The buildup within the media and fans for tonight's regular-season opener between the Vikings and the Packers at Lambeau Field has been intense. Rightfully so, because, in many respects, the game could hold the early key as to what direction the NFC North takes. A Vikings win on the road against the defending division champion could send a loud signal that the tide in the division in turning. A win by the Packers would put the Vikings in an early hole with a difficult home game coming against the Indianapolis Colts next week. Games don't get much bigger than this one and the hype has only been fueled by the offseason controversy surrounding the Packers and future first-ballot Hall of Famer Brett Favre.
Even though Favre is no longer with the Packers, the specter of his presence will still loom heavily. One of the reasons that Green Bay was willing to offer him a multi-million dollar bribe to stay retired was that the team believes Aaron Rodgers can make the jump from career backup to NFL star. Taken in the first round of the 2005 draft, Rodgers has waited for three years for this chance. Blessed with good mobility and the throwing arm to make all the requisite throws an NFL QB needs to make, Rodgers has the skill set to be a good quarterback. His only missing ingredient is game experience. When the Vikings see the Packers at the Metrodome later in the season, Rodgers could look much more polished. But for now, he's going to have to win over Packers fans that loved and idolized Favre. How confident are the Packers that Rodgers will succeed? Both of his backups are rookies – second-rounder Brian Brohm and seventh-rounder Matt Flynn. This is Rodgers' show and he is going to get every chance to succeed.
Coming into last year, the running game for Green Bay was a question mark, but Ryan Grant did a lot to end those questions. Despite starting just seven of the 15 games he played, Grant rushed for 956 yards and was rewarded with a contract extension. Vikings fans will remember Grant as the only running back that topped 100 yards against the Vikings defense in 2007 – something Larry Johnson, Marion Barber, Brian Westbrook, Brandon Jacobs, Frank Gore and Clinton Portis all failed to do. He is clearly going to be the top running threat and the workhorse for the offense. 2007 rookie Brandon Jackson was the player many believed would be the eventual replacement to Ahman Green, but he is not a good blocker and could find himself pushed into a niche role as a third-down back. The only other running back on the roster is rookie Kregg Lumpkin, whose value will likely be on special teams to start. The Packers have a strong pair of fullbacks in second-year pro Korey Hall, a converted linebacker who started 10 games as a rookie last year, and third-year man John Kuhn, a 250-pound bruiser that looks for people to hit. However, neither of them is an adept runner or receiver, so their roles will be limited almost exclusively to blocking from Grant and protecting Rodgers.
Rodgers has very good receivers, but depth is thin – made thinner by a knee injury to James Jones that will likely sideline him for Monday's game. The team has an ideal set of starting receivers that are a perfect complement to one another. Donald Driver is entering his 10th season in the league and, while he has lost a step, he is still one of the top possession receivers in the league. Last year, he caught 82 passes for 1,048 yards, but had just two touchdowns. Once a threat to score from anywhere on the field, Driver has become more a player that moves the chains, not the numbers on the scoreboard. That job belongs to Greg Jennings. Entering his third season, in 13 games last year Jennings caught just 53 passes but gained 920 yards and scored a whopping 12 touchdowns – better than one TD every five catches. About as consistent as he could be, he had at least one TD in 10 of the first 12 games he played last year and will command safety help over the top. With Jones sidelined, more will be needed from third-year man Ruvell Martin and rookie Jordy Nelson. Martin has distinguished himself as an excellent blocker, and Nelson was the Packer's top pick in the 2008 draft, selected in the second round. At 6-foot-3 and possessing excellent speed, he can create mismatches, but, as a rookie still learning the game, it will likely take time for him to truly come into his own as a regular contributor. At tight end, the Packers believe they have an emerging star in Donald Lee. Finally escaping the shadow of Bubba Franks (now in New York with Favre) last season, Lee became a dependable receiver who caught at least one pass in every game he played last year and finished with 48 catches and six touchdowns. He is backed up by third-year man Tory Humphrey and rookie Jermichael Finley, who the Packers are high on as a pass-catching TE that can stretch the field.
