The Green Bay Packers unleashed a full dosage of Ty Montgomery on the Chicago Bears on Sunday. His 162 rushing yards were the most by a Packers running back since Samkon Gado’s 171-yard game against Detroit in 2005.
Just like that, it’s Montgomery, not Minnesota’s record-setting Adrian Peterson, that is the center of the backfield talk entering Saturday’s game against the Vikings.
By our count, Montgomery broke 10 tackles against Chicago, so he’s got elusiveness and power. As a former receiver, he’s got route-running skills and hands. But there’s more to being a three-down running back than running and catching.
“We always talk about being complete. It’s not always about as a runner running the football (and) catching the football out of the backfield, but the No. 1 job you have here in Green Bay is protecting our quarterback,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said. “And a big part of that is understanding the scheme, the communication of the pass protections and the adjustments we can make, and then the next part of it is being fundamentally sound. He’s done a really good job with that.”
Really good job, indeed. Montgomery made his first big splash at running back in the first matchup against Chicago in Week 7. Since then, according to data provided courtesy of Pro Football Focus, Montgomery has stayed in for pass protection 26 times. He has allowed no sacks, quarterback hits or quarterback hurries. That’s the most pass-protecting snaps among backs with 100 percent efficiency.
That’s an incredible accomplishment.
“It’s been one of the biggest changes,” Montgomery said.
Pass protection starts before the snap and being on the same page with the quarterback and offensive line. And that’s meant a whole new way to view film. As a receiver, he’d be checking out coverages. Now, he’s looking for blitz tendencies and the skill-sets of pass rushers.
Montgomery makes it sound as easy as he’s made it look.
“I’m still watching film. There’s just different stuff happening,” Montgomery said. “Rather than coverages rolling or corners pressing, I’m watching linebackers and defensive fronts shift, I’m watching safeties rotate. I’m watching the way guys pass rush just the same way I’d watch guys in their press coverage. I’m just watching film the same way, just different guys from a different position. Just trying to watch tendencies and watch things.”
From there, it’s actually going out and winning the block. It’s not something he had to do at Stanford, where he caught 172 passes, or an abbreviated rookie season.
Pass protection isn’t easy. There are backs who have lined up in the backfield for their entire football-playing careers who are miserable at it. It takes smarts to know who’s coming. It takes technique to not lose the block. And it takes courage to see a 240-pound linebacker coming full speed and know that you’re the only obstacle standing in the way of a quarterback sack. Because of size and smarts, Eddie Lacy was great at it. But for a converted wide receiver? That’s perhaps the most impressive part of Montgomery’s remarkable on-the-fly transition.
“Sometimes, it just takes the will to stand in there,” he said. “Sometimes, it takes good fundamentals, depending on where they’re coming from and who you’re going against. Some guys bull rush, some guys have multiple moves, some guys swim. You never know. To say it ‘just takes courage,’ I think it’s dependent upon the situation.”
THE VIKINGS’ SINKING SHIP
The Vikings were the only team in the NFL to start 5-0. And what a gauntlet of victories: at Tennessee, which is tied for the AFC South lead; vs. Green Bay, which is one of only two teams with seven consecutive playoff berths; at Carolina, which went to the Super Bowl last year; vs. the Giants, who are one of only five teams with 10 wins; and vs. Houston, which is tied for the AFC South lead.
Sam Bradford had capably replaced Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback and the defense was an indomitable juggernaut. With a deafening new home stadium, the Vikings looked like legit contenders to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
It’s all fallen apart.
The Vikings have lost seven of their last nine games. At 7-7, their playoff hopes are on life support. Last week, they lost to the underwhelming Colts — at home, no less — 34-6. It wasn’t even that close. The Colts led 27-0 at halftime and had a 21-2 edge in first downs.
“It sure wasn’t a very pretty performance that we had,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said.
The defense is great — last week’s performance notwithstanding. The Vikings rank sixth with 18.5 points allowed per game. Of their 14 games, they’ve allowed 17 or less eight times — including the three games preceding the Indy debacle. It’s a unit built to beat Aaron Rodgers. The Vikings boast a powerful pass rush and superb secondary that has stymied just about every quarterback on the schedule.
