Just about every NFL analyst has predicted the Green Bay Packers to win the NFC North. Through six games, they've been right. The Packers sit alone atop the division at 4-2, but this isn't the Green Bay Packers fans are accustomed to. With injuries weakening Green Bay on both sides of the ball, the Packers are as vulnerable as they have been in some time.
The one constant on the team is Aaron Rodgers. One of the game's top quarterbacks, Rodgers is having another strong year. Through six games, he has thrown for 1,906 yards (a 317-yard average), with 13 touchdowns, just four interceptions and a passer rating of 104.5. But with injuries depleting his receiver corps, the next couple of months may prove to be the most challenging and daunting of his career.
One of the biggest changes in the Packers offense has taken place in the running games. Entering the season, the Packers had gone 43 straight games without a 100-yard rushing day. Not only has that changed this year, it has changed dramatically. In Week 2, James Starks ran for 132 yards. The next week, Jonathan Franklin ran for 103 yards. Both occurred when rookie starter Eddie Lacy was sidelined. In the three weeks since his return, Lacy had had 22 carries or more in each game with yardage totals of 99, 120 and 82 yards. With the Packers having so many questions among the receiver corps, Lacy is likely going to have the opportunity to run 20 times or more again this week, as the Packers are quickly turning their most glaring offensive weakness into a strength.
The biggest issue facing Green Bay this week and subsequent weeks moving forward is that its replacing the vast majority of his receiving targets. The Packers have four players with 20 or more receptions, but three of them are sidelined – Randall Cobb (29), Jermichael Finley (25) and James Jones (20). Aside from leading receiver Jordy Nelson (35-526-5), the Packers don't have another receiver with 10 receptions. Instead of Cobb, Jones and Finley, the Packers will be depending on players like second-year man Jarrett Boykin, undrafted rookie Myles White and blocking tight end Andrew Quarless to pick up the slack. Under ordinary circumstances, knowing that the Vikings would be without starting safeties Harrison Smith and Jamarca Sanford, Rodgers would be drooling at the prospect, but with so many additions to the lineup on his own offense, his focus will be trying to build a crash course in getting his timing down with his new receivers.
The injuries have extended to the offensive line as well. Entering the season, the Packers anticipated having Bryan Bulaga and Marshall Newhouse as their starting offensive tackles, but when the Packers play the Vikings, they will have rookie David Bakhtiari at left tackle and second-year pro Don Barclay at right tackle. Both of them are learning on the fly and will have their hands full with Jared Allen and Brian Robison attempting to get to Rodgers. They've had their apprenticeship by fire and the Vikings will provide a stiff test to how far both of them have progressed.
The Packers have plenty of talent at all three levels of their defense, but injuries have taken a big toll on that defensive side of the ball as well. Of the four starting linebackers in Green Bay's defense, three of them may well be out Sunday night. Clay Matthews, their best defensive player, will definitely miss the game. Middle linebacker Brad Jones is listed as doubtful and likely won't play and left outside linebacker Nick Perry is questionable. It will put a lot of pressure not only on backups like Jamari Lattimore, Andy Mulumba and Mike Neal, but on the defensive line and secondary to take on additional playmaking responsibilities.
The Packers have a strong defensive front led by B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly and they will be critical in trying to bottle up Adrian Peterson and force Christian Ponder to try to beat them with his arm. The Packers also have one of the best secondaries in the league with cornerbacks Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Jarrett Bush, and safeties Morgan Burnett and M.D. Jennings. They are capable of taking wide receivers in man coverage and allow the front end of the defense to bring blitz pressure on the Vikings offense.
Under ordinary circumstances, the Packers likely would be a prohibitive favorite against the Vikings, but with the devastating injuries that have depleted the receiver corps, depth along the offensive line and the linebacker unit, the Packers have a lot of unplanned weaknesses that can be exploited by the Vikings. Whether Minnesota can take advantage of that opportunity Sunday night is debatable, but the Packers that opened the season against San Francisco are a much different team than fans will see Sunday night at the Metrodome. While the Vikings are still underdogs, they might have a better opportunity to get a home win than most outsiders might think. Even the best of teams struggle when they have key injuries and the Packers have been decimated by injuries and could be ripe for an upset.
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.
Preview: Injuries taking toll on Packers
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