Game Preview: Green Bay Packers take on Minnesota Vikings in Wild Card grudge match
It’s not everyday that two teams play each other twice in less than one week, and it wouldn’t be happening this week either — had the Green Bay Packers (11-5, No. 3 seed in the NFC) taken care of business last week against the Minnesota Vikings (10-6, No. 6 seed). Instead, the Packers made a series of catastrophic defensive mistakes at Mall of America field, and instead of enjoying a first-round bye, now host their NFC North division rivals on Wild Card Weekend for a chance to advance to the Divisional Round.
These are two teams that have an intimate knowledge of each other, but there will be a couple of wrinkles this week worth keeping an eye on.
Riding the shorty
Diminutive running back DuJuan Harris will be getting the start tonight against a Vikings run defense ranked 11th against the run, giving up 105.8 yards per game. Despite his short stature, Harris has proven himself an electrifying change of pace for the Packers’ run game, scampering for 157 yards and two touchdowns on 34 carries (4.6 yards per carry). His shifty, elusive running style and penchant for finding holes as they develop has helped to extend drives in situations in which other Green Bay backs would typically get stacked up at the line of scrimmage. He has been particularly effective on second down, averaging over 7.0 ypc.
Although he hasn’t turned out to be a breakaway run threat in limited action, the Packers don’t need him to be. As long as he can consistently grind out three or four yards on first and second down, he can force the Vikings defensive backs out of the Cover-2 shell that has limited the effectiveness of the Green Bay downfield passing game in 2012. He can also open up opportunities for play action later in the game.
For his part, quarterback Aaron Rodgers will need to give Harris enough reps to keep the run game credible, instead of frequently checking out of run/pass options as he was wont to do earlier in the season. He will also need to be willing to take the checkdown opportunities — not just to Harris out of the backfield, but to fullback John Kuhn and the tight ends as well — to counteract Minnesota’s pass rush. As long as he does not persist in holding on to the ball too long, Rodgers’ jersey should stay relatively clean against a defense that only averages two sacks a game.
Caught in the Webb
It hasn’t been officially announced yet, but it’s looking increasingly probable that backup quarterback will play in place of second-year starter Christian Ponder, who is listed as Questionable. Ponder is grappling with elbow bursitis stemming from a hit he took last Sunday. Earlier this afternoon, he apparently cut his throwing session short and returned to the locker room.
If Ponder can’t go, the elephant in the room will be the Packers’ defensive game planning. Everyone in the stands, watching the game on television — and perhaps even the players themselves — will be wondering how well they prepared for the eventuality of Webb’s taking the reins. Although he is not the most dangerous of passers (he completed only 34 of 63 attempts for 376 yards and three touchdowns in 2011), Webb is known as a mobile quarterback who has the potential to break an explosive play on his feet at any time. Last year he carried the ball 22 times for 154 yards (7.0 yards per carry) with a long of 65 yards and two touchdowns.
The Packers have little film on him, however, as a resurgent Adrian Peterson has carried the Vikings offense all season. Webb has only one carry (for -1.0 yards) and has yet to attempt a pass in 2012.
Then again, maybe it doesn’t matter who is taking snaps for Minnesota this week. It was pretty obvious that the defense didn’t give Ponder the respect of preparing for him in Week 17. They entered the game cocky and careless, making no secret of the fact that they didn’t expect him to pass. And he made them pay for their arrogance, catching the defensive backs flat footed on a couple of crucial plays that extended key drives. He finished 16 of 28 for 234 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions.
Tackling the truck
Although it was by no means excusable that the defense got complacent against the pass last week, it was at least somewhat understandable. Ponder had hardly been a model of efficiency in recent weeks.
Far more infuriating, however, was their lackadaisical attitude against the run. Any time a defense challenges the opposing team to beat them with the pass, they damn well better shut down the run, or at least hold it in check. At a minimum, when facing a superstar like Peterson, the defense should be swarming to the ball carrier and gang tackling him by any means necessary. This the defense utterly ailed to do. They looked almost casual in their approach to Peterson, repeatedly penetrating into the backfield but settling for trying to shoulder-bump him off his feet instead of driving him into the turf. It wasn’t until he broke into the second or even third level that anyone made a credible attempt to tackle him.
If Webb gets the start, the defense will have not one, but two rushing threats to contend with. Players like linebacker Brad Jones and defensive end C.J. Wilson cannot afford to sit back and let linebacker Clay Matthews III do all the work. Linebacker Erik Walden in particular must tighten up his act this week, as most of Peterson’s major gains were directed right at him. The line and linebackers must work together to maintain contain and force the ball carrier to the middle of the field.
Hopefully, for their sake, the defensive debacle of last week was a resounding wakeup call for the Packers. They must approach this game as though they are facing a credible opponent, which they are; winning 10 games is never a fluke, particularly in a division as competitive as the NFC North was this year. It’s because I think Green Bay was embarrassed last week that I have optimism. I think they have been humbled a bit — their sense of invincibility dashed — and players like cornerback Tramon Williams, who made some ridiculous mistakes last week, will play more vigilantly.
That being said, there are no more excuses for the Packers this week. If they cannot beat a 54-percent passer like Webb, they never would have advanced far in the playoffs anyway. Green Bay can’t fall back on a lack of film as a justification for losing — not this week. They must maintain their assignments if they hope to avoid being humiliated at home in the playoffs again.
The Packers are playing at Lambeau Field, where they have a commanding regular-season home-field advantage, against a divisional opponent they already beat once this season. Moreover, they are arguably as healthy as they have been all season. They can and will advance to the Divisional Round.
Final Score: Packers 31, Vikings 27
Editor’s note: As of press time, Christian Ponder has been officially ruled out for the game, and Joe Webb will start.
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"THE PACKERS SUCK, THEY GOT TO PLAY AGAINST JOE WEBB, THE GUY WE VIKING FANS WERE SCREAMING FOR 6 WEEKS AGO"!
@ScarletandCream Colts and Shehawks, but I want Skins.
@ScarletandCream I have the Colts and Seahawks winning.