World's Best Preview: Painfully Ironic Stat

Aaron Rodgers is hurt but, hey, at least the Packers are protecting the passer better than they have in years. Plus, putting some context into our special-teams rankings, beating eight-in-the-box defenses by land or by air, and much, much more in a 20-point, 3,600-word preview overflowing with info you won't find anywhere else.

There's a certain, painful irony here.

Aaron Rodgers is listed first and second in the Green Bay Packers' record book under "times sacked," with a franchise-record 51 last season and 50 in 2009.

Rodgers played every game of those seasons.

This season, the Packers are protecting the passer better than they have in years. Green Bay quarterbacks have been sacked 23 times in 10 games, putting the team on pace to yield 37 for the season. Of course, it's one of those sacks that will have Rodgers on the sideline for a third consecutive game on Sunday when the Packers host the Vikings.

Since Rodgers took over as quarterback in 2008, the Packers allowed 51 sacks in 2012, 41 in 2011, 38 in 2010, 51 in 2009 and 34 in 2008. A better measuring stick might be sacks per pass attempt. By that measure, Green Bay ranks 11th at 6.61 percent this season, followed by 28th (9.14 percent) in 2012, 22nd (7.43 percent) in 2011, 20th (7.02 percent) in 2010, 29th (9.22 percent) in 2009 and 18th (6.28 percent) in 2008.

The story has gotten better as the season has progressed. After giving up 10 sacks in the first three games, Green Bay has allowed a fifth-ranked 13 over the past seven. That includes a shutout against the Giants and one the week before against Philadelphia. That two-game total of one sack is its best since the Packers allowed no sacks in Weeks 2 and 3 of 2010.

"Well, I tell you what, our guys have done a good job, especially in the third down," coach Mike McCarthy said. "And people are being are being aggressive with us, too, make no mistake about it."

Offensive coordinator Tom Clements said there was nothing magical about the team's improvement.

"We've blocked better and we've made better decisions about whether to hold onto it or throw it away," he said. "Simple as that."

Right guard T.J. Lang delved further into the topic and pointed to a run game that's averaging 4.7 yards per carry instead of 3.8, 3.9 and 3.9 in 2010 through 2012.

"I think guys are doing a better job of finishing their blocks," he told Packer Report on Friday. "Really, it's the emergence of the run game. That's something that you're seeing defenses, you keep them guessing. They just don't tee off any more like they used to, when we were throwing the ball 50 times a game. That helps slow down pass rushes a little bit. I think we put a lot of work in the offseason in making sure we give the quarterback time. We didn't do a great job last year and we got criticized pretty heavily for it. We wanted to make sure that that wasn't going to happen again."

Pass protection isn't just limited to the offensive line. Nonetheless, there are two players who deserve credit. One is rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari, who yielded four sacks in the first four games but none in the last six, according to ProFootballFocus.com. And Lang has allowed just one after giving up nine last season, when he was plagued by an elbow injury and wound up starting four games at right tackle.

"The thing with me personally, last year I was going through a couple different things — moving to tackle, playing through the elbow injury," he said. "I wasn't playing healthy and I was kind of struggling. This year, I've been pretty lucky to stay healthy so far — knock on wood. Also, I've been getting the majority of reps at one position rather than moving over. That's a tribute to the other guys staying healthy, as well. When I'm a healthy player and I'm playing with no injuries, I feel like I'm pretty good."

2. NOTHING SPECIAL

The Packers' special teams have been, indeed, nothing special.

To back up that contention, Packer Report created its own special-teams rankings. Special teams are about providing field position. Four of our five categories are focused on field position: average starting field position following kickoffs (return and coverage), net punting (punt team) and punt-return average. The fifth category is field-goal percentage.

The Packers rank 29th in our rankings, due in large part to ranking last in field position following a kickoff (25.1-yard line) and next-to-last following a kickoff return (19.5-yard line). The Packers rank sixth in punt return average, thanks in large part to Micah Hyde's touchdown vs. Minnesota, and are 19th in net punting. Interestingly, while Mason Crosby is having a bounce-back season at 85.2 percent, he ranks only 21st in accuracy. While subject to change as the weather gets colder, NFL kickers are hitting a record 85.9 percent.

Injuries have been a big factor. Last season, Jarrett Bush (17), Robert Francois (13), M.D. Jennings (10), Jamari Lattimore (10) and Ryan Taylor (eight) were the top five tacklers. Bush has missed four games, Francois played in four and is on injured reserve, Lattimore saw his special-teams duties greatly reduced when elevated to the starting lineup for three games and Taylor missed two games.

"I think continuity is important in terms of production," special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. "We've had to use a number of different people at different positions and we've had some issues as a result of that."

