It's been nine long months since the Vikings played a game that had some meaning, and this game couldn't be any bigger. The Vikings open their 2003 regular season at venerable Lambeau Field, looking to send a statement not only to Green Bay, also to the rest of the NFC North, that the Vikings are back and primed for a playoff run.
Winning in Green Bay won't be easy. The Vikings have lost seven of the last eight games at Green Bay, including controversial finishes last year and an overtime defeat in 2000 that cost the Vikings home field-advantage in the playoffs. To beat the Packers, one player will have to be pressured — QB Brett Favre. Favre has enjoyed some of his best days as a pro at Lambeau vs. the Vikings. However, when pressured, Favre still throws ill-advised passes that are intercepted. It will be critical to keep Favre from getting comfortable in the pocket, because he will pick apart the Vikings secondary if given too much time.
As important as Favre is to the Green Bay offense, nobody is more important than RB Ahman Green. As a valued rusher and receiver, Green is fifth in the NFL for most touches by a running back the last four years — and that includes missing time each of the last two seasons. Green is capable of 25 carries a game and five or more receptions, making him a valued target for the Vikings defense. The expectation is to take some of the workload off of Green, so expect to see second-year men Najeh Davenport and Tony Fisher to see spot duty, but this is clearly Green's domain.
While settled at QB and RB, there are lingering questions for the Packers receivers. An afterthought when training camp began last year, Donald Driver became Favre's go-to target and responded with a huge season. He's entrenched as one starter, but the other starting job remains up for grabs. Entering his third season, Robert Ferguson has yet to live up to his first-round draft selection. He is being challenged by second-year man Javon Walker, who many feel can win the starting job if he can get over his penchant for dropping easy passes. Also in the mix is fourth-year veteran Karsten Bailey, who was as consistent as any Green Bay receiver in the preseason.
The big switch may be at tight end, where the Packers not only have red zone demon Bubba Franks, but recent signee Wesley Walls, which gives Favre two big targets over the middle.
When the Packers collapsed late last year, much of the blame was given to the offensive line, which was ravaged with injuries. Those seem to be continuing. While the Pack is solid at the tackles with Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton, and at center with eight-year veteran Mike Flanagan, the question mark is at guard. Starting right guard Marco Rivera is playing with a torn MCL and could easily be replaced if ineffective, with sixth-year pro Mike Wahle at left guard. Rivera's status could impact the running game, and also allow teams like the Vikings to put additional pressure up the middle on Favre and disrupt the passing game.
While the Packers offense remains essentially intact, the defense is in a state of flux. The Packers hope the return of pricey free agent Joe Johnson, who missed almost all of 2002 with a knee injury, will help make up for the free-agent defection of Vonnie Holliday. Johnson will line up opposite pass-rush specialist Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, whom the Packers had to sign to a $37 million contract to keep from joining Holliday in an exodus from Green Bay. In the middle, Cletidus Hunt is the power guy at defensive tackle, but depth at the position is very thin. Run-stuffer Gilbert Brown is going to try to play with a torn biceps, but if he can't go backups Kenny Peterson and Rod Walker will likely both be pushed into duty.
The linebacker corps also is going have a very different look with the release of both Hardy Nickerson and Nate Wayne. Rookie Nick Barnett is penciled in as the starter at middle linebacker, with Na'il Diggs entrenched on the weakside. At strongside LB, Hannibal Navies is being given the starting job. While Nickerson and Wayne didn't live up to the Packers' hopes for them, their departure has left what was a strength at this time last year in a vulnerable position in the Packers defense.
One area that remains solid is the secondary. Cornerback Tyrone Williams left and was replaced by veteran Al Harris, who will line up opposite Mike McKenzie. At safety, Darren Sharper remains one of the top free safeties in the game, and strong safety Antuan Edwards has shown a lot of improvement. In passing downs, the Packers have several options, including cornerback Bhawoh Jue and safety Marques Anderson.
The Packers are going to be searching for the right combinations on defense to maintain their advantage in the NFC North. That could play to the Vikings' advantage. While it's never easy to win at Lambeau, with the inexperience as a unit the defense has right now, getting the Packers for the opener may be a good thing for the 2003 Vikings.
CHRIS HOVAN vs. BRETT FAVRE — This one would seem like a no-brainer. In a rivalry fueled by the media, Favre and Hovan have become intrinsically linked together. Hovan is almost obsessed with Favre. Hovan not only chases down Favre on every play with more intensity than typically seen, he went as far as to go after Favre following the Vikings loss at Green Bay and challenge him to bring it on — which resulted in plastic bottles raining down from the stands at Lambeau Field.
For his part, Favre was baited into the media-created controversy by saying Hovan "should get a life" outside of football and not obsess about him. That's not likely. The Vikings specifically drafted Kevin Williams in the first round to take double-teams off of Hovan in passing situations. Williams will be asked to do just that and let Hovan go wild in chasing Favre.
Such high emotion can backfire on a player if he doesn't keep it in check. The Packers know Hovan is gunning for Favre and will likely put the veteran QB on rollouts to get away from his push up the middle. Favre's history has been the ability to deliver passes most QBs wouldn't even try, much less complete. However, with that comes throws that become turnovers and game-changers.
If the Vikings are to win, they will have to pressure Favre early and often. Hovan will be critical to getting that done, and his personal battle with Favre, which has been off the field for several months, will be at center stage Sunday on the field.
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