Last year, the NFC North Division championship went to the Packers (12-4) by a margin of six games over the Vikings (6-10). With a victory over Green Bay (3-4) Sunday night Minnesota (6-1) would extend its three-game margin to four at the halfway point of the season.
The largest margin between first and second place in the 35-year history of the NFC Central Division was seven games. That occurred in 1985 when the Chicago Bears were 15-1 and the Packers were 8-8.
If the Packers can win at the Metrodome, they would be just two games back and dead-even in the first tie-breaker, which is head-to-head competition. If they lose, the Vikings might never look back.
"The Vikings are playing like a 13-3 team at this point," an executive in personnel for a recent Minnesota opponent said. "Not to be clichÈ, but it's a long season. They've been real healthy and opportunistic, and those things are contagious."
Neither the Vikings nor Packers will face a rugged schedule in the second half. Minnesota's final eight opponents presently are 26-30 and Green Bay's final eight foes are 22-35. Minnesota has three at home whereas the Packers have four.
PACKERS PASS RUSH FALLING DOWN
That's the sobering state of reality for the Packers, who rank 29th in sack percentage and are more than desperate to find ways to pressure opposing quarterbacks.
Safety Darren Sharper has advocated even more blitzing.
"We've got to put more pressure on the quarterback," Sharper said. "We've got to come up with more blitz packages. Just having four guys rushing isn't going to do it. We've got to do some different things."
"I'm going to do what it takes to win a game," Donatell said. "It has to do with feeling the game. But if you think there's magic in a league like this, c'mon."
After seven games the Packers have rushed five or more defenders on 29.9% of passes.
The late Fritz Shurmur brought five or more on 24.6% of passes in 1998, his final season in Green Bay when the club ranked third in sack percentage. His successor as defensive coordinator, Emmitt Thomas, brought 23.1% in 1999 and had a sack ranking of 19th.
Donatell blitzed 26.9% in 2000, when the Packers were 29th in sack percentage, and 22.3% in 2001, when they ranked fourth. Last year, Donatell blitzed merely 19.7% and the Packers ranked eighth.
"My blitz ratios are up from a year ago," coach Mike Sherman said. "(The key) is to give an illusion that you may blitz at any time. You can't blitz all the time and you can't play zone all the time. There's got to be balance. That's what we strive for."
In the last six years Thomas' defense in 1999 posted the highest "all-out" blitz ratio of six-or-more at 12.4% of passes. Donatell had a weak defensive line in 2000 and rushed six or more on 9.1% of passes, but the last two years his four-man rushes were effective and he brought the proverbial house only 5.8% in 2001 and 5.5% in ‘02.
This year, the Packers have rushed six or more on 9.7% of passes, including six 20 times and either seven or eight 10 times.
"Some teams you can blitz more, some teams you blitz less," Sherman said. "In the last three weeks we played very potent offensive teams, and the last two gave us multiple formations, motions and shifts. Alignment and assignment is threatened if you don't get it right. You just can't call a specific blitz on every single alignment that they give you."
The Packers blitzed heavily (43.2%) in the opener against Minnesota, pressured adequately with almost no blitzing against Detroit quarterback Joey Harrington in Week 2 and probably made a mistake backing off (13.8%) in a Week 3 loss at Arizona.
Copying some of the packages that San Francisco destroyed Chicago with in Week 1, the Packers sent five or more on 60% of pass plays in the first half of their Week 4 drubbing of the Bears. Even though quarterback Kordell Stewart and his porous, youthful offensive linemen appeared hopelessly overmatched, some players think it's possible to duplicate the results.
"Arizona caught us sleeping," Edwards said. "We came back and blitzed the (expletive) out of Chicago. If we take things from Chicago and apply it to every game I think we would be hard to beat."
Certainly, there is evidence to suggest that some form of blitzing will be an absolute necessity if the defensive line doesn't shape up. Although the Packers have rushed four on 68.2% of passes, merely four of their 12 sacks have come on four-man rushes. Five-man rushes have produced seven sacks and an eight-man rush produced a sack by Michael Hawthorne late in the first half against Seattle.
Consider the breakdown from a year ago, when 30 of the club's 43 sacks came on three- and four-man rushes compared to 13 on blitzes of five or more, and you can see how poorly the defensive line has performed this year.
Like LeRoy Butler before him, Sharper considers himself the best blitzer on the team and yearns to rush more often.
"Me blitzing one time a game is not going to help us be very effective or confuse the offenses too much," he said. "If you have a quarter horse, a thoroughbred, use me. I want to end the game exhausted because I want to be used in every way possible to try to help us win."
Sharper made his eight blitzes on pass plays count against the Bears, registering two sacks and one knockdown. He doesn't have a sack, knockdown or hurry in any other game.
When Sharper does rush against capable quarterbacks and doesn't get home, bad things are bound to happen. Right cornerback Al Harris' marginal speed has shown up in the last three games, nickel back Bhawoh Jue has been picked on, dime back Hawthorne is raw and neither Edwards nor Anderson plays the pass like Sharper.
Leaving a secondary sans Sharper out to dry is a risk Donatell hasn't been willing to take in passing situations.
Donatell selects about 10 to 15 blitzes each week and tries to practice them all. But Sharper indicated that even when blitzes are called mistakes are being by players in execution, timing and technique.
Linebackers coach Mark Duffner says he isn't close to being satisfied with the three sacks by his group. Nick Barnett has a total of seven sacks, knockdowns and hurries to rank third on the team behind end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (15) and tackle Cletidus Hunt (eight), but injuries have limited Na'il Diggs' pass-rushing contribution to one knockdown.
Anderson leads the secondary in the pass-rushing breakdown with four.
The Packers aren't a big "zone blitz" team but Donatell usually has called about four of five per game during his years in Green Bay. Two of the sacks against Chicago came on zone blitzes when one of the defensive linemen dropped into zone coverage and a combination of two linebackers or defensive backs created a five-man rush.
If Donatell has a trademark blitz it might be by the cornerbacks. Mike McKenzie and Harris are no shrinking violets when they charge the quarterback at full speed.
"When you blitz it's a want-to to get there," Edwards said. "At the same time, they get paid to block. But there's no reason we can't be good at this. We've got the speed, we've got athletes."
Judging from the St. Louis game, the Packers intend to start Aaron Kampman at "power" end on base downs and use a four-man line on passing downs of Jamal Reynolds and "KGB" at end with Chukie Nwokorie and Kampman at tackle. Donatell also will incorporate 3-1 and 3-2 defenses in dime trying to manufacture pressure.
"It's not like you do everything exactly the same but you go to your foundation any time times get tough," Donatell said. "We have four new starters here and they're growing. We're ready to have a good second half."
BY THE NUMBERS: 71.6 — Brett Favre's completion percentage in the last five games.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Obviously, it hasn't been his favorite place. But he looks at every game as a challenge, just like the thumb, the dome, those are all challenges for him. I think he'll rise to the occasion." — Coach Mike Sherman on QB Brett Favre and the Metrodome.