The offense, however, is the problem. They’ve scored 17 points or less in seven of their games. They’re 1-6 in those games, with the only win being against the Packers in Week 2.
It didn’t help that Peterson missed 11 games with a knee injury but the Vikings’ running attack was awful with him, anyway. Minnesota is averaging 2.98 yards per carry. That’s the worst in the NFL in more than two decades. Bradford has been accurate but the Vikings’ 9.82 yards per completion is next-to-last this season. (More on that later.)
What’s the problem? The Vikings’ starting offensive tackles in Week 2 were Matt Kalil and Andre Smith. Both are on injured reserve. The Vikings acquired Jake Long to replace Kalil. He’s on injured reserve. For the last five games, the starting tandem has been T.J. Clemmings and Jeremiah Sirles. Clemmings, a fourth-round pick last year, has allowed 6.5 sacks and been penalized seven times in 12 starts. Sirles, an undrafted second-year player, has allowed five sacks and been penalized six times in eight starts.
Minnesota has used seven starting combinations up front. That’s hard to overcome, and particularly so given the loss of Peterson, the midseason resignation of offensive coordinator Norv Turner and the change at quarterback following Bridgewater’s injury a week before the start of the season.
Zimmer took a realistic approach to the injuries. Every team has a next-man-up mentality but backups are backups for a reason.
“It’s been a challenge but we’re not the only team to have injuries,” he said. “Really with most teams, you’re going to have injuries. You just hope that it’s not the same position over and over and over again. That’s kind of been what we’ve had. We’ve had six offensive tackles or some crazy number. When you get hit at the same position, that’s when it gets difficult.”
INSIDE THE VIKINGS
— From one perspective, Bradford has been great. He’s completed 71.64 percent of his passes. If that holds up the next two weeks, he would surpass Drew Brees’ league-record 71.23 percent from 2011.
From another perspective, he hasn’t been nearly good enough. The Vikings average 9.82 yards per completion. Including Houston, which averages a league-worst 9.78 yards per completion, only two teams have been less explosive over the past three seasons.
Bradford’s favorite target is second-year receiver Stefon Diggs. He’s caught 80 passes for 874 yards. Diggs ranks 10th in the NFL in receptions; of that group, he’s first with a catch rate of 75.5 percent. He destroyed the Packers in Week 2 with nine catches for 182 yards and one touchdown.
“Diggs is obviously a great receiver,” Bradford said. “As a quarterback, he’s one of those guys who’s pretty easy to trust. He’s easy to get a feel for, he’s friendly in his routes. I think one of the best things Diggs does for us is we can move him inside, we can move him outside. His route tree is pretty big and we feel comfortable that we can move him around to try and create matchups wherever we feel they may be that week.”
— There’s a chance Peterson won’t play on Saturday. Either way, does it matter?
It’s a relatively small sample size of 37 carries due to the injury, but Peterson has averaged just 1.9 yards per carry. His longest rush of the season is just 13 yards; Montgomery had three carries of at least that distance last week alone.
In his return last week against Indianapolis, he carried six times for 22 yards but fumbled.
“I think anytime there's a chance of Adrian Peterson being on the field, it's going to catch your attention,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “Obviously, for him to play last week, they must have felt good about where he was. But the thing about Adrian Peterson is he can hit the home run at any time. You make a mistake and give him a seam, because of that speed he can take it to the house. You're always concerned about that, about getting people to play good leverage, keep him hemmed in. Try to get him before he gets started, because he's likely to take the ball anywhere. The play might be designed to hit the guard-tackle hole over here. If it's clogged up, he can take it wherever he sees daylight.”
In the game he got injured in vs. Green Bay, Peterson carried 12 times for 19 yards. His longest run went for a mere 5 yards. What did the Packers do so well?
“The one thing with Adrian when you play against a guy with his skills is trying to keep guys not on different levels, everybody staying coordinated upfront,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. “I thought they did a good job with that. That’s when he thrives, when you have one guy way up here and one guy down here and he can shoot and cut, jump-cut like he does. That’s where he’s really good.”
