World’s Best Preview: Look at the Rosters on Defense

Why has Minnesota caught up with Green Bay in the NFC North? The last four drafts tell the tale. Plus, absolutely damning offensive statistics against elite defenses, stopping Peterson, Zimmer's Green Bay-centric focus, elite special teams and much, much more in a story overflowing with stats, notes and quotes we guarantee you won't find anywhere.

How have the Minnesota Vikings vaulted over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North race?

Yes, it’s because the Vikings have won five in a row and the Packers have lost three in a row. That’s the small picture. It’s the big picture that demonstrates why the Vikings are an ascending power and why the Packers are clinging to their status as a contender.

Under general manager Ted Thompson, the Packers have used their first-round pick on defensive players in each of the past four drafts, with outside linebacker Nick Perry in 2012, defensive end Datone Jones in 2013, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in 2014 and cornerback Damarious Randall in 2015. Second-rounders were used on Casey Hayward and Jerel Worthy in 2012 and Quinten Rollins in 2015. A third-rounder was used on Khyri Thornton in 2014. Fourth-round selections were used on Mike Daniels and Jerron McMillian in 2012, Carl Bradford in 2014 and Jake Ryan in 2015.

That’s 12 picks — four in the first round, three in the second round, one in the third round and four in the fourth round — in the last four drafts. Of that Dirty Dozen, only Daniels has exceeded expectations. Worthy and Thornton were colossal busts, and neither McMillian nor Bradford panned out. Maybe Randall will turn into a star. Maybe Rollins and Ryan will blossom into starters. But taken as a group, the Packers haven’t received nearly enough impact from those players. With that, it’s little wonder why Dom Capers hasn’t trotted out an elite unit since 2010. He’s an excellent defensive coordinator. He’s not a miracle worker.

Now, look at the Vikings’ draft haul over that same period.

In 2012, they grabbed safety Harrison Smith with the second of their two first-round picks. In 2013, they doubled up with defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and cornerback Xavier Rhodes in the first round. In 2014, they landed stud linebacker Anthony Barr in the first round. And in this year’s draft, first-round cornerback Trae Waynes can’t get on the field but second-round middle linebacker Eric Kendricks has been outstanding.

That’s four first-round studs in four drafts for the Vikings — and plenty of firepower for Mike Zimmer, their second-year head coach and one of the NFL’s most-esteemed defensive minds.

“I think Mike’s one of the best defensive coaches in the league,” Capers said. “He’s got his niche there with what he does. One of the keys is adapt what you’re doing to what your personnel does best. I’m sure he had a vision going in there and they drafted to that. When you look at the people they drafted, the two linebackers out of UCLA (Barr and Kendricks) are both athletic-type guys. They drafted corners — they had the big corner from Florida State (Rhodes, but) they drafted (Waynes). He knows that to play (his attacking style), he’s got to have two corners who can get up there and press if you’re going to walk those guys up in the A-gaps, because now you’re going to challenge people. Yeah, you can see him building that defense and I think they’ve made a commitment to build their defense.”

On the surface, it would be easy to say the Vikings have benefitted from being a bad team and having a bunch of early draft picks to land blue-chip prospects. That would be true, but only to an extent.

Perry was taken at No. 28, Jones at No. 26, Clinton-Dix at No. 21 and Randall at No. 30. However, blaming it on draft position is excuse-making. The Vikings took Smith at No. 29, one spot after the Packers landed Perry, by trading back into the first round. Floyd and Rhodes went three spots and one spot ahead of Jones, respectively, with the Vikings getting the Rhodes pick by dealing Percy Harvin to Seattle. The Packers had no chance to get Barr, who went ninth overall, or Waynes, who went 11th. Green Bay could have had Kendricks at the end of the first round, though it’s hard to quibble with what Randall has shown.

Taken together, that’s dominant defenders at every level — something Capers hasn’t had in years. Floyd and Linval Joseph, a free agent signed away from the Giants in the 2014 offseason, are one of the top defensive tackle tandems in the NFL. Barr and Kendricks are tremendous young linebackers. Smith and Rhodes highlight the secondary.