The Vikings are tied for 11th on the strength of the top-ranked kickoff and punt returns. We'll have more on dynamic rookie kickoff returner Cordarrelle Patterson a little later.

3. BY LAND OR BY AIR?

Eddie Lacy is getting the Adrian Peterson treatment.

Without a legit quarterback, Peterson routinely runs into eight-in-the-box defenses designed to limit his production. Without Rodgers, Lacy has seen a steady diet of eight-in-the-box the last two weeks.

"Lacy, he had come in and helped their running game tremendously," Peterson said during a conference call on Wednesday. "But it shows with Aaron Rodgers not back there how big of a difference he makes and what he means to that offense.

"Defensive coordinators are going to try to attack your strength."

Lacy was limited to 27 yards on 14 carries by the Giants last week. By Packer Report's count, 26 of those yards came after contact. Against Philadelphia, again by our count, 63 of Lacy's 73 yards came after contact.

"Look at it this way," offensive line coach James Campen began, his frustration increasing with every sentence. "If you've got seven guys to block with the tight end and the fullback, you have seven somewhere in that box to block with and then the eighth guy is on defense, so we've got to do a better job, whether it's blocking with five, six, seven guys, of staying on guys. We've just got to frickin' block and leave the one for the back to beat. I'll take that chance any day with our backs one-on-one with somebody. You can sit there and write about ‘There's eight in the box' and that, to me, that's just an excuse. Block the ... guy that you're supposed to block. Now you've got me worked up. Block the guy like you've been blocking. Just because there's another guy in the box, what? Don't worry about that guy. Somebody else will worry about him. Or the back will make him miss or run over him."

That's exactly what running backs coach Alex Van Pelt is expecting after Lacy's long run went for just 5 yards last week.

"Breaking a tackle, making him miss," Van Pelt said of how to beat eight-in-the-box defenses. "Eight in the box doesn't mean you can't run it. They have to fit it the right way, as well. One guy gets out of the gap and there's an open gap there. We didn't get enough out of the run game, obviously, last week. We've got to block better, we've got to run harder, we've got to run better, smarter."

If brute force can't beat eight in the box, then the alternative is to unleash Scott Tolzien, which certainly is a dicey proposition. The Packers did that to an extent last week, and he hit on five passes of at least 25 yards. The big plays will be there, if Tolzien can make the throws again, because there will be nothing but one-on-one coverage on the outside.

"It's the way it's going to be," receiver Jordy Nelson said. "I mean, if I was a defensive coordinator, I'd be doing the same thing. You've got a young quarterback back there, you're going to make him make the plays to win the game. I think we should be able, and need to be able, to run the ball vs. an eight-man front. It's going to be hard but I think we can still do it, and I think if they do that, the play-action game will be there for us like it was last week. We just need to continue to make more plays and eliminate some more mistakes."

THE OTHER SIDELINE

— 4. Peterson has averaged 115.5 rushing yards per game in his 13 meetings with the Packers. That's the most by any player against Green Bay.


Brace Hemmelgarn/USA Today Sports

"It's a division game. It's who's going to stay more disciplined, who's going to finish better and not miss the tackles," defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. "We won't have a lot of surprises for them and they won't have a lot of surprises for us. It's a division game. This will be the fifth time in probably a year that we've played these guys. That should help but he's a tough player. Like I told them the other day, ‘Look, you might have a run fitted perfectly and he busts out of there for a gain. You've got to forget that play and go line up and play the next one because he's coming at your (butt) again.' He's made a lot of good players in this league miss. You might have a run fitted perfectly and he breaks a tackle. He's done that to a lot of people. Like I told them, ‘That's why he's going to be in Hall of Fame. You've got to line up and get him the next play.'"

The Packers were trounced on the ground by the Bears (171 yards) and Eagles (204) but they stiffened last week against the Giants (78 yards; 3.3 average).

"I think our long run against us was 12 yards last week," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "The last time we played these guys, Peterson's long run was 17 yards. You're always concerned about his ability to pop one out of there because he's big and strong and explosive. Any time you play against him, you can't ever relax because you miss a tackle or two, and he can take the thing the distance, which we saw a year ago when we played them here."

— 5. Since the Vikings hired Mike Priefer as special teams coordinator in 2011, Minnesota and Denver are tied for tops in the league with six touchdowns on kick returns.

Four of the Vikings' touchdowns have come on kickoff returns, including the 109-yarder by Patterson in the teams' first matchup and Patterson's 105-yarder earlier in the season. Since 2011, the Vikings lead the NFL in kickoff-return average (27.0) and they have twice as many kickoff-return touchdowns as any team in the league. This season, the Vikings' average starting point of the 25.8-yard line following a kickoff is tops in the league. Patterson is averaging a league-high 34.4 yards per kickoff return while Green Bay has yielded a league-worst 28.6 yards per kickoff return.

