World's Best Preview: Rodgers Carries Load

Tipping the scales at 20 points and almost 4,000 words, we guarantee that you won't find a preview like this anywhere else. There's no Jones, no Cobb, no Finley and no Jennings, but there is Aaron Rodgers. Plus, the NFL's masters of the interception have lost their touch, an unthinkable number regarding Finley and much, much more.

For most of his career, Aaron Rodgers has been blessed with the best and deepest group of pass catchers in the NFL.

Greg Jennings. James Jones. Jordy Nelson. Randall Cobb. Donald Driver. Jermichael Finley.

When last season ended, the Super Six had career totals of 1,939 receptions, 27,252 yards and 202 touchdowns.

Now, Nelson is the last man standing for the Green Bay Packers. Jennings will be on the opposite sideline on Sunday night. Driver is signing books in retirement. Jones, Cobb and Finley are injured.

In their place? At receiver, there's Jarrett Boykin, who didn't even survive Jacksonville's rookie minicamp after going undrafted in 2012. Myles White went undrafted and opened the season on the practice squad. Chris Harper, a fourth-round pick in April, is already on his third team and might not know enough of the offense to be a factor. At tight end, nobody knows what to expect from Andrew Quarless after he missed all of 2012 with a major knee injury. Brandon Bostick and Jake Stoneburner entered the league as undrafted free agents and have zero career receptions.

Because of Rodgers, maybe none of that matters.

"I witnessed it up close and personal during my time at Indianapolis with Peyton Manning," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said during a conference call on Wednesday. "When you have a good quarterback, he can definitely lift the rest of your offense and your team. Aaron is doing that in Green Bay. He's having a very good year without some of his key players, so kudos to his leadership and his athletic ability."

A rising tide lifts all ships, as the saying goes. Rodgers unleashed Boykin last week with eight catches for 103 yards and one touchdown.

"He's handling it very well," backup quarterback Seneca Wallace said. "He's making sure he's getting people involved. Just like the thing he did with Boykin this past week. He dropped a few balls early against Baltimore but he still hung with him and came back. The first five or six passes in the game this past week, I think, went to him. Just getting him involved in the game early, kind of like a basketball player, you get some shots up and get the ball early in the game. He got his confidence level up and he played well the rest of the game. He's handling it well. It's part of football — injuries are going to happen. As a quarterback, you've got to get guys in the right place and show that you have a lot of confidence in them."

Rodgers was brilliant against the Browns in helping lead the Packers to 31 points against a quality defense. However, he had Finley and Nelson on the field for most of that game. Now, Finley is out and the Vikings figure to throw their defensive resources at Nelson.

"That's the thing with Rodgers," Vikings defensive end Brian Robison told Viking Update's Tim Yotter this week. "Jermichael is such a big part of their offense but, at the same time, they are a quarterback-driven offense. "It just doesn't seem to matter who is out there with him. He just seems to be able to make play after play after play. He's just one of those guys that is very smart about the game, very smart about seeing coverages and stuff like that and being able to find outlets, no matter who they are."

At a certain level, Rodgers relishes this challenge. Of course he'd rather not have Cobb rolling through the locker room on a Segway or Finley's career in jeopardy. But situations like this are why Rodgers and the game's other elite quarterbacks are considered franchise players.

In that regard, plenty was said about Rodgers this week. But nothing was so simple and so meaningful as this from running backs coach Alex Van Pelt, a former NFL quarterback: "This guy's unbelievable."

2. RODGERS GETTING HELP

Rodgers might be alone, relatively speaking, but at least he can turn around and hand the ball to Eddie Lacy (and James Starks) 20 or 25 times.

"Without question," Frazier said when asked if he has to respect the Packers' running game. "That hasn't always been the case, but this year for sure they seem to be more committed to running the ball where situations in the past that hasn't always been the case. You do have to respect their run game a lot more than you have in the past."

The Packers enter Sunday night's game averaging 4.9 yards per carry. Other than their 5.0 yards per carry in 2003, they hadn't even averaged 4.4 per carry since 1989. Again, other than 2003, the last time the Packers averaged at least 4.9 yards per carry? Way back in 1961, when they averaged 5.0 en route to the first of five Glory Years championships.

The offensive line, obviously, is much improved over past seasons. Frazier pointed to the line's continuity and the hard-charging Lacy's ability to get more than what's blocked as the primary factors he's observed.

Rodgers' role shouldn't be discounted, according to Van Pelt, because of his superior play at the line of scrimmage. One noteworthy play came last week, when Rodgers changed a third-and-5 play and Lacy rumbled for 13 to set up his own touchdown to make it 14-0.

