Fact No. 2: The Vikings' rush defense is one of the best in the NFL.
Taken together, logic would dictate that Ryan Grant figures to gain as many bruises as yards on Monday night.
But almost inexplicably, the Packers have run the ball with about as much success as any team in the league against a seemingly impenetrable Minnesota run defense. Being able to do so again will be critical in this much-anticipated showdown at the Metrodome.
"We've hit a couple big runs on them," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said on Friday. "I'm sure they're sitting over there coaching, ‘Geez, if we had better gap control, that 57-yarder would have been a 3-yarder.' We hit them on that one at the end of the game here in the opener, and in the same game, we hit them on a double-A-gap blitz, we kind of split a blitz (for a 19-yard gain). I'm sure they're thinking, ‘Geez, we should have shut the guy down.' And we're saying, ‘Hey, just stay with our stuff and keep knocking and knocking and we're going to break one on these guys.'"
When the Packers romped to a 34-0 victory over Minnesota on Nov. 11, 2007, at Lambeau Field, Grant ran for 119 yards, including a 30-yard touchdown. The Vikings haven't allowed 100 rushing yards to a running back since — a streak of 26 games by a defense that has ranked No. 1 in the NFL against the run the last three seasons.
In the 2008 opener, Grant rushed for 92 yards — including the aforementioned 57-yard sprint that set up the clinching touchdown. In the midseason loss at Minnesota, Grant rushed for 75 yards. Put together, he averaged 6.0 yards per carry.
How do you explain that success against a defense that, from 2006 through 2008, allowed 3.1 yards per carry and 70.8 rushing yards per game? Against a defense that allowed a total of 18 rushes of at least 20 yards over the last three seasons compared to the 15 allowed by Green Bay in 2008 alone? Credit apparently goes to the same zone blocking scheme and running back that have come under fire during a sputtering start to this season.
"They do a good job as whole with their blocking scheme and really being able to create some seams for him, and he does a great job of cutting back and finding those creases and making some good runs," Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said on Friday. "It is something that we have to be well aware of and put together a good run-defense day."
Grant has produced in three games vs. Minnesota. Jonathan Daniel/Getty
"They're one of the best combinations in the NFL, and they prove it year in and year out," said Daryn Colledge, who figures to start at left tackle on Monday but has tangled with the Williamses at left guard the past two seasons. "They're always one of the best rush defenses, they always find a way to get to the quarterback. They're extremely disruptive."
Pat and Kevin Williams are flanked by defensive ends Jared Allen and Ray Edwards, who are better pass rushers but aren't slouches against the run. With middle linebacker E.J. Henderson healthy again after missing most of last season with dislocated toes, that group's level of play has risen. He's flanked by Chad Greenway — a first-round pick in 2006 whose rookie season was lost by a torn ACL — and steady veteran Ben Leber.
"You have to be fundamentally sound against this group," center Scott Wells said. "If you're sloppy with your technique, they'll exploit that. Throughout the past when we've had success, you look at the plays we've had a lot of success on, we've executed those plays well. We've adjusted if they've brought a pressure. Guys have hit their landmarks, driven their feet, had their hands inside, and were able to control their blocks."
Grant sees reason for optimism other than his success in his three matchups against Minnesota. After two-and-a-half dismal performances on the ground to start the season, Grant found some running room to gain 74 yards in the second half against St. Louis. And Minnesota is yielding 92.0 rushing yards per game over the first three weeks — a big number by its standards — including 83 yards by the Lions' Kevin Smith in Week 2.
"They've got a great a D-line and they do a good job of stopping the run and knowing how to discourage teams," Grant said. "But I think some teams this year have been able to do some different things against them. We're going to get bodies on bodies, we're going to play hard-nosed ball and we're going to attack them."
Running the ball always is important, and especially so this week, McCarthy said. First, it will occupy Allen, Edwards and Kevin Williams enough to prevent them from teeing off on quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Second, even modest success in the run game will keep the Packers in manageable third-down distances. To state the obvious, third-and-6 is better than third-and-10.
Sticking with the run game can be a challenge. McCarthy barely bothered to run the ball in the second half against Cincinnati, even though the Packers only trailed by three points, and Rodgers paid the price. Sticking with the run against an elite run defense is especially challenging because it can feel like you're banging your head against a wall.
"Obviously, you've got to expose weaknesses but you've got to attack strengths sometimes, as well, in a game plan," Philbin said. "Their run defense speaks for itself. It's been good for a long time. At certain points in different ball games, we've had some success against these guys. They're the type of defense where you're probably not going to get 4, 5, 6, 4, 5 (yards). You might be getting 1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 19. There's got to be some level of patience."
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