As the Vikings look to remain unbeaten on the 2009 season, perhaps the most talked-about game in years is ready to unfold as the Vikings (3-0) square off with the Green Bay Packers (2-1) in what promises to be their toughest matchup to date. With Brett Favre, the face of the Packers franchise for so many years, going up against his old team, Monday's game promises to be one of the most-watched regular-season games in recent TV history.
The Packers have had convincing wins over Chicago and St. Louis and the only blemish on their record is a 31-24 loss at home to Cincinnati in which the Bengals defense smothered quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The Vikings look to do much the same against him and keep him from getting comfortable.
Entering last season, Rodgers was the "other guy" in the Favre controversy. After three years of sitting on the bench behind Favre, the organization said it was confident in Rodgers' ability to lead the team into the future. Although the Packers struggled to a 6-10 record in 2008, it couldn't be blamed on Rodgers. He threw for more than 4,000 yards with 28 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions. He not only managed games extremely efficiently, he was able to keep the long ball in play, making several big plays over the top of defenses with few interceptions. This year hasn't been much different. He has thrown 90 passes, completing 51 of them for 714 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. His passer rating of 97.2 is seventh-best in the NFL. His problem has been protection. He has been sacked a league-high 12 times in three games and has been running for his life on many other plays – he is second on the team in rushing attempts (15), most of which have come on scrambles. If given time, Rodgers can dissect a defense. Getting pressure on him and building on that sack total will be Priority One for the Vikings defense.
Whereas many teams now incorporate a multi-back tandem at running back, the Packers stick to the traditional lone back in Ryan Grant. Grant, who burst on the scene in 2007 by rushing for almost 1,000 yards despite not becoming a starter at midseason, was nagged by a hamstring injury last year, yet finished the season with 312 carries for 1,203 yards and four touchdowns. Not much has changed this year. Through three games, Grant has rushed 56 times for 206 yards and two touchdowns. The other Packers running backs have combined to rush just five times. It will be his show almost exclusively. With backup Brandon Jackson sidelined, third-year man DeShawn Wynn has moved into his role behind Grant. Wynn was expected to be the starter in 2007, but his failure led to Grant getting his shot and the rest has been history. Fullback John Kuhn is a punishing blocker, but also a player to watch near the goal line. He has just one carry and one reception, but both have gone for touchdowns.
The receiver corps is deep and dangerous. Highlighted by speedster Greg Jennings, he only has eight receptions in three games, but is averaging more than 26 yards a catch. He is the Packers primary depth threat and will require a safety rolling over in coverage most plays. While teams have bracketed Jennings, it has opened up opportunities for 11-year veteran Donald Driver. Only Driver and Reggie Wayne have gained more than 1,000 yards in each of the last five seasons and Driver is on his way to another big year. He already has 14 catches for 233 yards and two touchdowns – all tops among Green Bay receivers. Known more as a possession receiver, he can still sneak past defenses and make big plays. Depth is provided by a pair of speedy youngsters. Jordy Nelson showed a lot of promise as a rookie and is being counted on to make a bigger contribution. James Jones was the talk of the preseason last year, but a PCL strain derailed his season. He will be used in the slot and is very good running inside slant routes.
At tight end, the Packers have a couple of weapons that bear watching, especially in light of the Vikings' struggles against Vernon Davis last week. The Packers have a pair of big targets. Donald Lee is an accomplished blocker, but also a receiving threat – he is second on the team with nine receptions – but the guy to keep an eye on might be Jermichael Finley. The second-year man has an excellent combination of size, speed and hands and has five catches for 62 yards. The Vikings will have to be aware of both of them on passing downs because they get a lot of looks from Rodgers.
The biggest problem for the Packers this year has been on the offensive line. At the start of the season, the Packers had a pretty solid offensive front of left tackle Chad Clifton, left guard Daryn Colledge, center Jason Spitz, right guard Josh Sitton and right tackle Allen Barbre. If those two names on the right side don't sound too familiar, it's because both of them are first-year starters and the Pack came into the season knowing that there would be a learning curve. But an injury in Week 2 to Clifton has changed everything. With him out of the lineup, Colledge has shifted to left tackle, Spitz has moved to left guard and former starter Scott Wells has taken over at center. This is a group with three players that weren't in those positions just two weeks ago, and the two holdovers are still learning on the job. This could be the critical matchup for the Vikings defense because this group looks awfully vulnerable without a healthy Clifton at left tackle.
