Packers Losing Their Toughness?

It used to be that both the Vikings and Packers had rugged personas of teams acclimated to the elements. Then the Vikings moved indoors and got a soft rap, but right now they are the ones with a tougher attitude.

There was a time in the not too distant past, when the Vikings left old, cold Metropolitan Stadium for the comforts of the Metrodome, when their toughness as a football team was widely questioned.

Now the Vikings practice hard, talk tough and have been playing a physical brand of football since the exhibition season.

When the Vikings meet the Packers Sunday night at the Metrodome, they'll be looking to extend what they brag is a sphere of dominance in the running game that carries over into all avenues of play.

Gradually, coach Mike Sherman's team has lost its stinger against the Vikings. The Packers played an extraordinary game in Week 15 of 2000, winning as an eight-point underdog in the Metrodome, 33-28, on the strength of a pulverizing ground attack led by Ahman Green and a defense that clamped down on running back Robert Smith.

In the five subsequent meetings the Vikings have averaged 192.4 rushing yards per game and 5.4 yards per carry whereas the Packers have averaged 77.4 and 3.9. The essence of football remains running the ball and stopping the run, and clearly the Vikings have been dominating the Packers in those two critical areas.

"We definitely need to get that answered," tackle Mark Tauscher said. "If we're going to get outrun by (115) yards we're in trouble."

Under second-year coach Mike Tice, the Vikings are 6-1 and three games ahead of the Packers in the NFC North.

The differences between how Tice and Sherman prepare their teams was evident in the weeks leading up to their Sept. 7 game at Lambeau Field, won by the Vikings, 30-25. The Packers didn't practice in pads even once after Aug. 20 leading up to the game while the Vikings practiced in pads three times after Aug. 29.

It was evident again by the approach Tice and Sherman took to the bye week.

In Minnesota, Tice allowed veterans Randy Moss, Greg Biekert and Ken Irvin to take the entire week off after the Oct. 5 victory over Atlanta. The rest of the Vikings were given Tuesday and Wednesday, then practiced in pads Thursday. Some players were asked to attend meetings Friday but most of the players had off until Monday, October 13.

On that Monday the entire squad practiced in pads for almost three hours, or 35 minutes longer than scheduled because Tice wasn't pleased with the execution. There was a period of full tackling and at least two fights, and the practice ended with a heated competition between offense and defense.

"If we want to play like the best we better practice like the best," Tice said afterward. "I don't think anyone is thinking about their bye anymore. We banged around pretty good."

The following Sunday the Vikings defeated the Broncos, 28-20.

In Green Bay, Sherman conducted approximately hour-long practices without pads last Tuesday and Wednesday before bidding all but a few injured players farewell for four days, or until a team meeting at noon Monday. After the meeting, the Packers went into the Hutson Center for a 50-minute practice in helmets and shorts. They closed the workout with eight 50-yard conditioning runs at about three-quarters speed.

"I thought they did a very good job of coming out here today and working," Sherman said. "We got done what we had to get done. That was pleasing."

Minnesota's lightning rod in the last few years has been defensive tackle Chris Hovan. After the Vikings' victory on opening day, Hovan said, "They're a more finesse team, more dink-and-dunk. We're a more physical team. We get after it. We love to hit, and I think we were more physical today."

In retrospect, linebacker Na'il Diggs said he agreed with Hovan about the opener.

"In the second half we started getting a little physical," said Diggs. "In the first half we did not start out physical at all. We didn't have any fire. We just didn't have the intensity to stop them. They kept making plays. We put our head down."

However, Diggs argued that there was nothing soft about the way the Packers practice during the regular season. They have been wearing pads on every Wednesday and most Thursdays this season, whereas the Vikings usually wear pads on Wednesday but usually don't on Thursday.

"To each his own," tight end Bubba Franks said. "We do our things our way. Some people may not like it but that's how we do it."

The two coordinators, Tom Rossley and Ed Donatell, said Sherman frequently asked the coaches for their opinion of how to practice.

"We've got a long season ahead of us and you've got to save your hitting for the game," Rossley said. "If we needed to hit, if you felt you were losing your team and needed to get them back, I think we would do it. But that's not the case. We're not far that away."

Sherman demands that players practice with game-like speed and intensity. It would seem that the longer Sherman coaches the Packers the shorter his practices become as he strives to keep players fresh for the final two months.

"Everybody can talk all they want about being physical and stuff but it's all about results," Tauscher said. "Talking doesn't mean you're physical. Playing well and blocking well, getting your running game going, that's where you tell if you're a physical football team or not."

And that's precisely the area in which the Vikings have dominated the Packers for 2 1/2 years.

SERIES HISTORY: This is the 85th meeting. The Vikings lead, 42-41-1. They have won nine of the last 11 at the Metrodome.

  • Coach Mike Sherman closed practice to reporters Wednesday. He did say that QB Brett Favre (broken right thumb) would practice and play Sunday against Minnesota.

  • RB Tony Fisher (groin) practiced Monday but still was listed as questionable.

  • NT Rod Walker (knee) is questionable. He was hurt in the St. Louis game. With Gilbert Brown back in the lineup and Larry Smith proving to be an adequate backup, the Packers don't have to rush Walker into the Minnesota game.

  • The Packers have made changes in their defensive line rotation in an attempt to improve production.

    Cletidus Hunt, the starter at three-technique tackle, was playing too many downs and has been removed from the dime.

    The dime front four will have elephant end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila at right end and backup end Jamal Reynolds at left end. The tackles will be Chukie Nwokorie, a backup end in base, and Aaron Kampman, the starting power end.

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