"He's been a key part of how the success of this run game has come about because of his ability to get us in the proper runs," Van Pelt said. "I said it last week and the week before, he does a great job — as well as anybody in the business of making sure we have the right angles and the right blocking scheme for the front that's presented. He does an awesome job with that. That alone, to me, is a huge, huge credit to him. To be able to continue moving and having the offensive production we had last week without key figures, one, it's a tribute to the guys that stepped up and stepped in, but for him to manage those guys, understand what they do well, what their weaknesses might be, and then get them within the 25-second clock into the route that helps them win and be successful, it's amazing."

3. WHAT DERAILED PICK PARADE?

Over the previous four seasons, the numbers were staggering: From 2009 through 2012, the Packers intercepted 103 passes. New England was second with 86, Chicago had 78 and Atlanta 76. Green Bay had at least 40 more interceptions than a whopping 18 teams, and had more than Detroit and Minnesota combined. The Packers registered the only two 30-interception seasons.

Incredibly, the Packers have intercepted just three passes this season. Only the Jets (two) have fewer, and their 1.35 percent interception rate ranks 28th. Five players have more interceptions than the Packers and 11 others have as many.


House has one of the team's three interceptions. Benny Sieu/USA Today Sports

"We haven't had as many opportunities as we've had in the past but when you do have the opportunities, we have to catch them," cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. "They're going to come. Interceptions are the least of my worries. They usually come in flurries. We've had in years, even when we've led the league, we'll have a game or two or three that we didn't get any or maybe get one here or there. They're going to come. When you have the opportunity, you have to make the play. We've had five from our group, in particular, get by us, and that can't happen."

The return of Casey Hayward, who intercepted six passes as a rookie, could help. The return of Christian Ponder as Minnesota's quarterback could help, too. He's thrown five interceptions in just 100 attempts.

Turnovers are the one glaring weakness for a Packers defense that has allowed three touchdowns and 39 points during a three-game winning streak.

"I just think in terms of giving us the best chance of winning (that the takeaway total must increase)," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "Our scoring defense has really picked up the last three games. I like where that is. Especially in the first half all year, we've played very good in the first half. A lot of the scoring has come against us in the fourth quarter. So, hopefully we can play as well as in the fourth quarter as we do in the first. In terms of winning football games, we all know that the greatest stat indicator of winning to losing is winning the takeaway/giveaway. And we've always been very high in that because our offense has done a good job protecting the ball and we've done a good job taking it away. That's the one area that I'm hoping you'll see us here over the next few weeks really pick up."

THE OTHER SIDELINE

— 4. Ageless Jared Allen has tormented the Packers like few other defenders. He's sacked Packers quarterbacks 17 times in his career. Only Steve McMichael (18) has more sacks of a Green Bay signal-caller.

"He's a great guy to be around," Rodgers said. "I have a lot of respect for him. He plays the game very hard, he's got a great motor, but I think he plays it clean. He plays between the whistles. He's had some success against us in the past. He's a great competitor; I enjoy playing against him. He gives you a lot of different challenges, especially for a young guy like David (Bakhtiari) with the many things he can do with his pass rush ability.

"The thing you don't want to see is him doing his hogtie or whatever it is, his cow-tie, when he's raising his arms because you know he's made a play in the backfield."

Three of those sacks came last season (plus one more in the playoffs), and he demolished the Packers for 4.5 sacks in a 2009 game at the Metrodome when Daryn Colledge and then-rookie guard T.J. Lang were forced to play left tackle with Chad Clifton sidelined.

The deafening din of the Metrodome — combined with the still-formidable Allen — makes this perhaps Bakhtiari's biggest challenge to date. Allen has four sacks this season and has at least a half sack in a team-record 11 consecutive games.

"It's different, but as much as you can simulate that noise (at practice), that helps, too, because the communication is really off in practice," offensive line coach James Campen said. "You just simulate it and getting off on the snap count is a priority but we've been doing our snap counts for a long time. The best way to prepare for it is to get out there and once you get that first series done and you come back you're good then. It's different there, it's loud."

— 5. For years, Minnesota was led by its defense. Now, that side of the ball is a major weakness. The Vikings are allowing 30.2 points per game, good for 29th in the league. They're also 27th in total yards (391.2), 29th in passing yards allowed (288.8), 29th in sacks per pass attempt (4.76 percent), 31st in first downs (23.8 per game), 31st on third down (46.5 percent) and 23rd in the red zone (59.3 percent touchdowns).

Frazier hopes Monday night's 23-7 loss at the Giants is a sign of things to come, with Minnesota holding Eli Manning and Co. to 257 yards — after consecutive games of 469, 414, 409, 434 and 367 yards allowed.