Defensively, the Packers have switched to a 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Dom Capers and have adjusted to the change quite well. They haven't allowed a run of more than 20 yards this season and lead the NFL with seven interceptions. Up front, the Packers haven't been off the charts with sacks, but getting decent production. In the middle is Ryan Pickett, a nine-year veteran who can anchor the the 3-4. He will share time with first-round draft pick B.J. Raji. Taken with the ninth pick in April's draft, Raji has drawn comparisons to Warren Sapp for his explosiveness. He is being worked into the lineup, but Pickett will likely see more snaps. On the outside, Cullen Jenkins and Johnny Jolley are both going to give the Vikings bookends of Bryant McKinnie and Phil Loadholt all they can handle. Jenkins was off to a huge season in 2008 before a torn pectoral muscle ended his season. Jolley played defensive tackle last year, but has adjusted to the move outside and has the athletic ability to make plays on the edge rush. Depth is thin with rookie sixth-rounder Jarius Wynn and fifth-year man Mike Montgomery providing backup help. This is a group that will be asked to stop Adrian Peterson, a task they may not be up to after allowing 386 yards rushing in their first three games.
For any 3-4 defense to work, it is vital to have active linebackers. The Packers have that. As part of the switch from the 4-3, defensive end Aaron Kampman has moved from defensive end to outside linebacker. After posting 37 sacks the last three years from the DE position, he has just one sack this year, as he learns his new position on the fly. He is flanked on the other side by Brady Poppinga. Not blessed with great speed or athleticism, his calling card is the big hit and he is very physical in run support. In the middle, the Packers are loaded with starters A.J. Hawk and Nick Barnett. Hawk, a former first-round pick, hasn't lived up to his draft hype but is still a solid playmaker. Barnett is the leader of the defense and flies around the field. He is coming back from a torn ACL sustained last November and appears to be close to 100 percent. Green Bay has some solid depth, with veteran Brandon Chillar in the middle and rookie Clay Matthews on the outside. This is a deep and talented group that will be responsible for a lot of containment on Peterson, as well as taking slant routes away from Percy Harvin and Visanthe Shiancoe over the middle.
The Packers are something of a throwback in terms of how they play the pass. Where a lot of teams used zone coverages to blanket receivers, the Packers have the confidence to let cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Al Harris take receivers one-on-one on almost every play. Both players are in their 12th seasons, but it wouldn't look it to see them play. They are both extremely skilled playmakers with a knack for the big play. They have combined to pick off four passes and one of them was returned for a touchdown, showing the old guys can more than get the job done. The Packers also have a very good nickel corner in Tramon Williams, arguably the fastest of all the players in the secondary. At safety, Atari Bigby has been sidelined again after sustaining several nagging injuries in 2008. Nick Collins came into his own last season, playing at a Pro Bowl level at free safety and becoming a big-play threat on returns. With Bigby likely out Sunday and Aaron Rouse recently released, his spot will be taken by Derrick Martin, who was obtained in a trade with the Baltimore Ravens. Depth is very thin, with fourth-year back Jarrett Bush and Matt Giordano, who was released by the Colts in September and signed by Green Bay. With Bigby out, the depth of the safeties will be tested.
The Packers come into the game at the Metrodome knowing they're a little bit behind the eight-ball with a loss but in control of the division with a win. A loss would drop them to 2-2 with a loss in hand to Minnesota and sitting two games behind the Vikings. A win would tie them for the top spot in the division with wins against both the Vikings and the Bears. It may be too early in the season to refer to a game as critical, but the difference between winning and losing for both teams is very pronounced, making this matchup much more than simply a "Favre-plays-the-Packers" storyline. When the season is over, both teams may well point to this game as being the difference in the NFC North race.
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