Green Bay Packers Preview

For the second time in three games, the Vikings have a chance to jump ahead of one of the two teams they are battling for the NFC North title. They failed against the Bears in a wild shootout but hope to get some redemption in their second meeting of the season with the Green Bay Packers.

The Vikings head into the Metrodome needing a win in the worst way over their top rival, the Green Bay Packers. With the prospect of the winner finishing the day tied for the division lead with the Bears, who play the unbeaten Titans, the Vikings meet a Packers team that is also 4-4 and has endured a roller-coaster season of its own and looking for a season sweep over Minnesota for the third straight season.

The Packers began the 2008 season 2-0 before losing three straight games, then winning another pair of games to improve to 4-3 prior to losing to the Titans in overtime last week. Green Bay has been much like the Vikings, beating the teams they should beat and losing to the more dominating teams of the league. Of their four wins – over the Vikings, Lions, Seahawks and Colts – none of them has been against a team with a record of .500. Of the four teams they have played that do have winning records – the Cowboys, Buccaneers, Falcons and Titans – the Packers have lost them all.

The centerpiece of the team is quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He hasn't made Packers fans forget Brett Favre, but has done a lot to start forming his own legacy at quarterback. He has completed almost 64 percent of his passes in his first eight games as a starter – throwing for 1,982 yards with 13 touchdowns and just five interceptions. His passer rating of 95.3 is one of the best in the league and he has done what has been asked of him – not only managing the game well, but leading an offense that has had some difficulty running the football. With rookies Matt Flynn and Brian Brohm as his only backups, the Packers have invested heavily in Rodgers – both in the confidence not to bring in a veteran backup and rewarding him during the bye week with a six-year, $65 million contract extension. Aside from his passing ability, Rodgers has proved to be an effective runner as well, leading the team by scoring three of the five Packers rushing touchdowns this season. Favre still holds a strong place in the heart of Green Bay fans, but Rodgers is quickly becoming the face of the franchise and showing the team made a good decision in passing the baton to him to lead the organization into the next decade.

While Rodgers has met or exceeded most expectations, the same can't be said for the Green Bay running game. 2007 sensation Ryan Grant has been far from dominant. He has been a workhorse, rushing almost 20 times a game, but has averaged just 3.5 yards a carry and has scored just one rushing touchdown. He hasn't shown the explosiveness that almost made him a 1,000-yard rusher despite starting just 10 games last year. He hasn't been hitting holes with authority. He has rushed 157 times and the only other running back with more than two carries is backup Brandon Jackson, who has just 21 carries for 107 yards. Jackson has been used primarily as a third-down back, catching 22 passes for 136 yards. Fullback Korey Hall is used almost exclusively as a blocker – he has no rushing attempts and just five receptions. It would appear that Grant will carry most or all of the running load against the Vikings and, although the Vikings have one of the best rush defenses in the league, Grant has found ways to post solid numbers in both of his starts against the Vikings. Expect to see him run the ball 20 times or more if the Packers can build an early lead – even if most of the carries only gain two or three yards.

There were some questions as to how well Rodgers would mesh with his receivers, but those questions have been answered. Greg Jennings and Donald Driver have posted some huge numbers, catching more than 40 percent of the completions thrown by Packers quarterbacks. Jennings is on pace to catch to 80 passes for more than 1,500 yards and eight touchdowns, while Driver is on pace to catch 72 passes for 932 yards and six TDs. Jennings is the Green Bay big-play threat and is averaging an impressive 19.1 yards per reception. He is capable of making a game-changing play at any time from anywhere on the field and has the speed to turn a short slant into a long touchdown. Driver, who used to be the primary receiver in the Packers offense, has transformed into a possession receiver who is more likely to move the chains than score touchdowns. Driver has had some enormous games against the Vikings and will be counted on to make plays throughout today's game, catching short to intermediate passes to keep drives alive. Depth isn't great. Rookie Jordy Nelson has emerged as the No. 3 receiver, catching 18 passes for 211 yards and one TD, surpassing veterans Ruvell Martin and James Jones, who have combined to catch just 10 passes this season.

Tight end has been a position that had largely disappeared in recent years, but Donald Lee is having a solid season. He is third on the team with 22 receptions and has scored two touchdowns. Former Packer Bubba Franks consistently haunted the Vikings, and Lee will have to be accounted for. Backups Tory Humphrey and rookie Jermichael Finley have been used primarily as blockers rather than receiving threats.

