While the Bears’ season is going nowhere, the Green Bay Packers have emerged as legitimate championship contenders. While Aaron Rodgers is having an MVP-caliber season, you could argue that Peppers is, at worst, the team’s defensive MVP.
The NFL is all about making big plays, and Peppers has made as many big plays as any defensive player in the league. Peppers and Houston’s J.J. Watt are among five players with seven turnover-producing plays this season. Peppers has two interceptions – both returned for touchdowns – two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. A third forced fumble (vs. the Jets) was overruled by replay. He also deflected a pass against Chicago that was intercepted by Micah Hyde and altered a pass against Philadelphia that was intercepted by Tramon Williams.
“I think you’ve seen there’s been some (big plays by Peppers) in every game,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “I think he continues to grow (and) I think he continues to be more comfortable in the defense. He’s one of those versatile guys, kind of like Clay (Matthews). He can do a lot of different things. The more different things you can do, the tougher it is on the offense.”
Peppers’ play has been a major asset on what looks like a rising unit. Last season, the Packers got nine turnover-producing plays from all of their outside linebackers combined, led by Matthews and Nick Perry with their three forced fumbles apiece. In 2012, the outside linebackers combined for four turnover-producing plays, led by Erik Walden’s two interceptions. In 2011, the outside linebackers combined for seven turnover-producing plays, led by Matthews’ six. In the Super Bowl season of 2010, the outside linebackers combined for five turnover-producing plays, led by Matthews’ three. In 2009, the first year of the 3-4, the Packers outside linebackers produced five turnover plays, led by Matthews with four. Thus, in the past five seasons, the outside linebackers, on average, were part of 6.0 turnover-producing plays. Peppers has more by himself in 10 games.
Along with the turnovers, Peppers has a team-high five sacks and is tied for seventh among all outside linebackers with 33 hurries, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
“It’s impressive to watch him play,” Matthews said, “not only with his pass rushing and getting after the quarterback, but just an all-around athlete, especially at his size and strength, and kind of what he commands on the football field. It’s fun to watch.”
It’s the addition of Peppers and his quick grasp of the position that has freed up Matthews to fill the major void at inside linebacker. As many impact plays as Peppers has provided, it’s the move of Matthews that might ultimately elevate this defense for a postseason run. Certainly, the Packers wouldn’t have moved Matthews if the alternatives on the outside were Andy Mulumba or Jayrone Elliott.
“I think every year we’ve increased our depth at the outside linebacker position,” Capers said. “You look back at some of the tape last year, we had Nate Palmer and Andy Mulumba as our starting two outside linebackers. I think Mike Neal being out there, Nick Perry being out there, we’ve got a young guy in Jayrone Elliott. We’ve got more options there now which, had we not had those, it would have been real hard to do what we did with Clay.”
With Peppers turning back the clock and providing the counterpuncher to Matthews that the defense had lacked, the Packers enter Sunday’s game as one of the hottest teams in the league.
“We’re playing with a lot of confidence now,” Peppers said on Friday. “I think it’s confidence, as well, more than anything, along with attitude. Confidence is there. As long as guys continue to play well and make plays, I think it will keep going.”
Bennett’s blitz beaters
How’s this for impressive: On what is defined as third-and-long (third-down plays of more than 6 yards), the Packers have moved the chains 41.8 percent of the time. If that was merely Green Bay’s overall third-down success rate, it would rank a solid 12th in the league.
Mike McCarthy’s the head coach and play-caller but receivers coach Edgar Bennett is the man who crafts the third-down plan. Bennett took over the gig upon taking over the wide receivers in 2011, and the Packers finished third in the league in third-down success rate in 2011, ninth in 2012 and ninth in 2013. They enter Sunday’s game ranked seventh.
“Coach Mike talks about it week in and week out, (that) it starts with our preparation,” Bennett said. “Make no mistake about it, we have extremely smart players -- extremely smart and talented players -- and when they communicate, get on the same page, usually we execute. We’ve just got to continue to do that each and every week, earn it each and every week, show what we’re capable of doing each and every week. Not taking anything for granted, I think, has been the mind-set.”