— The Vikings have made life difficult for most quarterbacks this season, with a third-ranked opponent passer rating of 79.8. Against Green Bay earlier this season, Rodgers was limited to a passer rating of 70.7 — the lowest of his 17 career starts against Minnesota. The next week against Carolina, Cam Newton’s passer rating was 47.6 — the fourth-lowest of his career. In Week 11, Arizona’s Carson Palmer was limited to 63.3.
“Excellent defense,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “Very well coordinated and you can definitely see how they’re in the third year (under Zimmer). These guys are on the same page. The continuity, the veteran experience and the understanding not only of their scheme but really how to take away what you do. I think they do an outstanding job — probably the best we’ve seen to date — of recognizing the offense’s communication, shifting and adjusting to what the offense is trying to do, particularly to run the ball or at-the-line adjustments. Especially in the first game up there, they got us on a number of plays of us adjusting at the line of scrimmage. This is an excellent, excellent defense and I know coming off their performance last week, that’s not what we’re anticipating. We have a lot of respect for these guys.”
It starts with the pass rush. There are two teams that have three players with seven-plus sacks. One of them is Chicago, which got after Rodgers a bit last week. The other is Minnesota. Defensive ends Danielle Hunter (10.5), Everson Griffen (8.0) and Brian Robison (7.0) have combined for 25.5 sacks and have keyed the league’s seventh-ranked pass rush (7.16 percent sack rate).
Cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who missed the first matchup between these teams, is headed to the Pro Bowl. His sidekick is 38-year-old Terence Newman, who’s had an amazing season. According to Pro Football Focus, he’s allowing an NFL-low 4.19 yards per target. Safety Harrison Smith, who will join Rhodes at the Pro Bowl, figures to return after missing the last two games with an injured ankle.
Combine the pass rush with the coverage, and you get Minnesota allowing a second-ranked 5.89 yards per passing attempt.
— There have been a total of 16 kick-return touchdowns this season, and Minnesota’s got three of them. Pro Bowl returner Cordarrelle Patterson has a 104-yarder on a kickoff return and Marcus Sherels has scores of 54 and 79 yards. Patterson averages a league-high 31.5 yards per kickoff return this season and has five scores in his four seasons, including a 109-yarder vs. Green Bay in 2013. Sherels’ 13.4-yard average would rank second if he had enough returns.
“Yeah, they have to be up there if they’re not,” special teams coordinator Ron Zook said when asked if they were the top duo in the league. “They’re awful good. Obviously, we’ve had a lot of practice (against explosive returners) the last few weeks with Philadelphia and Seattle, but if you look at the two guys, what they’re capable of doing, what they’ve done, it’s going to be a definite challenge. I think when you get into the conditions like they are, where it’s a little bit cooler, the ball doesn’t travel as well, you have to deal with that. So, placement of the ball and obviously coverage lanes is at a premium.”
It’s not just the returners: A key in the Vikings’ victory at Lambeau Field last year was Adam Thielen’s 41-yard run on a fake punt, which set up a field goal to give the Vikings a quick 3-0 lead.
“We're going to be aggressive,” Vikings special tams coordinator Mike Priefer, a Green Bay native, said this week. “Coach Zimmer has allowed us to be aggressive on special teams every week. We've had fakes in pretty much every week. I think it's one of those things that you have to pick and choose your spots. You've got to be smart about it. In the return game, we brought several back from 7 (or) 8 yards deep last week against Indianapolis. We're going to continue that because we think we have big-play ability across the board. Punt return, kickoff return, kickoffs, surprise onsides, punt fakes, those sorts of things. You always have to have those things in so you're ready for them when the time arises or that situation arises where you see something that our opponent's doing that we can take advantage of what they're doing and hopefully get a big play for our team.”
— The Packers lead the series 59-51-2. While McCarthy is 15-6-1 against the Vikings, Zimmer has gotten the best of the Packers in the last two meetings, including 17-14 in Week 2. The Vikings won the turnover battle 3-1, with two sack-strips of Rodgers and the game-ending interception.