"Yeah, we finally put together a good performance on Monday night against the Giants," Frazier said. "That was good to see. We've had our struggles this season trying to integrate some new people on our defense at new positions. It's taken us a while to kind of get going but hopefully we can build off of some of the good things that happened in that game on Monday night. We need our defense to play well in order to get our season turned around."

Still, the Vikings and Falcons are the only teams in the league to have allowed at least 23 points in every game this season.

— 6. Your obligatory Adrian Peterson-running-roughshod factoid: He's rushed for 1,541 yards in 12 career games against the Packers. That's the fourth-most yards allowed by Green Bay to an opposing runner. The others: Walter Payton (2,484 yards in 24 games), Barry Sanders (2,227 yards in 19 games) and Joe Perry (1,667 yards in 23 games).

"He tests you," Capers said. "The guy's a rare guy with the combination of power and speed, explosiveness. He's one of those guys, you can go out there in the first 10, 15 plays and you feel pretty good about what you're doing, but the next thing you know, if you relax or somebody doesn't do a good job tackling or you don't get multiple hits on him, he's so strong that he'll pop out of there. He has the ability to go the distance on any play."

In last season's regular-season games, Peterson rushed 55 times for 409 yards. He got 267 of those yards on eight carries but just 142 yards on the other 47. In the playoff game, Peterson was limited to 99 yards on 22 attempts, with long gains of 18 and 11 yards. Of course, that was with inept Joe Webb filling in at quarterback.

"I just think we really took a good look at where he made his plays in those regular-season games," Capers said. "We tried to keep our defense more at the same level, because he's one of those guys where you'll have the point of attack bottled up and if you've got a horizontal separation in your defense, he can slide, and when he slides then he accelerates, so you've got to try to keep everybody at the same level."

— 7. He hasn't done much for the offense with just 11 receptions, but the last of the Vikings' three first-round picks, receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, has ignited Minnesota's kickoff-return unit. Patterson, the NFC Special Teams Player of the Month for September, leads the league with a 36.5-yard average. That could be a sore spot for the Packers, who allowed an 86-yard return last week and have allowed a league-worst 29.5 yards per runback.

NOTEWORTHY NUMBERS

— 8. For the Vikings, they're hoping it's addition by subtraction. In 15 career games with Green Bay against Minnesota, Greg Jennings caught 68 passes for 1,018 yards and 10 touchdowns. The Packers went 11-4 in those games.

Jennings, however, hasn't been a game-changer for the Vikings. He has 24 receptions for 327 yards and two touchdowns, putting him on pace for 64 receptions for 872 yards and five touchdowns. Taking his injury-plagued 2012 out of the equation, those would be his lowest totals since his first two seasons in the league. He caught 53 passes in 2007, though those went for 920 yards and 12 scores. As a rookie in 2006, he caught 45 balls for 632 yards and three touchdowns. He's averaging 13.2 yards per reception, well below his averages ranging from 16.2 to 17.4 from 2007 through 2010.

The declining numbers notwithstanding, Whitt spoke of the challenge of defending Jennings.

"I look at his skill-set, the things he can do," Whitt said. "He has a very good skill-set. He can run the complete route tree. I just looked at him like any other receiver and took the name away and said this is a guy that we have to defend because of the tools that he has. Greg is an accomplished route runner. He runs routes as good as anyone in the league. A lot of guys, we know, ‘All right he's going to run vertical, he's going to run slants, he's going to run digs. We can cut the tree down on him.' You can't cut a tree down really on Greg because he can run every route on the tree inside and outside.' He's a guy who you better understand what he's going to do."

— 9. Rodgers has feasted on Minnesota's defense in record fashion. In 10 career regular-season starts against the Vikings, he owns a 116.4 passer rating. According to the Elias Sports Bureau via the Packers' Dope Sheet preview, that's the highest rating against a single opponent with at least 250 passing attempts. Dan Fouts is second with a 112.6 rating against Cleveland. Rodgers' 111.0 mark against Detroit ranks third. Rodgers has thrown 24 touchdown passes against just four interceptions against Minnesota.

— 10. As the only healthy units on the team, Packers coach Mike McCarthy is leaning more on his offensive and defensive lines. Those groups have delivered: The Packers have had a back rush for at least 80 yards in five consecutive games and their defense has held the opponent rushing attack to less than 85 yards in four consecutive games.

"He just put the onus on us," defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said. "He told us we have to be physical, we have to run the ball, we have to stop the run. That's going to be the signature of our team this year. He said it when camp ended."

— 11. Let the countdown begin: McCarthy and Mike Holmgren are tied for third in franchise history with 84 career wins (including playoffs). Once McCarthy passes Holmgren, Vince Lombardi will be next. Lombardi is second with 98 wins. Curly Lambeau's team-record 212 wins is practically unbreakable.