As part of Bennett’s third-down job description, he’s tasked with solving the opponent’s blitz package. The Packers historically have feasted on the blitz with Rodgers, which is why teams frequently blitz the Packers less than they’ve shown on tape. This season, Rodgers leads the NFL with a 132.0 rating and 13 touchdowns against the blitz. That’s worth remembering against Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, who is one the most esteemed defensive minds in the game with his extensive blitz packages.
“He’s a great coach, and he’s done things that have transformed the league,” Rodgers said. “You look at Mike Zimmer and what he’s done in the league, a lot of teams have copied a lot of his blitz packages, and I think that’s the biggest compliment you can get. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, they say, and he should be really feeling honored about the impact he’s had in the league, because it’s fantastic. He does a lot of great things with the pressure package and makes it difficult for the quarterback and the protection. You have to try and figure out who’s coming. I expect them to play their defense. They’re very well-coached. They played us pretty well at home, we just had a couple big plays go and then had some turnovers that we turned into points. But yardage-wise, they held us under to what we’ve been having the last few weeks.”
As was the case against the Eagles last week, the Packers don’t fear the blitz. Rather, it’s “bring it on.”
As McCarthy said this week, “We look for pressure. The way we coach pressure defense, it’s a big-play opportunity for the offense.”
As with most things on offense, it starts with Rodgers’ ability to diagnose what’s coming and adjust the play accordingly. A veteran offensive line, however, is a tremendous asset in providing the time necessary for Rodgers to work his magic.
“We’ve got a lot of veteran leadership guys,” right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. “T.J. (Lang has) been around a long time, Josh (Sitton) has been around a long time, I’ve been around for my fifth year. We’ve seen a lot of those things and we’re all able to keep everyone on the same page when it comes to protection adjustments. Obviously, Aaron’s one of the best in the game at identifying things that maybe we won’t even see because he gets to look at the whole field. It’s all about getting on the same page and then executing it, and not getting in the perfect adjustment but just a good adjustment and going with it and making it work. That’s what we’ve been doing. We played a very heavy blitz team against the Eagles and I thought we did a pretty good job with it. They bring guys from all over the place and we were able to pick things up and give Aaron the time he needed. That starts with him identifying it and us getting ourselves in the right adjustments and then executing the blocks.”
Bulaga bounces back
Bulaga missed the second half of 2012 with a hip injury and all of 2013 with a torn ACL. When he went down with a knee injury in the opening game at Seattle, it looked like another lost season for the 2010 first-round pick.
“I hate missing any time,” Bulaga said this week. “This year, when I got a little nicked up in Seattle, I was (ticked) that I had to miss the Jets game. I love playing the game, I love being here with these guys. It’s hard to watch. It’s very hard to watch. It’s not fun. Just the camaraderie and being around the guys and going out there and winning football games, there’s nothing better than that.”
Bulaga is having plenty of fun this season. Bulaga missed just one game with the knee injury. It’s probably no coincidence that as he’s settled back in at right tackle that the offense has taken flight.
Bulaga doesn’t want to compare the 2014 version of himself to the 2011 model, which had emerged as one of the best right tackles in the game. That’s OK. Offensive line coach James Campen took care of the comparisons.
“I think he’s better,” Campen said.
How do you get better after missing half of one season, changing positions, missing a full season and changing positions again?
“You work. He’s a worker. The guy works his (butt) off,” Campen said. “He’s very receptive to suggestions, change, whether it be a fundamental or a stance or an awareness thing. He’s very smart. He spends time. He watches a lot of tape. He’s a true pro. He wants to be good and he is.”
The timing couldn’t be better for Bulaga, who is entering the final season of his rookie contract and needed to stay healthy and perform at a high level to make himself an attractive commodity in free agency. In the overall player rankings at ProFootballFocus.com, Bulaga is No. 7 among right tackles.
“That’s really not on my mind right now,” Bulaga said of free agency. “I’m more worried about just trying to be as consistent as I can for this team week in and week out and playing at a high level and being accountable to the guys next to me. That’s my goal right now. Putting together a resume, I don’t really look into that, man. I’m more worried about playing good football and helping the team win. The rest will take care of itself.”