As a result, Minnesota is the only team in the league to have not allowed more than 23 points in a game this season and it ranks second with 17.1 points allowed per game.

“It all works together for them,” Packers associate head coach/play-caller Tom Clements said. “Their up-front people are playing well, their linebackers are playing well. They have solid people in the secondary. 29 on our left (Rhodes) is a younger guy but he’s really coming on. Their safeties are good safeties. 22 (Smith), he’s always around the ball, he’s a good blitzer, he’s a good football player. They’re all good football players.”

HELP WANTED WITH PETERSON

On Thursday evening, Capers could afford to crack a joke.

During his illustrious career as an NFL coach, Capers has seen some of the best running backs in NFL history. The Vikings’ Adrian Peterson is right at the top of that list. This week, with the Packers’ division championship hopes perhaps on the line against the rampaging Vikings, Capers is leaving no stone unturned in his hopes of finding a winning formula.

“Well, I’m looking for any suggestions,” Capers said with a smile.

Peterson, who leads the NFL in rushing by more than 200 yards after sitting out most of last season, has put up some big numbers against the Packers. In 15 career games, including the 2012 playoffs, Peterson has rushed for 1,747 yards, averaged 5.4 yards per carry and scored 11 touchdowns. There’s been some give and take in the 11 games against Capers-led Packers defenses, with Peterson rushing for 1,295 yards, averaging 5.1 yards per carry and scoring nine touchdowns. In those 11 games, the Packers are 7-3-1. When Peterson has rushed for 100 yards, the Packers are 3-1-1.

“He’s the best player in the league, in my opinion,” linebacker Julius Peppers said. “So a guy like this, everything he does is better than everybody else. He has the physical gifts, obviously. He has the speed, vision, the body. He has it all, so it’s a challenge for us and I think we’re up for it.”

Peterson is an outrageous combination of size and speed. It’s more than that, though. He’s arguably the most dangerous running back in NFL history because of his vision and will. The defense can smother the design of the play but Peterson can see an opening elsewhere. And even when there’s nowhere to run and every door seems to be closed and locked, Peterson has the ability to run through a host of defenders to break into the clear.

Defending Peterson starts with beating the blockers, obviously. But like fingers in a glove, it takes a man occupying each gap. All of those fingers have to be parallel so as not to create a gap. And then it requires playing to the whistle.

“What you have to do with this guy is you can’t ever relax,” Capers said. “You might have a great game going and you’ve pretty much bottled him up but on any given play, what you’ve seen in a number of games — last week, it was late in the game that he had an 80-yarder. I’ve looked at enough tape and almost every game you see him break out of there. You’ve got to get multiple people to the ball. You’ve got to be really solid in your gap control. He’s a violent runner but he’ll take the ball anywhere. The ball might be designed to come over here to the tackle on the right side and he’ll take the ball all the way back outside and he’s got enough burst and speed that he can outleverage you. You just can’t stay on blocks. You’ve got to control your block, you’ve got to be disciplined. You’ve got to not get your defense at different levels because he’s got great vision that if you get one guy up the field and you’ve got the other guys sitting at the line of scrimmage, he’ll hit that crease going laterally and then plant his foot and get going north and south.”

That means fighting to the whistle, even if the play is going the other direction and the defender is not part of the action. When Peterson rushed for 199 yards in the Vikings’ victory over Green Bay in the 2012 finale at the Metrodome, 147 of those yards came after contact, by our unofficial count. A month earlier, when Peterson rumbled for 210 at Lambeau Field, 182 came after contact.

“I know there’s many times where I just kind of hung onto a tight end doing my job where you’re not really involved in the play and, the next thing you know, he bounces it outside and you’re there to make the tackle, which is huge,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “If you get a little too overaggressive, he’ll pop that and if there’s not a corner out there — which is already a mismatch — he can really make you pay. And that’s why I say play smart. We’re not asking guys to do too much. Just play gap-sound. For an outside guy it’s pretty easy. Just stay on the outside. You might not be involved in a lot of plays but, when he does eventually decide to bounce it, it’s the big play you need to make.”

