There is no hyperbole needed to hype up a Packers-Vikings games. To talk to former players, they said if the team went 2-12 or 2-14, as long as they beat the Packers twice it helped. While few believe that, the sentiment is there. This is the Vikings' biggest rival and beating them, whether they are a Super Bowl contender or a league doormat, is always important.
However, the Packers team the Vikings face Sunday night is a banged-up team that is running far from maximum capacity. Few teams have been hit by as many significant injuries as Green Bay.
Heading into the period before training camp, if you were to look at the Packers depth chart then and compare it to now, it is shockingly different. Four projected starters are out for the season – RB Ryan Grant (ankle), TE Jermichael Finley (knee), DT Johnny Jolly (discipline) and LB Nick Barnett (wrist). Two more – CB Al Harris (knee) and S Atari Bigby (ankle) – remain on the physically unable to perform list and may or may not be activated for Sunday's game. Two former starters – DE Justin Harrell and LB Brady Poppinga) are also out. Six other starters are listed as questionable. Few teams have the walking wounded the Packers have, so the timing of the Vikings visit couldn't be better.
With the season-ending injury to Grant, more pressure has been placed on quarterback Aaron Rodgers to pick up the slack. One of the most efficient passers in his first two seasons, like Brett Favre, Rodgers had just seven interceptions all last season. He has seven interceptions this year and has taken numerous big hits over the last couple of weeks. He has thrown 201 passes for 1,546 yards in his first six games and is the centerpiece of the Packers offense by choice, but now by force. Some Vikings defenders believe Rodgers will throw 50 times or more, which will mean the Vikings pass rush will be unleashed against him. In two games last year, they sacked him 14 times. If they can come close to replicating that performance, the Packers will be in trouble.
Without Grant, the running game has all but ground to a halt. Brandon Jackson has taken over the starting spot and is averaging 4.6 yards a carry, but it should be noted that 25 percent of those yards came on one run. He has consistently been bottled up and prevented from making a significant impact. He has just 305 yards on 67 carries, despite being the de facto starter since the middle of their Week 1 game. In six games, he is averaging only 11 carries a game and, given the Vikings' run-stopping ability, probably won't up the ante Sunday night. Fullback John Kuhn has moved into a role as part-time halfback and short-yardage runner. He isn't a threat to break long runs and the Vikings will likely have a relatively easy time keeping him contained. With Kuhn getting more looks as a runner, Korey Hall has stepped in as the new fullback. He doesn't have a carry or a reception, so his job would seem clear. The Packers aren't going to run the ball all that often to begin with. If the Vikings can control the league's 19th-ranked rushing offense, which seems quite possible, they could force the Packers to pass early and often Sunday night.
If Green Bay does have to pass, they have a talented group of receivers, but Rodgers lost one of his biggest playmakers when tight end Jermichael Finley. He was the second-leading receiver on the team before a knee injury took him out for the season. He was averaging more than 14 yards a catch. With Finley gone, veteran Donald Lee – best known for his blocking – takes over as the primary tight end option in the offense. He is backed up by first-year players Andrew Quarless and Tom Crabtree – neither of whom is being expected to contribute much to the passing offense. Considering the role since-departed Spencer Havner had on the offense against the Vikings last year, not having a tight end receiving option like Finley is a huge loss. This will put a much bigger onus on the wide receivers to pick up the downfield slack. Fortunately for Rodgers, he has a solid corps of receivers to get that job done. Starters Greg Jennings and Donald Driver are as dangerous a receiving duo as the Vikings will face this season. Driver, who never seems to age, leads the team with 28 receptions and Jennings, a consistent big-play threat, leads the team in yards (316) and touchdowns (four). Speedy Jordy Nelson and James Jones have stepped up their play in three- and four-receiver sets. They have combined for 28 receptions and have averaged 12 yards per catch. They will likely both see a lot of field time since the Packers seem destined to pass a lot.
