Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY

Minnesota Vikings preview: Packers in state of vulnerability

The Green Bay Packers have been divisionally dominant for five years, but they look as vulnerable as ever with injuries and ineffectiveness sending them on a three-game slide.

By this time, if you have any interest in the Vikings, you’re aware of the gravity of Sunday’s game with the Green Bay Packers. With the Vikings on a five-game winning streak since their bye week and the Packers on a three-game losing streak since their bye, Sunday’s game at TCF Bank Stadium could have as much fan interest on both sides as any game the Vikings and Packers have played since Brett Favre made his return to Lambeau Field as a member of the Vikings – a rift that took five years to scab over and heal.

This Packers team looks as vulnerable as any in recent years, but, if history has taught us anything, dominant teams don’t just fade away. They fight and claw to keep their spot and the Packers aren’t going to go away quietly Sunday.

As it has been for the last six years, the success of the Packers is tightly connected to quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Despite having recent struggles, Rodgers remains one of the most dominant quarterbacks in the league. Through nine games, Rodgers has thrown for 2,270 yards with 21 touchdowns and just three interceptions. When allowed to either have time in the pocket or extend plays with his feet, he can pick apart defenses – as the Vikings can personally attest.

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What makes Rodgers doubly important Sunday is that the Packers are hobbled and crippled at key spots in the offense. The biggest problem the Packers have been going through, especially in their recent struggles, has been an unproductive running game. Eddie Lacy got supplanted as the starter, in part because of a groin injury and in part for showing up at training camp overweight (earning the nickname Feast Mode) and has been struggling with muscle-related injuries much of the season, and James Starks hasn’t been a dynamic replacement. With only three running backs on the roster – Lacy, Starks and undrafted free agent Alonzo Harris – there isn’t much in the way of options if the struggles continue.

Exacerbating the problem is that Rodgers is undermanned at the receiver position. Game-changer Jordy Nelson was lost for the year prior to the start the season and tight end Andrew Quarless is on injured reserve with the designation to return, taking away two starters that were important pieces of Green Bay’s offensive puzzle.

Compounding the problem is that two of the six wide receivers currently on the Green Bay roster aren’t likely to play Sunday. Second-year pro Jason Abbrederis has been ruled out and third-round rookie Ty Montgomery is questionable to play. That potentially would leave the Packers with just four active receivers – Randall Cobb, James Jones, Devante Adams and second-year pro Jeff Janis. The same is true at tight end, where the Packers have second-year players Richard Rodgers and Justin Perillo, and rookie Kennard Backman, as the only tight ends on the 53-man roster. The Packers are shorthanded for targets, which could help explain their recent woes.

The offensive line is also banged up for the Packers. Both tackles – David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga – have been playing through nagging injuries and guard T.J. Lang has been limited in practice this week and is officially listed as questionable. With a Vikings defense prepared to blitz Rodgers to keep him caged in the pocket, having injuries to the offensive line is a problem of critical mass as the Packers look to turn things around and put an end to their current losing streak.

Defensively, the Packers’ 3-4 looks very familiar to what the Vikings have been accustomed to seeing in recent years. B.J. Raji is the rock in the middle at nose tackle and his is flanked by Mike Daniels and Datone Jones at the end positions, with former Viking Letroy Guion and Mike Pennel providing backup. They have been stout against the run, but have had consistent problems limiting Adrian Peterson, which will likely be their primary job Sunday.

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The strength of the Packers defense is in the middle at the linebacker position. On the outside, they have two of the most feared pass rushers in the league in Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers. They are relentless in chasing down the quarterback and the Vikings may need to have more plays with max protection to keep Teddy Bridgewater clean. On the inside, they have a pair of sure tacklers in third-year pro Nate Palmer and rookie Jake Ryan. When the Packers mix things up, Matthews moves inside and Nick Perry and/or Mike Neal, a pair of highly drafted veterans, take over on the outside. If the Packers feel the Vikings are doing too well in the run game, they will likely keep Matthews inside to be a force in the middle of the defense.

In the secondary, Green Bay has some very strong players who are getting better with age. At cornerback, Sam Shields and Casey Hayward are both extremely solid and the Packers hedged their bets by using picks in the first two rounds of April’s draft to select Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins. They have combined for six interceptions – two each by Shields, Hayward and Rollins – and are capable of taking on top receivers in man coverage and stick to them. The Packers also have a pair of highly regarded safeties – sixth-year strong safety Morgan Burnett and 2014 first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Both are ball hawks and big hitters who fly to the ball and need to be accounted for on every play. The biggest question mark here is Micah Hyde. He’s not a starter, but he is the primary kickoff and punt returner for the Packers and is listed as questionable on the injury report. His absence wouldn’t kill the defense, but it would be a significant blow to the special teams in his return capacity.

The Packers have been the dominant team in the NFC North since 2010. Their longevity atop the division has been the direct result of having talent on both sides of the ball. But injuries have taken a toll and teams have figured out how to more effectively contain them offensively and exploit defensively. It’s been a long time since somebody had a chance to take away the reins of power in the division, but the Vikings have a chance to deliver a staggering punch Sunday. Green Bay will come out fighting, but, for the first time in years, when they meet the Vikings, the Packers may not be the best team on the field.

 


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