups. The reserve defensive linemen, Mike Neal, Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels, are on the team mostly for their pass-rushing ability.
"Well, hey, each week's a new challenge," Capers said about dealing with injuries. "We've had to face our share of that, just with what's gone on. A couple of those young guys are going to have to step up. Mike Neal will get more of a shot (and) Mike Daniels and Jerel have got to play well for us. We have to get big games out of Pick and B.J. (Raji), which we always count on those guys to be solid in terms of holding point, handling double-teams, being able to get off blocks. The big thing is we're going to have to be disciplined in our run fits and we're really going to have to pursue and get people to the ball."
The bar has been set high
Entering this season, Mike McCarthy's offenses had never finished outside the top 10 in the league rankings, which are based on yards, and no quarterback had averaged more points per start than Aaron Rodgers.
Entering Sunday's game, the Packers almost incredibly are 18th in yards. With the Packers ranked 13th with 26.3 points per game, Rodgers' 27.79 points per start trails Tom Brady's 27.95.
The loss of Joe Philbin and the impact of a reshuffled coaching staff is hard to measure, but it's hard to imagine there's no impact just from sheer experience. Only two offensive assistants are in the same role this season as last season: line coach James Campen and receivers coach Edgar Bennett.
Two things are easier to point to.
Injuries can't be discounted. Three-time Pro Bowl receiver Greg Jennings, one of the most explosive players in the game, returns on Sunday, but the Packers have lost running back Cedric Benson and right tackle Bryan Bulaga to season-ending injuries. Just how good is Jennings? Even though he's played in just 10 quarters this season, he leads the league with 30 catches of 40-plus yards since the start of the 2007 season.
The schedule has been a challenge. Not only have they faced the fifth-toughest schedule in the league, based on the records of the teams they've played and have yet to play, but they've faced a bunch of top defenses. San Francisco is ranked second, Chicago is third, Seattle is fifth, Houston is sixth and Arizona is seventh. That means five of their first 11 opponents boast top-shelf units. The Vikings' defense is ranked 11th, and the Packers face the Bears and Vikings again.
Still, Rodgers leads the NFL in passer rating (105.6), is second in touchdowns (28), third in third-down passer rating (112.2), sixth in completion percentage (66.5) and sixth in interception percentage (1.85). If the protection issues can be minimized and Jennings can regain form, the offense will be plenty dangerous for a playoff run.
Let Rodgers throw the ball!
That's been a common refrain from many fans this season in light of the offense's relative struggles and the inadequacies in the run game.
Two things on that:
First, the Packers aren't running the ball more often. This season, they're averaging 26.3 rushes per game. That's more than last season's 24.7 but right on par with the 26.4 carries per game from 2008 through 2011.
Second, the run game is critical to either beating the Cover-2 schemes that have stymied the Packers' offense or simply running them out of that defense.
"The more people pound you and they can run that ball up in there, there's always that urge to get that extra guy up in there to help out," Capers said. "You're just taking a guy further away from playing the run."
Or, to put it another way, Capers explained: "You saw us the week before against the Lions play an awful lot of two-high safety. Because you've got Calvin Johnson sitting there, so every time you walk that guy down in the box, you're one-on-one with Calvin Johnson."
If the Packers can ever run the ball, they'll put defenses in a bind. However, they're 23rd in the league with 3.8 yards per carry. Thus, they haven't made defenses pay for playing a man short at the line of scrimmage, and that's left seven defenders to cover the Packers' four or five targets.
Vikings coaches on key Packers
Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, on whether Matthews' absence makes a difference in how much he runs and passes the ball: "It does. It affects the schemes that we would want to employ to account for him and make sure that he doesn't wreck the game."
Musgrave, on Charles Woodson's absence: "I think they've been doing a good job mixing it up. Charles Woodson used to put his own spin on things a little bit last year and he really posed some problems for us in the second game last year, but with the guys they have playing that position right now, the rookie from Vandy (Casey Hayward), he has his own attributes too. It's not like we can take a deep breath."
Defensive coordinator Alan Williams, on the Packers' receiving corps: "The biggest test that we'll face all year, from a group standpoint. Again, you have to defend everybody they have on the football field. You can't just take away one guy. If you take away one guy, another guy will hurt you. We'll have to be honest, we'll have to play sound, fundamental football and everyone will have to stand up and do their job this week because they can hurt you."
Williams, on the similarities between Percy Harvin and Randall Cobb: "He's exceptional at what he does as Percy is. They present a challenge because they run like running backs when they're in the backfield and they run routes like receivers when they're out wide. Anytime a guy can do that, you have to decide whether to put a corner on him, put a linebacker on him, put a safety on him. You'd like a linebacker on him in the run game and you'd like a corner on him in the pass game and you can't do both so you have to pick your poison."
-- Green Bay has tried and tried to establish a running game. Minnesota's run defense is superb, and that starts on first down, where it's No. 2 with 3.56 yards allowed per attempt.
-- Games often are determined by situational football, and that's where the Packers have big edges. Minnesota's offense is 25th on third down (34.3 percent) and 19th in the red zone (50 percent touchdowns). Minnesota's defense is 27th on third down (43.1 percent) and 24th in the red zone (59.0 percent).