The Packers have some problems up front, where center Scott Wells is listed as questionable on the injury report with back problems. The team's No. 2 center is starting right guard Jason Spitz, so if Wells can't go, Spitz will be asked to move to center. The problem there is that Spitz's backup at RG is rookie Josh Sitton, who has already been ruled out. The Packers have strong tackles in veterans Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, but Clifton has been battling pain in both knees for most of the preseason. Third-year left guard Darryn Colledge likely would have been beaten out of his starting spot had the Packers been healthier in the preseason, but thanks to injuries, he is still in play. If Wells can't go, the Packers may have to shift backup guard Allen Barbre to right guard, which would put the Packers not only with players out of position, but with depth being razor thin, as the team kept only nine linemen on the 53-man roster.
Although much of the credit for the Packers' success in 2007 was given to the offense, the defense is just as impressive. It was able to shut down the Vikings completely last year and has talent everywhere on the field.
"Most defenses are built from the front backward, but Green Bay gets it done from the back and moves forward," Vikings guard Steve Hutchinson said. "They have a couple of great veteran corners in Al Harris and (Charles) Woodson and that sets the tone for the rest of the defense. They are good at taking away your wide receivers and the rest of the defense feeds off of that."
The Packers have some of the best defensive ends in the league with starters Aaron Kampman and Cullen Jenkins and pass-rush specialist Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. Nobody in the NFC has had more sacks over the last two years than Kampman, which makes Packers fans happy the team matched the offer sheet the Vikings signed him to three years ago. He is a relentless pass rusher that has multiple pass-rush moves. Jenkins was slowed considerably due to injury, but is a solid run stopper and a pass rusher who has a quick first step that can get him in the backfield to blow up plays. When KGB comes in on passing down, Jenkins will move inside and give the team three strong pass rushers that test any offensive line. In the middle, the team is still strong despite trading away DT Corey Williams to Cleveland in the offseason. Eighth-year man Ryan Pickett is a dominating run-stuffer, giving Green Bay a player who commands double coverage. Third-year man Johnny Jolly has a nice combination of size and speed and, after being rumored to being replaced last year when the team drafted DT Justin Harrell in the first round of the 2007 draft, has elevated his play while Harrell was an unquestioned bust in his first season. Fourth-year man Colin Cole is used to giving both starters a breather and is a solid role player.
The Packers have a strong, young linebacker corps that is led by middle linebacker Nick Barnett. The oldest of the starting linebackers, he has played just five years in the NFL, leading the Packers in tackles four of those seasons. He is aggressive and extremely emotional on the field and leads by example. On the outside, A.J. Hawk is a question mark with a chest injury, but is a hard worker who is improving his game in every fact, much the same way Chad Greenway has made progress for the Vikings. If there is a weak link in this linebacker group, it is Sam linebacker Brady Poppinga. He is physical and helps a lot in run defense, but is a little slow-footed and will struggle with backs and tight ends in coverage. If the Vikings are to attack the Packers linebackers, look for them to target Poppinga as the guy they go after.
The strength of the Packers defense is predicated by their veteran tandem of cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Al Harris. Both players are in their 11th NFL seasons, but neither of them has shown signs of aging. The Packers will often ask both of them to cover their man one-on-one and, when it works, it leaves more defenders to cover the running game and short passing game. Depth is always a concern because the top three backup corners – Will Blackmon, Tramon Williams and Jarrett Bush – all have a propensity for injury. As a result, second-round rookie Patrick Lee of Auburn may get more chances to see the field than most rookie cornerbacks. At safety, the Packers have a pair of solid players in fourth-year pro Nick Collins and third-year man Atari Bigby. Collins is a strong free safety who is the height of consistency and rarely gets burned. Bigby, who is battling an ankle sprain, is more prone to making mistakes but led the Packers in both interceptions and forced fumbles last year. With backup Charlie Peprah likely out with a hamstring injury, second-year man Aaron Rouse could be the only backup safety in uniform tonight.
It's easy to see why the Packers won the division last year. Even without Favre, a case can be made that Green Bay, the youngest team in the NFL, is going to be in the postseason mix for years to come. If the Vikings are going to beat the Packers, they will have to bring their "A" game in all facets. The Packers haven't allowed a Brad Childress-coached Vikings team to beat them in four tries. Ending that streak won't be easy – but it would send a loud and clear message to the rest of the league that the Vikings are for real and mean business in the NFL in 2008.
Preview: Packers still have solid personnel
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