The other sideline
— Rookie Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater adds a new dynamic after missing the teams’ prior matchup with a sprained ankle. Bridgewater injured the ankle late in Week 4 game against Atlanta but not before throwing for 317 yards and leading the Vikings to 558 total yards in his first NFL start.
“I go back to when we were getting ready to play them the last time,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “He had the big game against Atlanta where they blew Atlanta out offensively. I was really impressed. I thought, here’s a young guy who’s checking the ball down and, when people were covered, he pulled the ball down and ran with it.”
The problem has been the typical inconsistency of a rookie quarterback. Since helping the Vikings score 41 points against the Falcons, they’ve scored a combined 80 points in his next five starts. With just one interception in his last three starts, however, Bridgewater might not be the typical deer-in-the-headlights rookie susceptible to Capers’ bag of tricks.
“He looks to me like he’s a young, talented guy,” he said. “They do a nice job of running the ball, and when you run the ball, the play-action pass takes the pressure off the quarterback. He’s a quarterback who can get the ball out of his hands quick. On first and second down, they’ll run a lot of three-step. They’ll run screens where he doesn’t have to read two or three things downfield. What I’ve seen from him, he makes some nice throws, some nice touch throws. I think he’s a young guy that certainly the arrow’s pointing up on.”
— With Bridgewater (first round), rookie running back Jerick McKinnon (third round), second-year receiver Cordarrelle Patterson (first round), rookie linebacker Anthony Barr (first round), second-year cornerback Xavier Rhodes (first round), second-year defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd (first round) and third-year safety Harrison Smith (first round), the Vikings have assembled an interesting young nucleus in the past three drafts.
Focusing on the offense, McKinnon – the former Georgia Southern quarterback who won at Florida in 2013 – has been quite a find. He ranks second among rookies with 484 rushing yards and first with 4.9 yards per carry.
“It’s pretty exciting when you mix the young guys with the veteran guys we have here,” Bridgewater said. “The veteran guys have been great leaders on this team and great mentors to us young guys such as Jerick and myself (or) whether it’s Anthony Barr, Scott Crichton on the defensive side of the ball. When you mix together the youth with the experience, it’s pretty exciting because you never know what to expect. We have a great group of guys here. We all lean on each other.”
Barr looks like a home run as the ninth pick of the draft and a lynchpin of the defense. He leads the Vikings with 90 tackles, is second in the NFL with three fumble recoveries – including a game-winning touchdown in overtime vs. Tampa Bay – and is tied for the NFL rookie lead with four sacks.
“Anthony Barr's really been a young, emerging player for us,” Zimmer said. “He’s fast, physical and smart. Learning a new position. I get impressed with him every week with the things that he does and the things he has the ability to do.”
Jennings, who surpassed 500 career receptions earlier this season, leads Minnesota with 36 receptions for 463 yards and two touchdowns. Johnson, a seventh-round pick last year out of Grand Valley State who spent his rookie season in Cleveland, had six catches for 87 yards last week. In Jennings’ two seasons with Minnesota, he has only two games of more than 87 yards.
“I remember he was big and could run fast,” Capers said. “You see him going up the field and them taking some shots up the field. I think he’s a big, physical, young receiver who’s probably still learning how to play. He has some vertical speed.”
— Can the Vikings slow down Rodgers? The statistics suggest the answer will be no. Only three teams have allowed a worse completion percentage than the 67.6 percent yielded by Minnesota.
According to ProFootballFocus.com, Captain Munnerlyn has allowed 66.0 percent completions with five touchdowns and two interceptions; Rhodes has allowed only 55.8 percent completions but has been flagged nine times – second most among NFL cornerbacks; third corner Josh Robinson has given up 57.4 percent completions.
When the teams met on Oct. 2, Nelson caught one pass – though it went 66 yards for a touchdown – and Cobb caught three balls for 34 yards. That gave them four receptions. Nelson and Cobb have combined for at least 14 receptions in five games; they haven’t combined for less than eight catches in any other game.