KRYPTONITE: ON ROAD VS. GREAT DEFENSES

In Super Bowl XLV vs. Pittsburgh, the Packers scored 31 points against the NFL’s top-ranked scoring defense to bring the Lombardi Trophy back to Titletown. That victory was part of an impressive playoff run, with the Packers winning at Atlanta and Chicago in the playoffs, two other teams that finished in the top five in points allowed.

That seems like ancient history now. Since the Packers won at Chicago late in 2012, the Packers have lost seven consecutive road games against teams that finished in the top six in scoring defense with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback. With Denver at 7-2 and ranking third in scoring defense and Carolina at 9-0 and ranking sixth, that losing streak essentially stands at nine games heading into Sunday’s showdown at Minnesota, which is 7-2 and ranks second in points allowed.

Here are the nine games:

GameOpponentScoreOpp PPGRodgers’ Rating/YardsOpp. Rating/Yards
2012, Divisional San Francisco 31-45 17.1 91.5/257 81.2200.2
2013, Week 1 San Francisco 28-34 17.0 102.6/333 78.6/221.0
2013, Week 3 Cincinnati 30-34 19.1 64.5/244 75.3/209.0
2014, Week 1 Seattle 16-36 15.9 81.5/189 78.8/185.6
2014, Week 3 Detroit 7-19 17.6 88.8/162 84.6/231.6
2014, Week 15 Buffalo 13-21 18.1 34.3/185 74.5205.8
2014, NFCC Seattle 22-28 15.9 55.8/178 78.8/185.6
2015, Week 8 Denver 10-29 18.7 69.7/77 74.6/182.8
2015, Week 9 Carolina 29-37 19.4 96.6/369 69.1/234.6
Total   20.7 ppg 17.6 76.0/220.7 77.3/206.2

In those nine games, the Packers have averaged 20.7 points per game, better than the 17.6 points per game those teams allowed. However, in the six games dating to the start of the 2014 season, the Packers’ average falls to 16.2 points per game compared to an opponent average that’s still 17.6.

Put another way, in 2014 and 2015, the Packers have averaged 31.2 points against opponents that ranked outside the top six in scoring allowed — a whopping 15.0-point difference compared to what they’ve done the past season-and-a-half against elite defenses. Or, there’s this damning perspective: Those elite defenses have actually done better against Green Bay’s powerful offense than they’ve done against the rest of the league.

This doesn’t all fall on Rodgers but his numbers are illustrative of what’s going on with the rest of the offense. In the nine losses, Rodgers’ passer rating is 76.0 — almost 30 points worse than his NFL-record career mark of 105.8. Those nine opponents have yielded a passer rating of 77.3. So, again, it’s not just that Rodgers’ numbers have declined against elite defenses. You’d expect that. Rather, it’s that opponents have actually done better against Rodgers than every other quarterback.

THE OTHER SIDELINE

— The Vikings have won five in a row and are playing in one of their biggest games since the 2009 NFC Championship. With that in mind, and a chance to seize control of the NFC North, Zimmer designed the “Beat Green Bay” T-shirts the players wore on Monday.

Zimmer, however, doesn’t just want to “beat” Green Bay. He wants to “be” Green Bay.

“I think when you win, you get more confident,” Zimmer said. “We’re such a young team and we have to continue to focus on the task at hand each and every week. We’re not afforded the luxury of being confident or cocky or anything like that. We’re a blue-collar team that likes to go out and work. They’ve worked ever since the first day that I got here. I have been trying to build a culture of winning. This year, we won all the preseason games except for one; last year, we won all the preseason games. I know those don’t mean anything but … Honestly, we’re trying to be like the Packers. As bad as that might sound to Vikings fans, they’ve been an unbelievable organization. Mike McCarthy’s done an unbelievable job. They’ve got franchise quarterbacks and Super Bowls. We’re just trying to get in the same mix as them, is really what we’re trying to do.”

