The Vikings make their only scheduled prime time appearance Thursday night and it is against their most heated rival, the Green Bay Packers, at legendary Lambeau Field. With both teams entering the game with 2-2 records, the stakes can’t get much higher for either of them.
The Packers are the three-time defending NFC North champion and they have the ability to make it a fourth straight year, but also have some key issues that may prevent that from happening.
Green Bay will always be a threat as long as Aaron Rodgers is the quarterback there. In his seventh year as the Packers starter, Rodgers is at his peak of efficiency. Through four games, he has completed 86 of 130 passes for 999 yards with nine touchdowns and one interception – posting a passer rating of 109.1. His accuracy is unquestioned and he has become more of a field general as his career has progressed. He extends plays beyond the norm and, with the new rules changes, puts an incredible amount of pressure on defensive backs because, while not necessarily a scrambler, he uses his feet to extend plays and open up passing lanes. If the Vikings are going to win, containing Rodgers will be the critical element because there is the potential to make the Packers one-dimensional.
The Packers running game has struggled badly early on and the team is averaging just 21 rushes a game – one of the lowest totals in the league. Eddie Lacy was expected to be a workhorse in his second season. When Rodgers was down last year, Lacy was the key to keeping the offense afloat. Through four games this year, he has rushed 53 times for just 161 yards (a 3.0-yard average) and he has scored just one touchdown. He is not only the primary threat, he is almost the only ground threat. James Starks is second on the team in rushing and he is averaging less than four carries a game. If the Vikings are looking to make the Packers one-dimensional, stopping Lacy is the key. But, as other Green Bay opponents can attest, that isn’t always easy.
The Packers have two of the most dominant receivers in the NFL with Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. Nelson has caught 33 passes for 459 yards and three touchdowns to lead the team in both receptions and yards. Slot receiver Randall Cobb is equally dangerous. He has caught 21 passes for 239 yards and a team-high five touchdowns. He is a favorite of Rodgers in the red zone because he has quick-twitch ability to get separation and he and Rodgers have developed a tremendous chemistry. Beyond them, depth has been thinned by an injury to Jarrett Boykin, who was slated to be the No. 3 receiver but is out for the Vikings game. That has opened the door for rookie Davante Adams, who hasn’t been a big-play threat yet, catching nine passes for just 79 yards. The tight end position has been a strong suit of the Packers for years, but, with the neck injury suffered by Jermichael Finley last year, the production from tight end has dropped significantly. Andrew Quarless and Richard Rodgers have combined to catch just nine passes and aren’t the threat that position has posed in recent years. While Green Bay has alternate receiving options, Nelson and Cobb are the 1-2 punch that fires the Packers offense and the Vikings will have to stop them in order to keep the Green Bay offense grounded.
One of the issues for the Green Bay offense has been up front. For the third straight year, they’re starting a new center, but this time it’s fifth-round rookie Corey Linsley. Teams have been able to pressure him up the middle and blow up plays. The strength of the line is at guard, where veterans Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang can make up for mistakes, but the tackle position has been a question mark. David Bakhtiari has been inconsistent and right tackle Bryan Bulaga has missed time due to injury. If the Packers are going to make another division title run, this unit will have to solidify because they’ve been inconsistent through the first quarter of the season. With Rodgers on pace to get sacked 40 times, significant improvement is needed.
The Packers incurred a huge loss when nose tackle B.J. Raji suffered a season-ending injury that pushed former Viking Letroy Guion into the starting job. Guion is a serviceable 4-3 defensive tackle, which he showed in six years with the Vikings, but doesn’t require a double-team in the run game like Raji demanded. It puts pressure on both sides of the defense, but the Packers have a pair of strong defensive ends in Datone Jones and Mike Daniels. However, they have combined to register just one sack each and need to do a better job stacking the line to open things up for their linebackers.
A 3-4 defense is only as good as its linebackers and the Packers have two of the best veteran outside in the league in Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers. Matthews is at his peak in his sixth season, while Peppers is a playmaker who is entering his 13th season. Both of them have routinely recorded double-digit sacks, but so far this season they have just one each – a number that will have to improve. In the middle, ninth-year pro A.J. Hawk and six-year veteran Brad Jones find themselves around the ball constantly and are critical to the run game. But, considering that opponents are averaging a whopping 176 rushing yards a game, they need to dial up their level of play as well.
The most consistent element of the Packers defense is in the secondary, where they have depth and talent that runs deep. At cornerback, both Tramon Williams and Sam Shields are capable of taking on any wide receiver one-on-one and the team has depth with Casey Heyward, Davon House and Jarrett Bush – all of whom see playing time. At safety, Morgan Burnett is a veteran who is a big hitter but isn’t a huge threat for interceptions. Second-year pro Micah Hyde is a physical, speedy defender whom the Packers like to blitz, but he gets out of position too often. Waiting in the wings is the next big star free safety – first-round rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. He is finding his way on the field and is the playmaker that the defense has missed since Charles Woodson started to decline. With the kind of depth the Packers have in the secondary, big things are possible.
Green Bay is a team in which the total is more than the sum of its parts. It’s no fluke that Green Bay has made the playoffs each of the last five years and won the NFC North the last four seasons. But, it is a team that has weaknesses that can be exposed, yet enough talent to win games, especially at Lambeau Field. If the Vikings are to beat the Packers, it will take a solid effort across the board and winning a lot of one-on-one battles because they’re a different team when they play at home and the Vikings may have to play mistake-free to come out of Green Bay with a win.
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