“Cobb is extremely explosive,” Zimmer said. “They’re both great run-after-catch guys. I really admire Jordy Nelson and the fact of how hard he works. On every single play, he gives you his best effort, whether it’s blocking … You know, a lot of receivers, they’re not like that. He catches the ball great, he runs great routes, does a lot of really important things for them offensively. I think the combination of those two guys being great players and Rodgers helps them with where he’s able to throw the ball, as well.”
— The Vikings enjoyed their domefield advantage provided by the Metrodome. Upon moving into the stadium in 1982, the Vikings went 168-92 at the dome, including playoffs.
Green Bay, however, went 5-3 there under McCarthy, including a 44-31 victory last year.
“I liked the Metrodome. I thought it was a great environment,” McCarthy said. “It definitely leads the away games for taking Advil after it. The crowd noise, real and not so real, I thought really beats you up by the end of the day. But the environment in there was incredible. I mean, you think about all the Packer fans that are at the game, it was always exciting to play in the Metrodome. I definitely enjoyed it. I thought it was unique. It was a unique homefield advantage for the Vikings. I’m not going to say I've missed it, but I enjoyed playing there.”
— It’s surprising Rodgers didn’t spend some of his off-days lobbying to save the Metrodome or to slap on a new roof on his own coin. In 2010, Rodgers threw for 301 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. In 2011, Rodgers threw for 335 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. In a loss in 2012, Rodgers threw for 365 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Finally, in his final game before the broken collarbone, Rodgers threw for 285 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. That’s a four-game total of 1,286 yards, 75.4 percent accuracy, 13 touchdowns and no interceptions.
That production allowed Rodgers to have some fun with the incessant blaring of the Viking horn and the portly Vikings mascot, Ragnar.
“It’ll still be annoying, I’m sure,” Rodgers said of the horn going outdoors. “I’m just wondering how they’re going to do it with the motorcycle Viking (Ragnar), if he’s still going to be in full effect. Maybe they’ll get a parade cart for him to come out on. I don’t know if that’s safer or not. If the field is pretty icy, he’s just going to have to be careful revving that thing up too much.”
— In his last eight games against the Vikings (including the 2012 playoffs), Rodgers has completed 74.7 percent of his passes with 22 touchdowns and one interception. For his career, he owns a 118.5 rating against the Vikings.
“He’s amazing. He’s a surgeon,” Zimmer said. “I’ve always had the utmost respect for him because he can do everything. He can run, he sees things. You’ve heard all these superlatives every week, I’m sure. They’re so good at everything that they do offensively.”
— While the Vikings are 0-3 in the division, the Packers are looking to maintain their divisional dominance under McCarthy. Since he took over in 2006, the Packers are 38-13-1 vs. division foes, with that .740 winning percentage ranking second in the league behind New England’s .784. McCarthy is eyeing his fifth season sweep of the Vikings in his nine seasons.
— According to STATS, Bridgewater has completed 17 of his last 21 passes on third down to give him a season-long completion rate of 67.2. That’s the fourth-best marksmanship in the NFL. That’s the good news. The bad news? There hasn’t been a ton of production. He’s 23rd in the league with a third-down conversion rate of 40.6 percent.
At least he’s not messing things up too badly. The logical approach for a defensive coordinator to take against a young quarterback is to try to confuse him in hopes of coaxing a turnover or three. Bridgewater, however, has thrown only one interception the past three weeks.
“You see a talented quarterback,” Packers cornerback Tramon Williams said. “Obviously, a young guy’s going to be inexperienced, but he’s smart with the ball. Obviously, he has some plays that you look at and, with pressure, you can get any quarterback to make mistakes. For the most part, he’s poised for his age, for his youth. He’s a poised guy. So he’s going to be a guy who I think as a young player, you’re going to have to make him make mistakes. He doesn’t often make them on his own, and you don’t get that a lot from young quarterbacks. A lot of times, you sit back and be like, ‘This guy is going to shoot himself in the foot at some point.’ With this guy, he’s not going to make those mistakes. You’re going to have to make him make those mistakes.”
