As if playing the Indianapolis Colts on the road on "Monday Night Football" wasn't a daunting enough task, following it up against the Packers at Lambeau Field with Green Bay coming off its bye week seems downright unfair. But that's what the Vikings face today as they look for a second straight win at Green Bay.
That won't come easy for one simple reason — Packers QB Brett Favre. He has an 8-2 record at home vs. the Vikings and has consistently brought some of his best games to the table when the Vikings come to town. When pressured, Favre will make critical mistakes, but, if given time, he will pick apart any secondary, much less one that he has so much experience with.
The running game is still the domain of Ahman Green, but no longer his private course. Green remains the centerpiece of the Packers offense, capable of rushing 30 times a game and catching passes out of the backfield. But he has help now and is no longer seen as the only running threat. Najeh Davenport and Tony Fisher both have seen time spelling Green during long drives, and fullbacks William Henderson and Nick Luchey are both strong lead blockers. It will still be a heavy dose of Green, but don't expect to see him as the only running option.
One of the biggest differences with the Packers this year has been the emergence of Javon Walker as a legitimate go-to receiver. The NFL leader in receiving yardage when he hit the bye week, Walker has become a consistent touchdown threat and clearly Favre's favorite. But, like Green, he's just one piece in the puzzle. Donald Driver and Robert Ferguson are both consistent deep options, and tight end Bubba Franks is dangerous in the red zone — just ask the Vikings. Favre has a history of spreading the ball around and getting all of his receivers involved, but look for Walker to be the primary deep weapon against the Vikings.
One of the reasons the Packers offense has been so consistent — Favre has 32 straight games with at least one TD pass — is a rock solid offensive line. Typically known as an anonymous group of big men, many Vikings fans can rattle off at least three of the longtime Packers' front five — tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, guards Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle and center Grey Ruegamer. Ruegamer is the only player who wasn't a full-time starter last year, but he's a six-year veteran who has been a part of the cohesiveness that the Packers bring to the O-line. Every successful team seems to have an offensive line that plays together and meshes well as a group. The Packers are almost a textbook example of that.
While the offense remains a constant, the Packers defense is what has their fans worried. The problems started up front and have seemingly moved their way back, as the Packers can look like world beaters one week and get smacked around the next. One of the big concerns this year has been injuries to defensive tackle Grady Jackson. He's a solid run stuffer, and when Jackson was out with a leg injury the Packers' run defense suffered mightily. With his return, the Pack has a solid front four with Jackson and Cletidus Hunt at the tackles, and Aaron Kampman and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila at ends. While some view KGB as something of a one-trick pony — pass rusher only — he is a disruptive force and will give Bryant McKinnie all he can handle, while Hunt and Jackson try to break down the middle of the offensive line.
The linebackers for the Packers, like the Vikings, are streaky and a little too erratic. Nick Barnett looked like he was headed for the Pro Bowl last year but has seemed to regress a little this season with over-pursuit and getting caught on play-fakes. On the outside, Hannibal Navies and Na'il Diggs are both solid athletes but lack the polish that dominant OLBs bring to the table as both coverage players and blitzers. When the Packers have been successful, it's been because the defensive line is getting a push consistently. If these guys are forced to take the action, the Packers are vulnerable.
The need for a pass rush is more important now than ever, because the Packers have a suspect secondary — made worse by the trade of disgruntled CB Mike McKenzie. Veteran Al Harris and rookie Ahmad Carroll line up at the corner spots, with fellow rookie Joey Thomas as the nickel back. There's more experience at safety, where Darren Sharper, Mark Roman and Bhawoh Jue patrol the deep middle. In his eighth year, Sharper is still at the top of his game and will present trouble for any Vikings trying to make catches over the middle if Sharper's knee injury allows him to play near full strength..
When the Vikings and Packers meet, there's always going to be a competitive game — their 42-42-1 career record attests to that. Last year in November, the Vikings didn't beat the Packers when they had a chance to put away the NFC North. They will have another chance this time around, but getting it done in Green Bay will be anything but easy.
BRETT FAVRE vs. CHRIS HOVAN AND KEVIN WILLIAMS — In the early part of his career, Chris Hovan had Brett Favre to thank as much as anything for being a star. Favre let media types know that Hovan was obsessed with him, and Hovan got a lot of ink. The reason he was so motivated for Favre was he understood that he needed to disrupt him in the pocket and get him on the move, which is why the battle between Favre, Hovan and Kevin Williams will be this week's matchup to watch.
While it would be natural to think that the matchup should be with Williams and Hovan vs. the Packers' interior offensive linemen, it really isn't. Favre is a freak in NFL terms. He will throw passes no other QB even tries — the high-risk, high-reward passes that win or lose games. Because of that, teams try to force the issue up the middle and get Favre moving to his right or his left. That's what the Vikings must have planned for him.
Hovan's star in the NFL has fizzled out at this point. He's no longer a dominant defensive tackle — he's not even the best DT on the team. But he has an uncanny amount of motivation to get to Favre and knock him down. That, combined with the relentless pass pressure provided by Williams, could give the Vikings their best chance to diffuse Favre's big-play ability and force him into throwing the desperation passes that have been the primary downside of his career.
If Hovan and Williams don't get a lot of early pressure on Favre, it will be a long day for the rest of the Vikings defense. If they can, it likely will result in at least one or two interceptions. In that case, it will be hard for the Vikings to lose the game.
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