-- Green Bay is fourth in red zone efficiency, with touchdowns on 63.3 percent of its treks inside the opponents' 20-yard line. In its last three games, however, Green Bay is 1-for-5. The Packers didn't get inside the 20 against Detroit, failed on both treks inside the Giants' 20 and went 1-for-3 against Arizona.
-- While the Packers have been beat up all season, the Vikings have been practically a picture of health. Their starting offensive line will be intact for the 12th consecutive game, and they've missed just two games from their defensive front seven. This will be Green Bay's third consecutive game without right tackle Bryan Bulaga, and their defensive front seven will have lost 25 games by injuries (Desmond Bishop, 12; Nick Perry, six; Clay Matthews, three; C.J. Wilson, two; B.J. Raji, two).
-- The Vikings, of course, don't have a Super Bowl win to their credit but they've been one of the top teams in the NFL since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. They are sixth with 370 wins, third with 24 playoff berths and fourth with 16 playoff wins. Since 1993, however, Green Bay is second in wins (201) and first in playoff berths (14).
-- This has been a tightly contested series. Green Bay leads 53-48-1. That margin is built on the strength of the Packers having won four in a row by a score of 137-61 and nine of 12 -- including four season sweeps under McCarthy. In the last 19 regular-season games, 15 have been decided by a touchdown or less.
-- Rodgers has destroyed the Vikings in record fashion. According to the Elias Sports Bureau via the Packers' pregame information, Rodgers is the only quarterback since the 1970 merger to post three consecutive games with 140-plus ratings against the same team. In those games, Rodgers completed 75.8 percent for 886 yards with 11 touchdowns, no interceptions and a rating of 145.4.
-- The Packers have won a franchise-record nine consecutive games against the division. Only Baltimore's run of 12 straight in the AFC North is longer. The Packers have outscored the Lions, Bears and Vikings by a combined 269-161, a margin of 12 points per game.
The other sideline
-- How important is Percy Harvin, who will not play on Sunday? Despite missing two games, he's 12th in the NFL with 62 receptions. He's caught a pass in all 56 career games. Plus, he's No. 1 in the league with a gaudy 35.9-yard average on kickoff returns. He's got five career touchdowns on kickoff returns. No other player in Vikings history has more than one. Because of Harvin, Minnesota's average starting point after a kickoff is the 27.1-yard line, tops in the league.
-- The Vikings have a weapon in rookie kicker Blair Walsh. He's third with 41 touchbacks, and the Vikings have allowed a league-low 11 kickoff returns of 20-plus yards. Plus, he's converted 24-of-26 field goals, and one of those misses was blocked. He's booted five from 50-plus yards. Ryan Longwell's team record is six.
"It's a good matchup," McCarthy said of the clash between two top special teams. "It will be interesting to see if Percy Harvin is back, because of what he brings to the table. They always play tough, fundamental special teams over there. It will be a good matchup. I like the way our special teams are playing. I felt we've had a little bit of a dropoff since Brad Jones is playing exclusively on defense, and I look for our special teams, particularly our core players, to pick it up. It will obviously be a big part of the game."
-- Since Peterson was drafted in the first round in 2007, the Vikings rank first in rushing yards with 12,769 (Carolina has 12,201), first in yards per carry with 4.8 (Philadelphia averages 4.7) and 10-plus-yard rushes with 375 (Carolina has 360). Peterson has rushed for 7,988 yards in his career. Among active players, Tennessee's Chris Johnson is a distant second with 6,587.
-- Quarterback Christian Ponder has gone 144 attempts without an interception. In the red zone, the ball's going to tight end Kyle Rudolph (nine) and Harvin (eight), who have combined for 17 touchdown receptions. Nobody else has more than two. Rudolph has seven touchdowns this season, second among tight ends behind Rob Gronkowski's 10 and Jimmy Graham's eight.
-- Remember all of that strength-of-schedule talk to start the season? Taking into account the record of the teams the Packers and Vikings have played and will play, Minnesota has the fourth-toughest schedule (.540 winning percentage) and Green Bay has the fifth-toughest (.534). The Packers have six games against top-10 offenses (Detroit, second; Houston, third; Indianapolis, fifth; New Orleans, eighth; Giants, 10th) and the aforementioned six games against top defenses.
-- Peterson has rushed for exactly one touchdown in seven of his last eight games against the Packers and in each of his last four trips to Lambeau Field. Since Capers took over as coordinator in 2009, the Packers are third in the league with just 30 rushing touchdowns allowed.
-- Rodgers is 17-1 in his last 18 home games against NFC teams while Ponder's career record on the road against conference foes is 3-7.
-- It'll be a tall order but if the Packers can hold the Vikings to less than 100 rushing yards, they'll probably win. Under Capers, the Packers have held the opponent to less than 100 rushing yards in 29 of 59 games, posting a 24-5 record in those contests. In 10 career matchups against the Packers, Peterson has rumbled for 100 yards five times. In the games he's fallen short of 100, the Packers are 3-2. Both of Minnesota's wins came in 2009, when Brett Favre was the Vikings' quarterback.
Quote of the week
Or, the best quote that we couldn't work into a story …
Rodgers, on the importance of an NFC North-heavy stretch run: "Yeah, it's important. Every one of these games is important. The NFC is getting tight for the playoff race. Everything's in front of us. If we win out, we win the division, host a playoff game at the very worst. We like where we're at. It wouldn't hurt to have a couple more wins at this point, but we put ourselves in position to make a run and that's all you can ask for at this time of the season."