Pregame QB Change Hardly Affects Defense

The Packers prepped all week for the wrong quarterback – not that they knew. With Christian Ponder a late scratch, Joe Webb gave the Vikings little chance of leading an upset in the first round of the playoffs.

Word tricked down to the Green Bay Packers' players during pregame warm-ups, some not finding out until about 30 minutes before kickoff.

The quarterback they had prepared for all week would not play.

In a surprising turn of events – at least to the Packers - the Minnesota Vikings' Christian Ponder was put on the game day inactive list, meaning backup Joe Webb would get the start for Saturday night's NFC wild card game.

But for one series in the game, the Packers' defense hardly seemed affected. In fact, the changed might have even helped them.

With a 24-10 victory over the Vikings at Lambeau Field, the Packers got some unplanned prep work for the next quarterback they will face and a much less accurate passer than the one they would have faced Saturday night.

Webb could do nothing in the passing game on this night with errant throws and missed opportunities when it mattered. And when the Packers contained running back Adrian Peterson, Webb's 11-for-30 passing did little to help the Vikings' chances of upsetting the Packers.

"Nothing really changed," said Packers cornerback Casey Hayward when asked about the game plan with the late change in quarterbacks. "He's a fast quarterback just like Ponder. He can throw the ball. He's an NFL quarterback, so you can't say he's not capable. So, we came out here and did the job we were supposed to do and we shut him down."

Ponder played a big part in lifting the Vikings to the playoffs with a thrilling 37-34 victory over the Packers at the Metrodome last Sunday. During the course of that game, he was injured when hit by Packers safety Morgan Burnett. The Vikings called it an elbow injury; Ponder on Saturday said it was his triceps. Whatever the injury, he managed to finish Sunday's game and figured to play Saturday night, even though he was limited in practice and was listed as questionable on Friday's injury report. He came out about two hours before kickoff and threw passes lightly before it was determined that he could not go.

"Yesterday, he improved to where we thought maybe," Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier said. "And today, it just wouldn't have been smart to put him at risk. We made a decision to go with Joe."

"They did a good job of keeping it under wraps," said Packers head coach Mike McCarthy. "I'm not going to sit here and tell you that I knew Joe Webb was going to play. That's not the case. We didn't adjust our game plan, so the players and coaches did a hell of a job."

Still, McCarthy wanted to cover his bases. With a Saturday night kickoff, McCarthy and the defensive coaches went to the film room to watch Webb in his limited playing time at quarterback.

"Our work on Joe was obviously something that was out there during the course of the week," McCarthy said. "We had a long day here today as coaches. I know a number of our guys were going back and checking things. They didn't change their game plan a whole lot. I have to give a lot of credit to our players and our defensive coaches, just the fact that they stayed the course and we played very well for a quarterback that was unscouted."

Webb had just 61 passing yards and one interception through three quarters, when the Packers led 24-3. By that time, the game was looking quite different than the first drive, when the Vikings started with seven straight runs before an incomplete pass on third-and-7 set up a 33-yard Blair Walsh field goal. Webb had runs of 17 and 5 yards on the drive.

"The read option-type stuff that you see in college and you're seeing it throughout the league actually more now, that can present some challenges if you haven't worked on it all week," said Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk. "They came out and were successful driving it on the first drive, but I think once we calmed down we figured it out a little bit."

Webb looked a little like the 49ers' Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback the Packers will face in the divisional round next – with his option runs. But the Packers adjusted. And in time, they said Webb's style matched up to Ponder's, so the difference was negligible.

"They're both similar," said Burnett. "They're both kind of athletic with their feet so at the same time you got to stop the run and contain those quarterbacks inside the pocket."

Webb did get free for 68 yards on seven runs. But the Packers recorded three sacks – one a strip-sack by Clay Matthews – and were close several other times when Webb was unable to locate an open receiver. Safety Charles Woodson was one who just missed Webb on a blitz. The 15-year veteran made his return to the field after a broken collarbone forced him to miss the last nine games. He hardly seemed rusty, spending much of the night as the eighth man in the box, either blitzing or helping in run support on Peterson.

"I got into the swing of things pretty comfortably," said Woodson, who finished with six tackles (one for loss), including a great open-field tackle on Peterson. "These past couple of weeks or month I really conditioned myself for the opportunity to get back on the field. I was never worried about that part of the game. I just had to keep myself from being too anxious."

Webb, who played in one game this season but did not throw a pass, was able to take advantage of failed communication by the Packers for a 50-yard touchdown pass to Michael Jenkins late in the fourth quarter. But his 11 completed passes for the game were the fewest given up by the Packers in the playoffs since 1972.

"You have to find a way to bottle him up and make him throw the ball over the top," said Hawk. "That's pretty much what we tried to do."


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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com


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