Gray: Packers playing at a higher level

What a game! You couldn't have scripted Green Bay's game against Minnesota any better unless, of course, it was against the Chicago Bears.<p>

To play for first place against a divisional rival not only gets the team pumped up but also the fans. Before the start of the game, the University of Wisconsin marching band literally got up into the face of the Vikings along the sidelines. So much that in the opening ceremonies nose tackle Chris Hovan had to be held by players from attacking the group. Hovan felt the band was too close to the sidelines and poking the horns into their face. There's a reason why they call it home-field advantage!

The game started with the hard running of Ahman Green and a great touchdown catch by Javon Walker. As Vikings cornerback Brian Williams waited for the ball to drop out of the sky, Walker timed his jump perfectly and went up into the air and took it away. Defensive backs are always taught to catch the ball at its highest peak, but the 5-foot-11 Williams never had a chance against the 6-foot-3 Walker. For Brett Favre throw it up for grabs was the perfect play. Walker used his height and his 215 pounds, shielded off Williams, went up, and got it.

I can't say enough about how Favre has adjusted his psyche to put the ball up for grabs and have his receivers use their height and jumping ability to make plays on the ball. They are all on the same page. Whether it is zone coverage or man-to-man, the receivers anticipate making adjustments in their patterns to avoid the defender by using all their athletic abilities. We've seen Green Bay's receivers out-jump shorter defenders, out-run slower defenders, out-quick (see receiver Antonio Chatman) linebackers, and even out-muscle defenders.

Favre brought it up again during his post-game interview with the media that when this team starts to believe in itself, stops making mental mistakes, and plays to its full potential that his "Super Bowl or bust" statement could become a reality. When you see how hard and determined Green, Walker, wide receiver Robert Ferguson, and running back Tony Fisher play in each game, you start to get a sense that there's something there. For years, we've seen how Green fights for extra yardage, but against the Vikings we saw Walker in the fourth quarter attack his would-be tacklers to get the first down. Fisher made a great catch coming out of the backfield on the winning drive, and tight end Bubba Franks made another key catch to sustain the drive. This is what Favre is talking about, the ability to make big plays when they count in crucial situations. More consistency, less mental mistakes and technique errors will guarantee this team more success.

The defensive side of the ball is the same story. The secondary is doing a fine job when they are aggressive, but when they are in the "soft zone" the intensity falls off tremendously. As a matter of fact, you can be more aggressive in zone, but you have to discipline yourself to keep moving and keep your head on a swivel and anticipate. When your receiver is leaving your zone don't settle, look for someone else coming in, or slide with the receiver if no one else in coming through. The weakness of the defense is YOU. The offense is playing off your mistake. The quarterback is looking for you jump a route too soon and leave an open area for him to throw to or, worse, get you hung up on trying to cover just one in your area. This drives coaches crazy, zone not man.

Green Bay's defense has to start making plays. Linebacker Hannibal Navies had tight end Jermaine Wiggins covered like a blanket on a play, but only to never look back for the football. He turns around and it's a sure interception or at least a knock down. Instead Wiggins scored a touchdown. Safety Bhawoh Jue had an easy interception for a touchdown in the fourth quarter but dropped it. Cornerback Joey Thomas never looked back on his coverage, otherwise, he would have had an interception. If cornerback Ahmad Carroll doesn't guess on the out route and looks back maybe that's another, but they're at least knockdowns. The defensive backs have to trust that there will be pressure on the quarterback, so they can play the technique and make a play on the ball. There's not one coach in the universe that teaches man technique that has you just running and looking at the receiver when the ball is in the air especially when you have him covered like a blanket. At some point, the defender has to look back for the ball while maintaining position. It's frustrating to see such great coverage but a poor finish. It is missed opportunities like these that give opponents reason for hope. That's a possible four turnovers that could have put this Vikings team out of its misery and had quarterback Daunte Culpepper on the sidelines thinking about next week.

This Packers need to start finishing plays in order to compete down the stretch and into the playoffs. Green Bay's schedule is too tough to allow teams to hang around into the fourth quarter.

Editor's note: Former safety Johnnie Gray played for the Packers from 1975-84. He was inducted into the Packer Hall of Fame in 1994. E-mail him at Gray24@tds.net. Look for his columns weekly in Packer Report.


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