Although the Packers are a young team, they have a veteran presence on the offensive line. Tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher are both in their ninth season, center Scott Wells is in his fifth year and guards Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitz are both in their third season as starters. This unit has played together for three seasons and is very efficient. However, they have struggled much more this season than they did last year when the Packers ran out to a 13-3 season and hosted the NFC Championship Game. The Packers have averaged just 3.7 yards a carry in the running game and have allowed 17 sacks. The group hasn't shown the consistency it did last year and they can be vulnerable to blitzes and teams that can bottle up the run like the Vikings can. This will be one of the ongoing battles all game long that the Vikings will have to win if they plan to come away with a victory.

The Packers defense quietly became one of the more effective units in the league last year, but it has struggled mightily this season, especially in terms of stopping the run. The Packers are 27th in the league in rushing yards allowed and have allowed opponents to average almost five yards a carry. Much of those problems begin up front, where the Packers have been banged up and not consistently effective. Aaron Kampman remains one of the top defensive ends in the league and leads the teams with six sacks. In the middle, both defensive tackles Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly have battled minor injuries for much of the season and fourth-round rookie Jeremy Thompson has been pushed into the starting right end role for Cullen Jenkins, who was placed on injured reserve after Week 4. Depth is a big concern, especially in light of the release of veteran pass rusher Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, who was being paid a huge contract and just a half-sack in his last 12 games prior to being released. With Jenkins and KGB gone, backup help is coming from inexperienced third-year man Jason Hunter and fourth-year backup Michael Montgomery. In the middle, former first-round bust Justin Harrell and former Vikings backup Colin Cole provide backup help, but neither has played well enough to challenge the starters. Look for the Vikings to attack the Packers with a steady dose of Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor and try to dominate a line that has been vulnerable to the run all season.

The linebackers remain the strength of the Packers defense, led by weakside linebacker A.J. Hawk. A former lottery pick in the draft, Hawk has showed flashes of being a dominant defender in both run defense and pass coverage in his third season. Emotional and high-energy middle linebacker Nick Barnett is a tackling machine, but can be taken out of his game by his over-aggressive nature. He is a strong wrap-up tackler and rarely lets a ball carrier get away when he closes in on him. On the strongside, Brady Poppinga is in his fourth season and, while a solid all-around player, can be a liability at times in coverage assignments. The Packers have a valuable backup in Brandon Chillar, who spent the last two seasons as a starter for the Rams, but has been a valued role player for the Packers. This is a unit that is very aggressive and capable of making the big plays that tilt the momentum of a game. The Vikings will need to be concerned about this group and the extent to which they dictate what the Vikings offense can do.

In the secondary, the Packers are something of a throwback with almost exclusive man coverage and bump-and-run pass coverage that often leaves their starting corners on an island with opposing receivers. The Packers have a pair of veteran gems in 11-year veterans Charles Woodson and Al Harris. Both are getting a little long in the tooth and don't have the catch-up speed they once did, but they are physical and know all the tricks in the books to neutralize even the game's top receiving threats. Harris returned last week after missing a couple of weeks due to injury and Woodson, who has four interceptions, has been fighting a toe injury for the last month. It will fall on the speed of Bernard Berrian and Sidney Rice to make them pay over the top – something Berrian has never been able to do as a Bear or Viking against the Packer. At safety, Nick Collins has been a big playmaker, intercepting four passes and, like Woodson, has returned two of them for touchdowns. The Packers got strong safety Atari Bigby back from injury last week and he is expected to help the run defense by sneaking into the box and making big hits from his deep position in the secondary. The Packers have solid depth with Will Blackmon and second-year man Tramon Williams – both of whom got starts last year – at cornerback, and Aaron Rouse and Charlie Peprah at safety. This is a deep and talented group that will cause problems for the Vikings receivers and make every pass contested – giving away little to nothing on short underneath routes.

The Vikings 2008 season got off on the wrong foot with a 24-19 loss at Green Bay. Eight games later, the Vikings have a chance to put the Packers in their rear-view mirror with a home win. All season, the Packers have been pretty predictable – beating the teams they should and losing to the teams they should as well. If that holds true, they will leave the Metrodome with a loss – something the Vikings have been unable to achieve in Brad Childress' three years as Vikings head coach.

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