"You go way back and look at a guy like Tamarick Vanover," Slocum said when asked for a comparison. "Strong, kind of chewed up the grass when he ran. His cleats where digging in the grass, I see Cordarrelle being a little like that. One of the returns against Seattle last week, he caught the ball and turned a corner and he was gaining speed on his turn. It was impressive. He's a good player."

Priefer, by the way, is a former Navy helicopter pilot and Green Bay native. His father, Chuck, coached in the NFL for 17 seasons, including as special teams/linebackers coach of the Packers in 1984 and 1985.

— 6. The addition of Greg Jennings allegedly was going to push the Vikings past the Packers in the NFC North. That, of course, hasn't happened. Jennings was unable to play last week against Seattle due to an injured Achilles — a decision that Frazier wasn't expecting — and is listed as questionable for Sunday. Jennings has caught 34 passes for 410 yards and two touchdowns this season. Compare that to Jarrett Boykin, who barely got on the field during the first month of the season. He has 29 catches for 453 yards and a touchdown.

The thought among some insiders, pointing to his decreasing yards-per-catch numbers, was Jennings was past his prime. While he's averaging just 12.1 yards per reception this year — he averaged a combined 12.8 in 2011 and 2012 after four consecutive seasons of at least 16.2 — his yards after the catch per reception is an impressive 5.79. That ranks 35th among all players, according to the league's media stats site. He averaged 4.56 in 2012 and 4.12 YAC in 2011, well below his 5.28 in 2010 and 6.76 in 2009

Jennings was limited to one catch for 9 yards in the previous matchup against Green Bay.

Did the Packers do anything to take away Jennings?

"No," cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt replied simply.

"We covered him. We covered him well," Whitt said. "But I mean, we didn't match a guy on him. We just covered him. They did a good job of covering him that week. Hopefully, we can match that this week and cover him."

— 7. Here are Christian Ponder's career touchdown passes: 13 to tight end Kyle Rudolph, eight to Percy Harvin, three to Peterson, Michael Jenkins and Jarius Wright, two to Toby Gerhart and Visanthe Shiancoe, and one to Stephen Burton, Cordarrelle Patterson and John Carlson. Rudolph is out with a broken foot, Harvin was traded to Seattle and Jenkins is out of the league.

All told, of Ponder's 37 career touchdown passes, only 10 of those touchdowns have gone to players on the roster. The Vikings' starting receivers, Jennings and Jerome Simpson, have not caught a scoring toss from Ponder.

NOTEWORTHY NUMBERS

— 8. Regardless of who is throwing the ball and the level of talent surrounding him, just call Nelson "Mr. Consistency."

To have a 1,000 yard season, you need to average 62.5 yards per game. Nelson has reached that figure in eight of 10 games.


Jeff Hanisch/USA Today Sports

His season-low reception total of three came against Washington. He turned two of those into touchdowns.

He's caught 29 passes for 454 yards (15.7 average) with three touchdowns in the first halves of games and 28 passes for 435 yards (15.5) and four touchdowns in the second halves.

Add it up, and Nelson has caught 57 passes for 889 yards and seven touchdowns this season. He's sixth in the league with a 15.6-yard average, seventh in yards, tied for ninth in touchdowns and leads the league with 13 gains of 25-plus yards.

"I'm going to play the game the same with or without those guys," Nelson said. "I can only control one thing on game day — that's the way I play. I would hope to believe that with Aaron out there, I would play the same if it's Aaron or Scott. Or if Randall and James out there. I'm going to run my route to the best of my ability and try to get open. It doesn't matter who's throwing it or who else is out there. I can only control what I can control."

— 9. This will be the 100th game of Peterson's illustrious career. With 100 games, Peterson will qualify for NFL career records. Thus, his 98.0 rushing yards per game would rank third in NFL history behind Jim Brown (104.3) and Barry Sanders (99.8).

— 10. Peterson was the team's first-round pick in 2007. Because of him, the Vikings lead the NFL over the last six-and-a-half seasons with 140.6 rushing yards per game (Carolina is second with 135.4), 4.8 yards per carry (Philadelphia is second with 4.7) and 430 rushes of at least 10 yards (Carolina is second with 414).

— 11. Since entering the league, Peterson has exactly 9,700 rushing yards. That's a whopping 2,180 yards more than second-place Chris Johnson. Peterson's 85 rushing touchdowns are 24 more than second-place Michael Turner, and Peterson's 90 total touchdowns are 28 more than second-place Turner. Peterson ranks 15th in NFL history in rushing touchdowns, two ahead of Jim Taylor.