The Packers are 7-2 against the Vikings at Lambeau Field in December, with wins in each of the last six matchups — the most recent being 23-14 in 2012. There’s an asterisk to that late-season success, though. It doesn’t include last year’s regular-season finale, played on Jan. 3 and won by the Vikings 20-13. With Josh Sitton playing left tackle, Griffen had two sacks, including a sack-strip that was returned for a touchdown.
— Speaking of the end of the season, the Packers are finishing strong — no different than most seasons. In regular-season games played in December and January since Rodgers stepped in as quarterback in 2008, Green Bay is 28-12. That .700 winning percentage is the fourth-best over that span.
The key, McCarthy said, is, “Just really what we’ve been emphasizing all along. We knew when we were in the tough phase of the season that we just needed to stay true to ourselves and our commitment to one another. We’ve pushed through that. Now it’s time to do something with it. That’s really our focus. We have a team coming in here we have a lot of respect for. This is going to be a knock-down, drag-out type of game. We fully expect it to go the full length of the game. That’s our mind-set, that’s our preparation and that’s what we’re focused on. Because with this victory Saturday, that’s all that matters. All the other stuff is just good conversation for everybody outside of our locker room to have.”
— Zimmer has had about as much success as any coach against Rodgers. In five career starts against the Zimmer-led Vikings, Rodgers has completed 59.4 percent of his passes for 1,089 yards with nine touchdowns, two interceptions and a passer rating of 93.3. While Zimmer was Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator in 2013, Rodgers completed 60.5 percent of his passes for 244 yards with one touchdown, two interceptions and a 64.5 rating.
“I don’t know if limiting him is really the right word,” Zimmer said. “He’s pretty darn good. We’ve had some success against him, I guess, and really it’s just because we had good players. When I was in Cincinnati, we had good players and we have good players now. He’s always a tough out. In my opinion, he’s the best out there because of all the different things he can do — his arm strength, the things he sees, the communication he has with the receivers, the way he moves in the pocket and, honestly, I think they have a great scheme and the things they do for him. Anytime you’re playing a guy like him, you’re holding onto your rear end the whole game anyway.”
— Last year, the Packers started 6-0 and finished 4-6 for a 10-6 record. It could be the opposite this season — a 4-6 start followed by a 6-0 finish. If this continues, Rodgers’ “run the table” comment will live forever alongside “r-e-l-a-x.”
“It was a feeling,” Rodgers said. “I just felt that our team had it inside of us. Obviously, it's a leap of faith, but also a feeling based on seeing these guys every single day, understanding how close I felt like we were to being a better offense. I felt like regardless of how our defense was playing, if we could set the tone offensively — vis-a-vis it would help out the defense, give them a little confidence when they took they field that they're not behind or against the field position every single time, as they were many times in that four-game stretch.”
STATS THAT AREN’T FOR LOSERS
— The situational stats are in Green Bay’s favor. On offense, the Packers rank second on third down (46.2 percent conversions) and 13th in the red zone (56.9 percent touchdowns). On defense, the Vikings rank 17th on third down (39.1 percent conversions) and 20th in the red zone (55.6 percent touchdowns).
On the other side of the coin, both units are below average. Green Bay’s defense ranks 26th on third down (41.9 percent conversions) and 28th in the red zone (63.2 percent touchdowns). Minnesota’s offense ranks 21st on third down (37.6 percent conversions) and 20th in the red zone (55.6 percent touchdowns).
Turnovers tell the tale in most games. Minnesota ranks third in the NFL at plus-9 but were minus-3 against the Colts last week; the Colts entered the game at minus-5. Green Bay is tied for eighth at plus-5; it’s a staggering plus-10 the past two games — its best since 1978.
— Speaking of turnovers: Rodgers has gone five consecutive games without an interception. During that span, he’s thrown 10 touchdowns and has a passer rating of 114.7. The Vikings have gone 139 passing attempts without an interception.
“He can move in the pocket, buy time and they get their routes down the field,” Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards said. “So, we've got to stay matched up on the routes and when he's pulled it down to run he's done a good job running. He can make every throw whether he's on the run or if he's back there stationary in the pocket.”