— The Packers are going to enter this offseason with major questions at linebacker, with Mike Neal and Perry heading for free agency and Peppers owed a $7 million base salary. The Vikings have no such questions, not after selecting Barr in the first round in 2014 and Kendricks in the second round in 2015. Barr does everything — he’s second in tackles, second in passes defensed and third in passes defensed. Even while missing two games, Kendricks is fourth in tackles and leads all rookies with four sacks.

“Getting Barr was big because he can do so many things,” Zimmer said. “He’s got great size, speed, strength. He’s a smart guy. He helped this defense kind of turn around when we drafted him. Kendricks is a guy that’s very active. He’s a smart guy. He’s a guy that can do a lot of things — not as many things as Barr can do — but now we have some athleticism there at those two spots especially. I do think that has helped.”

— For the first three weeks of the season, Stefon Diggs — the Vikings’ rookie fifth-round wide receiver — wasn’t good enough to be on the 46-man gameday roster. In the six games since, Diggs is 10th in the NFL with 507 receiving yards. Only the Raiders’ top pick, Amari Cooper, with 732 yards in nine games, has more receiving yards among rookies. He’s provided a big-play element, with 16.9 yards per reception and a league-high 12 receptions of 20-plus yards. Moreover, among wide receivers, he’s eighth with 6.57 yards after the catch per reception.

“He’s definitely developed into their go-to guy,” Capers said. “What I see is a guy with quickness and ability to get open, catches the ball, really strong runner after the catch. If you look at the Chicago game where they took the ball down in that two-minute drill to tie the game and then come back and win it with a field goal, he was a big part of that. He made a couple really good catches. He made yardage after the catch. He’s a strong runner. He’s done a nice job getting open for them.”

— Second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater won’t wow anyone with his numbers. He’s 17th in completion percentage, 27th in yards, 29th in touchdown percentage, 11th in interception percentage and 23rd in passer rating.

However, he’s shown a flair for the dramatic. In 21 career starts, he’s led the Vikings to five victories in overtime or when trailing in the fourth quarter. That includes the Nov. 1 game at Chicago, when the Vikings trailed 20-13 with 4:55 remaining but tied the game on Bridgewater’s 40-yard touchdown pass to Diggs and then won on a short field goal in overtime.

“I think he’s doing a lot of really good things for us,” Zimmer said. “He’s not making bad plays, which help us to be good in field position. I think he’s grown a lot in the knowledge and the understanding of the offense. He still has a lot of areas to improve but he’s extremely composed. Nothing rattles him. He gets in critical situations of games and makes the correct decisions. I love the kid.”

HISTORY LESSONS

— Green Bay leads the series 58-49-2, including a split of the two postseason matchups. Green Bay is 9-1-1 in its last 11 games vs. the Vikings and hasn’t lost to its rivals to the west since the regular-season finale in 2012, when Christian Ponder threw for 234 yards with three touchdown and Peterson rushed for 199 as the Vikings won 37-34. A week later at Lambeau Field, with Ponder sidelined by injury, the Packers won 24-10.

The Packers have followed their 2010 Super Bowl championship with four consecutive NFC North titles. Zimmer, however, didn’t put a bull’s-eye on the Packers upon taking over last year.

“I’ve never talked about any teams in the division, to be honest with you,” he said. “All I talk about is us and how we can get better that day, things we have to do to improve. I try to teach our team about what wins games and what loses games. I try to teach them about doing things right, penalties, try to hold our guys accountable. I’ve never mentioned any team in our division at all as far as what we’re trying to do.”

— Peterson is a big-play machine. He and Rams rookie Todd Gurley are the only backs in the league with four carries of 40-plus yards, and his runs of 75 and 80 yards represent two of the three longest carries in the NFL this season. With his 80-yard touchdown vs. the Raiders, Peterson tied Barry Sanders for No. 1 in NFL history with 18 touchdown runs of 40-plus yards. One of those was his 82-yard touchdown at Lambeau Field in 2012. He is the outright leader with eight runs of 70-plus yards.