Protecting Rodgers won't be easy, but the Packers look to be stronger on the O-line than they were last year when they allowed 14 sacks to the Vikings in two games. Veteran left tackle Chad Clifton missed both games last year, but he is back for an 11th season. Technically sound, he has problems with speed, which could play to Jared Allen's favor. The other tackle spot was supposed to be manned again by 11-year pro Mark Tauscher. But, he has been sidelined with a shoulder injury, opening the door for rookie Bryan Bulaga of Iowa. He held up very well against Brian Orakpo of the Redskins and struggled against Cameron Wade of the Dolphins. Ray Edwards will look to make it a two-game slide. The Packers are saying that Tauscher is technically a game-time decision, but Bulaga may have earned his starting spot. In the middle, the Packers have Scott Wells at center and Daryn Colledge and Josh Sitton at guards. All three are pedestrian players who are lunch-pail types that get the job done, but are capable of being overwhelmed. It will be their job to handle the Williams Wall and both Pat and Kevin had big games against the Packers last season. There is little to think that will change.
The Packers have talent on defense, but injuries have ravaged the entire defense much of the year. Up front, the Packers' 3-4 is more than a little banged up. Jolly is suspended for the season and DE Ryan Pickett is questionable for Sunday's game. DE Cullen Jenkins leads the defensive line with four sacks, but he is nursing a hand injury. The only healthy starter is nose tackle B.J. Raji, who moved into the starting job when Pickett was forced outside. It will be their job to contain running lanes for Adrian Peterson. They did a decent job of that last year, restricting Peterson to 157 yards on 50 carries in two games. If Pickett can't go (he is expected to play), seventh-round rookie C.J. Wilson would likely get the start.
The Packers linebackers have been their calling card, but injuries have crippled the position. Clay Matthews is a frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year. He has 8.5 sacks despite missing the last game-and-a-half with a hamstring injury. The Packers expect him back for the Vikings, but he is listed as questionable and likely won't be 100 percent. His primary backup, Brady Poppinga, has already been ruled out for Sunday. In the middle, Nick Barnett was lost for the season and A.J. Hawk has been slowed with a groin injury. Hawk, who began the year as a backup, is backed up by Brandon Chillar, who is also questionable for the Vikings. The only healthy linebackers they have left are fourth-year pro Desmond Bishop, a first-year starter, and second-year man Brad Jones. The injuries have forced special teamers Frank Zombo and Robert Francois into action. The Packers hope to be at full strength with the return of Matthews and Hawk, but depth is razor thin and the potential to get lit up by Favre is a distinct possibility.
The secondary has been the strength of the Packers for years, but it has been missing two starters from the beginning of the season. Both cornerback Al Harris and safety Atari Bigby have been on the PUP list. Both are eligible to be activated, but it appears that Bigby isn't ready and Harris is a question mark. Charles Woodson, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, has been slowed with a toe injury that may require the Packers to modify their typical plan of letting Woodson go one-on-one with receivers. With a bad toe, Randy Moss could make him look bad, which, when you're on an island, typically means a touchdown. Fourth-year man Tramon Williams is a solid starter who made 10 starts last year and is likely going to see more action than Harris even if he is activated, but depth is a concern here as well. Rookie Sam Shields provides corner depth, which will be tested if the Vikings look to attack the deep zone of the Green Bay defense. At safety, Nick Collins is questionable with a knee injury, which the Packers can ill-afford to have. With Bigby not expected to be activated this week, Collins and fifth-year backup Charlie Peprah will be asked to provide deep passing help and run support. If Collins can't go, fifth-year swingman Jarrett Bush will likely be pushed into the starting lineup.
When at full strength, the Packers are a formidable team on both sides of the ball. Having already lost key players like Barnett, Finley and Grant, the Packers have had a considerable amount of talent taken away from the roster. Given the injuries to so many other key players, this could be the ideal time for the Vikings to pull out a road win. If the Vikings can keep from turning the ball over, given the injury situation the Packers are enduring, there is a good chance the Vikings can win a game that few people would have thought possible just a couple of weeks ago. Timing is everything in football, and the timing doesn't look to be favoring the Packers right now, which could be a pivotal advantage as the Vikings look to win their first road game of the season and their first road game in their last five – when they last played the Packers at Lambeau Field.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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