— The Packers are front-runners. In their eight wins, they’ve trailed for a total of 12:38. That includes 1:44 — all at Chicago — during their four-game winning streak. Of their six losses, they led for 28:29 at Atlanta but a total of 13:23 in the other five games.
— The third quarter could be key. The Vikings are plus-31 in the third quarter compared to minus-10 for the Packers. The reasons for Minnesota’s third-quarter prowess are defense and turnovers. Minnesota has allowed a league-low 27 points in the third quarter. It’s plus-5 in turnovers in that quarter, with six takeaways and one giveaway.
Or, maybe the first quarter will be key. As Zimmer pointed out this week, the Packers lead the NFL in first-drive touchdowns, with 58 points coming on seven touchdowns and three field goals. The Packers are 6-1 when they score a touchdown on their opening possession. They’ve done it three times during this four-game winning streak. Contrast that to the total of three points to open the losses to Indianapolis, Tennessee and Washington.
“They go down there and they score and they get you behind," Zimmer said. “Then the defense has a chance to pressure you some more.”
— After catching five passes in the previous three games, tight end Jared Cook had a big impact against Chicago with six catches for 85 yards. On Green Bay’s opening touchdown drive, he had a 27-yard catch on third-and-2 and a 17-yard catch on third-and-11. He added two more catches on the Packers field-goal drive late in the first half.
“Both of them were good throws,” Cook said of the third-down plays. “On the first one, I was taking a different angle than what Aaron threw. He did a good job of throwing it where the defender was not expecting the ball to be – right at the back of his head. And then on the second one, the linebacker, it was a tight window and Aaron fit it right in and the linebacker just took a shot at it and missed. It’s just about being where needs me to be.”
The Vikings have run hot and cold against tight ends. In the last eight games, they’ve given up 90-plus yards four times but also pitched a pair of shutouts.
The Vikings’ Kyle Rudolph ranks among the league’s tight end leaders with 66 receptions, 670 yards and six touchdowns. He caught 3-of-8 passes for 31 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting. Green Bay was destroyed by tight ends, with 45 catches, 480 yards and three touchdowns during a six-game span. In the two games since, the Packers limited Seattle’s Jimmy Graham to one catch for 16 yards and no catches against the Bears’ tight ends.
— From 2009 through 2015, the first seven years of Capers’ tenure as defensive coordinator, the Packers scored a total of 32 touchdowns on defense or special teams. This year, the Packers are one of only seven teams without a return touchdown.
Speaking about Ha Ha Clinton-Dix’s zero touchdowns on five interceptions this season, safeties coach Darren Perry said, “We’ve been working on some running drills so, when we get the ball, we can go score, because that’s the one thing we haven’t done on defense yet — we haven’t had a score. This defense normally gets in the end zone. I told him we’ve got two weeks left, so hopefully we can get in there.”
— File this away when the strength-of-schedule stuff for the 2017 season is computed and the discussion of “tough” and “easy” schedules commences. Heading into this season, Minnesota was deemed to have the 18th-toughest schedule, with its opponents positing a cumulative winning percentage of .488 in 2015. The Packers supposedly had the easiest schedule, with their opponents posting a .457 winning percentage last year. Both teams enter this game having played a schedule with an opponent winning percentage of .510. Those stand as the 12th-toughest schedules in the league to date.
— Rodgers has been swept by a division rival only once since taking over as the starter. That was 2009, when the Brett Favre-led Vikings won both matchups.
McCarthy, on the challenges and distractions of Christmas: "It’s part of your schedule. You have to factor all those things in. You’d be naïve not to think that players, coaches, everybody is not having a little bit more personal responsibility on their plate. So you talk about it, you educate about it. There’s gift exchange that will happen after meetings today (Thursday). All those things are part of your environment, part of your culture. They’re very healthy for your environment and culture. So, you have to make sure you build that in. You want it to happen, you want everybody to participate, but we have a level of preparation as far as time commitment, the number of things we need to cover each and every week. We’re definitely not going to jeopardize that with everything we have on the line. We’re getting our work done, but we’re also going to take part in the spirit of the holidays."
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.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.