“You see from games, he’ll have a 1-, 2-yard gain, a negative gain, and then he’ll pop one for 40, 50, 80 yards at a time,” Matthews said. “I think that’s what really kills you on defense. We’ve just got to play smart for four quarters. That’s really what it comes down to. Obviously, we need all hats on the ball. He’s a special athlete. We just need to play smart.”

— For his career, Rodgers is 11-4 against Minnesota (including the aforementioned playoff game). He’s completed 71.1 percent of his passes for 3,764 yards with 32 touchdowns, four interceptions and a passer rating of 117.9. He has topped a 100 passer rating in 10 of the last 11 games.

“There is no doubt the respect that we have for this guy and his ability,” Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards said. “He can make every throw, and the thing that's so impressive about him is his mobility in the pocket, where he can run it or throw it. We know what type of quarterback he is and the respect we have going in for the game with the things he's able to do. Whether he's moving in the pocket to throw it or whether he decides if you're matched up in coverage (to run), we've got to do a good job as far as our rush lanes.”

— According to STATS, this will be just the third time in series history in which both teams had at least a .667 winning percentage through at least nine games. The last time came in 1998, when the Vikings (9-1) beat the Packers (7-3) 28-14 at the Metrodome.

NUMBERS WORTH NOTING

— Peterson is about to break into the top 20 for career rushing yards. He’s got 11,151 yards, putting him 81 behind O.J. Simpson (11,236) for No. 20 in NFL history. There’s another Peterson-Simpson link: Last week’s big game against the Raiders gave Peterson six career 200-yard games. That’s tied with Simpson for most all-time.

The Packers’ run defense, however, has played well — regardless of its No. 24 ranking against the run (116.2 yards per game) and No. 21 mark in yards per carry (4.22 yards per carry). In its last two games, Green Bay limited Carolina’s running backs to 2.8 yards per carry and the Lions’ total rushing attack to 1.7 per carry.

“I think overall, we’ve had a couple games where we haven’t played it good but that was two weeks out of nine games,” Neal said. “I think we just need to go back to the basics and just not give him a gap. If you give him an inch, he’ll take a mile. You’ve got to be able to do that, you’ve got to get people flying to the ball. We’ve got to play like our hair’s on fire because he runs like a madman. You have to get in there and hit him and make it mean something.”

 — The Packers’ offense has looked a lot like the, well, Packers’ offense during the fourth quarter of the past two games. The other three quarters? That’s another story. In the first three quarters against Carolina and Detroit, Green Bay scored 17 points. In the fourth quarters, the Packers have scored 28 points.

That shows up in Rodgers’ numbers. In the first three quarters, he’s thrown for 355 yards and two touchdowns. In the fourth quarters, he’s thrown for 359 yards and four touchdowns.

“We talked about tempo a lot. That's big for us,” receiver Randall Cobb said. “We've always played really well when we're in the up-tempo offense. Fast-paced, we've got to continue that and that's continuing drives, picking up those third downs and keeping the sticks moving and be able to stay in that up-tempo.”

— Neither team will beat itself. The Vikings have committed a league-low 48 penalties, including an NFL-best 16 by the offense. Their nine giveaways are the fourth-fewest in the NFL. But they’ve got nothing on the Packers in that department. Green Bay has turned over the ball a league-low six times and are on pace to beat last year’s franchise-record 13 giveaways. It has zero giveaways in six of the nine games. It used to be invincible in games without a turnover, with a 41-5-1 record under McCarthy until losses against Denver and Detroit.

— Not only are the Packers and Vikings good, but they’re young. Green Bay had the second-youngest roster to start the season with an average age of 25.23. Minnesota was tied for seventh at 25.87.

The veterans are making their impact, though. Peppers, the oldest player on the Packers at age 35, leads the team with 5.5 sacks. Cornerback Terence Newman, the oldest player on the Vikings at age 37, had two interceptions against the Raiders last week to win NFC Defensive Player of the Week. His 39 interceptions rank third among all active players. With the Bengals in 2013,  he returned a fumble 58 yards for the winning touchdown in a 34-30 verdict over the Packers.