HISTORY LESSONS

— 12. Green Bay leads the series 55-49-1, with McCarthy's 10-4 record snapping a 45-45-1 tie. The Packers have swept the series four times in McCarthy's first seven seasons. Still, the games have been close: 16 of the last 21 games have been decided by seven points or less. That's especially true of games at the Metrodome. Nine of the last 10 have been decided by that seven-or-less margin, with the lone exception being Green Bay's 31-3 romp in 2010.

— 13. The Vikings moved into the Metrodome — aka Mall of America Field — in 1982. Minnesota holds a 16-14 lead in those games, including 3-2 since Rodgers took over as quarterback in 2008.

This will be Green Bay's last game there. The Vikings will play the next two seasons at the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium before moving into a new stadium in 2016.


Rodgers has been a maestro against the Vikings. Brace Hemmelgarn/USA Today Sports

"It's fun to play," Rodgers said. "It's got a great atmosphere, it's loud. They do a good job of adding noise (in) pregame, with the festivities and the fireworks and whatnot. Always enjoy that atmosphere. It's loud, it's a tough place to play. … Obviously, Kansas City and Seattle are very loud for outdoor environments. Detroit is a loud place, Atlanta is a loud place that we played in. It ranks right up there with those, if not more, especially when there's a late third down in a tight game (or) late in the fourth, it's almost impossible to hear. So, you really have to rely on the nonverbal communication and trust that everybody gets off on the count and gets off on the ball and does their job."

Overall, Minnesota is 164-90 (.646) in the dome. It's never been shut out.

— 14. Sunday night has been a good night for the Packers. They're a league-best 20-6 all-time on Sunday night, including 8-4 under McCarthy. Rodgers has thrown 20 touchdown passes against just three interceptions in nine starts on Sunday night.

— 15 The great indoors have been a great place for the Packers. They are 18-8 in domed stadiums under McCarthy. Rodgers will joke that it's about his shoes, but he's been brilliant indoors. In his last 10 dome games, Rodgers has thrown 31 touchdowns with two interceptions and a rating of 126.7.

FOUR-POINT STANCE

— 16. Nobody would ever call Finley a powerful run blocker, but his impact on the game is demonstrated with this stat from the league: The Packers averaged 5.65 yards per carry with Finley on the field and 4.45 with Finley on the sideline. That differential of 1.20 is tops among the league's regular tight ends. Last season, the Packers' average was 0.12 yards per carry better with Finley.

"You know, he's done an incredible job all year of just remaining focused and really trying to implement techniques of run blocking, when we're really focusing on our hand placement, acceleration of feet and our pad level, and he had done a good job of that all year," tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot said this week. "Up until the point of the injury, he was as big and strong as I remember him being and he was doing everything that we asked him to do and having good production at it. He had improved in certain areas and I think he was getting much more comfortable doing what he was being asked to do, on the edge next to the tackle and from the backfield."

— 17. The Vikings are the only team in the league to have used three starting quarterbacks this season. During Jennings' seven seasons in Green Bay, he had just three starters: Brett Favre, Rodgers and Matt Flynn.

"Timing, getting in synch with the quarterback, getting familiar with what he sees vs. what just one guy sees," Jennings said of the quarterback carousel that will have Ponder back in the saddle on Sunday night. "You have to deal with what three different guys are seeing, what they're expecting, what they're anticipating for the last four weeks. It's all about rhythming up and hopefully we can rhythm up with the guy who's at the helm this week and we can have some success."

— 18. Here are some big numbers: Peterson is tied for 17th in NFL history with 81 career rushing touchdowns. Hall of Famer Jim Taylor is 15th with 83. Jennings has seven career touchdown receptions of 70-plus yards. That's tied for fifth-most in NFL history, with Jerry Rice leading the way with nine and James Lofton second with eight. Allen's 121 sacks in his first 10 seasons are second-most in NFL history behind Reggie White's 145.

— 19. There have been nine kick-return touchdowns this season, both kickoff and punt. The Vikings have two of them, with Patterson's 105-yarder on a kickoff return against Chicago and Marcus Sherels' 86-yarder on a punt return against the Giants. By contrast, Green Bay ranks 30th with a long kickoff return of just 26 yards and 19th with a long punt return of 23 yards.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

Or, the best thing that was said that we couldn't work into a story this week.

— 20. Rodgers said he doesn't "spend much energy thinking about" the type of criticism delivered by Jennings during training camp, but: "I didn't say anything about forgetting. I just said focusing. It's about what you should spend energy focusing on and thinking about and worrying about. Those are things that are important to this team. Those comments by anybody out there just aren't important to what we're trying to do. We're trying to do some great things here, our team is. That's what we're going to focus on and as a leader what I'm going to focus on."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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