When the Green Bay Packers were sitting at 4-6 on Thanksgiving Day, many wrote the team off for dead. They had lost four straight games, allowing 33, 31, 47 and 42 points along the way.
But, much like quarterback Aaron Rodgers implored the Packers fan base to “R-E-L-A-X” when the team was struggling a couple of years back, Green Bay found a way to get back on track and thrust themselves back into the playoff race – currently sitting at the No. 2 wild card position.
As always, when you talk about the Packers, you can’t get too far without bringing up Rodgers. He is once again posting MVP-type numbers, throwing for 3,781 yards with 32 touchdowns, just seven interceptions and a passer rating of 100.3. You don’t need to tell Vikings fans about what he can do. He’s owned Minnesota over the majority of his career, but has struggled in their last two meetings – losing the NFC North title at Lambeau Field and getting sacked five times in a 17-14 loss in Week 2. Nobody will be more critical to any success the Packers will have – Saturday and beyond – than Rodgers.
The question the Vikings defense has to ask is whether last week’s 162-yard rushing performance by wide receiver-turned-running back Ty Montgomery at Chicago was an aberration against a poor defense or a sign of things to come. Prior to that, Montgomery had never had more than nine carries in a game, as the Packers running game has been a hot mess all season. Eddie Lacy went down in Week 5. James Starks has averaged just 2.3 yards a game and has missed five games and had seven or fewer rushing yards in five more games. After Lacy went down, the Packers brought in Knile Davis, who was quickly released. Rookie Don Jackson was next in line, but he went down for the season. Then it was former Seahawk Christine Michael. It looks to be a combination of Montgomery and Michael that will try to keep the Packers offense balanced, which has proved to be an inconsistent proposition all season.
The Packers receivers have picked up the slack due to the lack of a consistent running game. Jordy Nelson has returned from serious knee injury and is back up to his old tricks. He’s caught 82 passes for 1,037 yards and 12 touchdowns – including 5-73-1 numbers against the Vikings in Week 2. If Nelson was the only threat, that would be something easier to handle, but Rodgers has numerous other weapons. Davante Adams has emerged this season, catching 65 passes for 922 yards and nine touchdowns and, despite battling injuries, Randall Cobb had managed 60 receptions for 610 yards and four TDs.
The Packers also find ways to get production from the tight end spot. While tight ends have scored just two touchdowns, they have vertical threat Jared Cook and red zone threat Richard Rodgers. Both can be dangerous, but neither has had many productive days this season. The Vikings, however, have had their issues with tight ends.
The Packers offensive line isn’t overpowering, but technically sound. The left side of the line includes three third-year players – tackle David Bakhtiari, guard Lane Taylor and center J.C. Tretter and the right side of the line has the more experienced veterans – eighth-year guard T.J. Lang and seventh-year tackle Bryan Bulaga. They don’t overpower you, but they do a lot of things right.
The Packers’ resurgence over the last month has been due in large part to the improved play of the defense. During their four-game losing streak from late October to late November, the Packers allowed 151 points. Over their four-game winning streak, Green Bay has allowed 13 points twice and 10 points once.
Up front, the Packers have received solid play from first-round rookie Kenny Clark, who has joined former Viking Letroy Guion and Mike Daniels to make a formidable defensive front. They are not overpowering, but can control the running game and force offenses into bad down-and-distance situations, which plays to the strength of the Packers’ 3-4 defense.
Their linebackers are among the most productive in the league. The Packers haven’t invested heavily on inside linebackers – using a fourth-round pick in 2015 on Jake Ryan and a 2016 fourth-rounder on Blake Martinez. They’re not outstanding athletes, but are solid form tacklers. Ryan is second on the team with 75 tackles and Martinez is fifth with 59, but neither is a blitz threat or excels in coverage outside of their assignment zone. Outside linebacker? That is a much different story.
The Packers may have the most explosive OLB rotation in the NFL, which is comprised of four former first-round picks. Clay Matthews is the best-known of the group and is a game-changer. He’s battled injuries this season, missing all or part of five games, but is still a key to the success of the Packers defense, whether playing inside or outside. Nick Perry has picked up the slack, leading the team with eight sacks and adding 57 tackles. Also in mix are 2013 first-round pick Datone Jones and ageless Julius Peppers. Despite playing part-time, Peppers is second on the team with 7½ sacks and remains an elite pass rusher who can kill drives.
The secondary took a big hit when cornerback Sam Shields was lost for the season, but the Packers have found new stars to make big plays, pulling in 16 interceptions. At cornerback, Damarious Randall has been asked to take on teams’ top receiver and has three interceptions and has limited opposing receivers over the last month from making big plays. Fellow second-year man Quinten Rollins has stepped into the starting lineup and has proved to be a sure tackler. One of the more pleasant surprises has been undrafted second-year man Ladarius Gunter. He leads the team with 13 passes defensed and has 53 tackles. At safety, the defensive MVP has been Morgan Burnett, who leads the team with 85 tackles (73 solo) with three sacks and two interceptions. He is paired with 2014 first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who is third on the team with 72 tackles and is tied for second in the NFL with five interceptions. Throw in veteran Micah Hyde and the Packers have depth and talent at the safety position like few other teams.
If the Vikings are to keep their fading playoff hopes alive, it will take a team effort on both sides of the ball against a team that is as hot now as it has been all season. It will be a tall order and the Vikings will likely have to play as close to a mistake-free game as possible if they’re going to once again hand the Packers a home loss, something that has been rare in December in recent years.