— The Packers lead the NFL with 26 first-half touchdowns, with 19 produced through the air by Rodgers. The Vikings have scored 18 touchdowns all season. Here’s another contrast: In Green Bay’s last two games, it’s scored 108 points. In Minnesota’s last six games, it’s scored 90 points.
— The Packers joined the 1950 Los Angeles Rams as the only teams in NFL history with at least 53 points in back-to-back games. The Vikings, on the other hand, are 4-0 when they score at least 17 points but 0-6 when they fail to reach that low scoring bar.
— One area where Zimmer has brought improvement is interceptions. Last season, the Vikings’ defensive backs intercepted six passes all season. This season, they’ve picked off 10 balls in 10 games. Standout safety Smith is tied for third in the NFL with four interceptions.
— The Packers’ offensive line has rounded into form after some inconsistent play early in the season. Green Bay’s front wall will be tested not only by Zimmer’s scheme but some defensive firepower. The Vikings are tied for fourth in the league with 30 sacks and second with a sack rate of 9.09 percent.
“(Defensive ends Brian) Robison and (Everson) Griffen are no different than the two guys we just saw in (Philadelphia’s Connor) Barwin and (Trent) Cole,” Campen said. “They’re fine rushers. They get off the ball. It’s another challenge. It’s on someone else’s home field. We look forward to seeing how they do this week.”
— During Tim Masthay’s first four seasons as punter, Green Bay allowed only one blocked punt. This season, however, the Packers have had two punts blocked. Expect the Vikings to attack, even though they haven’t blocked a punt since 2006.
“I think you do (expect that) because I think they identify what they would view as a weakness and they attack that,” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. “One thing about this league, you better stop what you’ve done poorly or it will get exposed.”
— Not only is Bridgewater playing, but so is veteran outside linebacker Chad Greenway, which caught Rodgers’ attention. Greenway, a two-time Pro Bowler, ranks fourth in franchise history with 1,160 tackles and trails only Rob Ninkovich and Peppers with 11 fumble recoveries since entering the league in 2007.
“He’s a talented guy. He’s one of the top linebackers in the league. Having him back helps,” Rodgers said. “And then Anthony Barr is playing really well. He’s a young rookie who’s multi-dimensional. He can play on the line of scrimmage, he can play at that linebacker position. They like to bring him from different spots, he’s active in pass coverage. He’s a big-time playmaker with a bright future, so he’s one of those guys going forward where you’re going to have to figure out where he’s at on every play.”
— Almost all of the key stats are stacked in Green Bay’s favor. The Packers are a league-best plus-14 in turnovers; Minnesota is tied for 13th at plus-1. When Green Bay has the ball, it’s No. 7 on third down (44.4 percent) and No. 9 in the red zone (61.0 percent touchdowns) compared to Minnesota’s defense ranking No. 14 on third down (40.3 percent) and No. 26 in the red zone (63.0 percent). When the Packers are on defense, they are 24th on third down (43.5 percent) but fourth in the red zone (45.7 percent); the Vikings’ offense is 28th on third down (35.0 percent) and tied for 21st in the red zone (52.0 percent).
Capers, on if the defense has room to take another step forward and play like it did during the second half of 2010: “I think the way we played the last two weeks is kind of equivalent to when we were on a roll that year. If you think about it, I think we went the last 10 games where we were giving up an average of 10 points. What you’ve got to do is you’ve got to finish games off. The first Vikings game, at the end of three quarters, I think they had 126 yards and no points and then the fourth quarter, we gave up 176 yards and 10 points. We’ve got a number of games like that. You look at our game last week. The last drive, they go 80 yards in 10 plays. You’ve got to be able to finish games off if you want to be a top scoring defense. I really like the way we’ve been playing the first half. What we haven’t done is we haven’t finished games off. In the fourth quarter, we might give up as much yardage as we’ve given up the first three quarters. It’s like last week. The first three quarters, we’re sitting there and you couldn’t be more pleased with the way we’re playing. And then you look up there at the end of the game and they’ve got 430 yards and you say, ‘What the hell just happened?’”
email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.