HISTORY LESSONS

— 12. When Tolzien lines up behind center on Sunday, he'll join a pretty short list.

Other than Rodgers and Brett Favre, Don Majkowski is the only Packers quarterback to start consecutive games since 1992. Majkowski started the first three games of that season before sustaining a franchise-changing history.

"Yeah, we have been spoiled," receiver James Jones said. "I believe I had seen an article before the season started on how healthy our quarterbacks have been. You guys probably jinxed us."

For those of you keeping score, the Bears and Vikings have started 21 quarterbacks during that span and the Lions 18. The Vikings will start Ponder on Sunday. Had coach Leslie Frazier opted for Matt Cassel or Josh Freeman, Minnesota's starting count would have risen to 22.

— 13. When Green Bay won 44-31 last month, it set a series record with a combined 75 points. Points have been plentiful in the series for the Packers. In five of the last six games, they scored at least 30 against the Vikings.

— 14. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Tolzien's 619 passing yards in his first two NFL games is fourth-most in NFL history. Cam Newton leads by a mile, figuratively speaking, with 854 yards. The others: Todd Marinovich (638) and Case Keenum (621). According to the Packers, Tolzien's 339 yards in his first start with the team broke the club record held by Mike Tomczak (317 yards in 1991).

— 15. Favre's name came up twice in the NFL's weekly releases. Peyton Manning and the Broncos face Tom Brady and the Patriots this week. Manning is second in NFL history with 470 touchdown passes and Brady is fifth with 348. Favre, of course, is No. 1 with 508. Also, among position players, London Fletcher became the third player in NFL history to play in 250 games. Favre tops that list with 299, followed by Jim Marshall with 282.

FOUR-POINT STANCE

— 16. The Vikings have 10 first-round picks on their roster: DT Kevin Williams (2003), LB Chad Greenway (2006), Peterson (2007), QB Josh Freeman (2009), QB Christian Ponder (2011), LT Matt Kalil (2012), S Harrison Smith (2012), DT Sharrif Floyd (2013), CB Xavier Rhodes (2013) and WR Cordarrelle Patterson (2013). Of those 10, Williams, Greenway, Peterson, Ponder, Kalil and Rhodes will start, and Floyd and Patterson will have key roles. (Smith, the standout safety, is on the team's short-term injured reserve list with turf toe and is eligible to begin practicing next week.)

The Packers have seven first-round picks on the roster: QB Aaron Rodgers (2005), ILB A.J. Hawk (2006), DT B.J. Raji (2009), OLB Clay Matthews (2009), OT Derek Sherrod (2011), OLB Nick Perry (2012) and DE Datone Jones (2013). Only Hawk, Raji and Matthews will start, with Rodgers and Perry sidelined by injuries, Bryan Bulaga (2010) on injured reserve and Sherrod having not played in almost two years.

— 17. Both teams have been relatively healthy up front. Green Bay will be without right tackle Don Barclay (knee) for the second consecutive week. Minnesota also has missed just two games from its starting line, with left guard Charlie Johnson and right tackle Phil Loadholt each missing one game this season. Last year, the Vikings' starting line of left tackle Kalil, left guard Johnson, center John Sullivan, right guard Brandon Fusco and right tackle Loadholt started every game together.

— 18. The Vikings will be without starting cornerback Josh Robinson, perhaps for the rest of the season, with a chest injury. The Packers torched Robinson in the first matchup. According to ProFootballFocus.com, he allowed 8-of-9 passing for 81 yards, including Rodgers' short touchdown to Nelson. In his place, first-round pick Rhodes will be elevated and Marcus Sherels will play the nickel.

— 19. With six weeks to go, there are 23 teams either in or within one game of a playoff spot. The Packers are 10th in the NFC, with San Francisco, Arizona and Chicago at 6-4 and ahead of Green Bay for the final spot.

"The big picture is still ahead of us," cornerback Tramon Williams said. "We still have all the guys in our division who we need to compete with and beat. We still have that ahead of us. If we go out and we run the table, everything will be all is well. It's always easier said than done. But at the same time, like I said, the big picture is still ahead of us. We still have confidence that it can get done."

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

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

— 20. Nelson, on not leading at any point in the last two games: "It makes the game a lot harder. I think any team is better when they have the lead. Offensively, you can control what you want to do, you still have the run and the pass. Defensively, allows them to get after the quarterback, make them a little more one-dimensional. So, any team plays better with the lead. We need to come out, start fast no matter who it is that's on the field. If it's defense, they need to get off the field. Offense, we need to score touchdowns and put us in a situation where we can stay aggressive."


Agree or disagree?: Discuss hot Packers topics in our, free forums. Leave Bill a question in the subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum.


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.


Packer Report Top Stories