FOUR-POINT STANCE

— Even with the 104-yard kickoff return and missed field goal last week, the Packers’ special teams have been a strength this season. That group will face a huge test against the Vikings.

Mike Priefer’s in his fifth season running the Vikings’ special-teams ship. During those four-and-a-half seasons, the Vikings have scored a league-high 10 touchdowns.

 “The return game is their strength and they play to that,” Packers special teams coordinator Ron Zook said.

This season, Cordarrelle Patterson has scored on a 93-yard kickoff return and Marcus Sherels has scored on a 65-yard punt return. Patterson had a 109-yard touchdown against Green Bay in 2013.

“The thing about kickoffs, you can’t kick it out of bounds,” Zook said. “You’ve got to kick it to him and we’ve got to cover. They do a nice job. They’ve got a great plan. He’s a big, strong, physical guy that can run and break tackles. You can’t go down there and try to knock him out; you’ve got to go down there and tackle him to the ground. He’s the real deal.”

Sherels is an all-around force, with a team-high seven tackles on special teams. He’s a big reason why opponents are averaging a league-low 4.3 yards per punt return.

Zook knows him well. When he coached at Illinois, Sherels played at Minnesota.

“I knew he was fast but he never was — against us — he was never a standout player,” Zook said. “I think right now, he’s having his best season. He’s hard to handle. He’s a gunner on the punt team, he’s a safety on the kickoff team. He’s a guy that you have to reckon with, not to mention the big-play capability he has as a punt returner.”

— One of the few bright spots for Green Bay’s offense the past couple weeks has been the screen game. Against Carolina, James Starks had gains of 30, 29 and 17 yards and Aaron Ripkowski rumbled for 18. Against Detroit, Starks had gains of 19, 17 and 9. That’s seven screens for 139 yards. Starks ranks second in the NFL with 11.1 yards after the catch per catch. The guys doing the blocking deserve a big chunk of the credit.

“It’s not easy as a 320-pound lineman trying to chase down 230-, 240-pound linebackers and safeties,” guard Josh Sitton said. “You have to be calculated with the moves you make.”

— For Green Bay, success on offense will start with blocking the Vikings’ front four. That unit has two studs: defensive tackle Joseph and defensive end Everson Griffen. According to league stats, Joseph leads all defensive linemen with 43 tackles. After 12 sacks in 2014, Griffen has 5.5 this season. He had three vs. Green Bay in the 2012 finale.

“He’s a hell of a player,” left tackle David Bakhtiari said. “It’s going to be a fun matchup. I enjoy going against him. He’s good. He’s got an assortment of moves. He’s fast and strong. It’s going to be a good test. It’s going to be another fun week. He’s strong enough to play three-technique but was a gunner (on the punt team earlier in his career). That kind of speaks to his speed and his strength.”

— The Vikings rank ninth in total defense but are second in scoring. Why? Because they’re No. 3 on third down (35.2 percent conversions) and No. 4 in the red zone (44.0 percent touchdowns). Green Bay has been excellent in the red zone, checking in at No. 6 with a 64.3 percent touchdown rate. The problem, of course, has been on third down. Green Bay ranks 18th with a 36.4 percent conversion rate.

“We’ve been playing pretty good in the red zone, been doing pretty good in third downs,” Zimmer said, speaking as if his defense was mediocre in both facets. “You know, the biggest thing with us is we try to play basically a team-style defense. Everybody’s accountable for doing their job and being in the right place and making sure everybody else is doing their job. I kind of tell them this is about doing your job so someone else can have some success at his.”

THE LAST WORD GOES TO ...

Matthews, on Peterson leading the NFL in rushing after sitting out most of 2014: “The guy came back off a knee injury and almost broke the rushing record (in 2012). He’s a special athlete, there’s no doubt about that.  I didn’t miss him last year. He looks to be the same old AP. It’s always fun playing against a guy of his caliber and hopefully this time we come out on top.”

Bill Huber is publisher of 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 www.twitter.com/PackerReport.


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