Keys to the Game: Vikings at Packers Wild Card Playoff Edition
Well here we are. The playoffs. I have been waiting for this game since I watched a hapless Green Bay Packers team get trounced at home in the Divisional round by the Giants last January. It was a presumptuous wish, as many teams don’t appear in the playoffs in back-to-back seasons but somehow I knew an Aaron Rodgers-led team would. As far as the Minnesota Vikings as their opponent, I wouldn’t have hand-picked that matchup.
While Green Bay has had the upper hand lately in this series, the Vikings have shown signs of life in 2012 and played the Packers tough both times. Last week, they earned their first win against Green Bay since 2009 and snapped the Packers’ 12 game winning streak against NFC North opponents. Anytime a team faces a divisional opponent, all bets are off and anything goes. In the postseason, that theory is even stronger.
After the Vikings strong performance last Sunday, many believe they have a better chance than most would assume as they head to Green Bay for this Saturday night’s game. Running back Adrian Peterson posted his second highlight-reel game in a row against the Packers and quarterback Christian Ponder proved he can take care of the football against the Packers’ ball-hawking secondary.
As we look to this week’s Keys to the game, some remain the same but with the Packers getting some new personnel in this matchup, a few wrinkles may emerge. This is going to be a long one so break out your snacks and get comfortable!
You knew this is where this entire thread would start. If you didn’t, maybe you missed last week’s game? Or perhaps this entire season? Peterson has only defied many odds time and time again. At the risk of entering “broken record” territory, a quick recap: 2,097 total rushing yards, 12 touchdowns and just four fumbles in 348 attempts this season. Only six other running backs have hit the 2,000 yard mark. I am not certain but I’ll bet not many of them did it coming straight off of an ACL tear.
Peterson has imposed his will on the Packers this season in the two meetings. Those stats: 409 yards, two touchdowns and nearly eight yards per carry. Had it not been for some costly Ponder interceptions in the first meeting, the Vikings may be hosting this game. Peterson also had a touchdown catch in last week’s game.
I thought about looking up the yards after contact against Green Bay this season, but I already had to deal with picking the Vikings in the prediction post. I clearly don’t need another downer. Packer defenders looked downright silly last week trying to tackle Peterson. That was after they caught him. Several times it appeared that Green Bay had the right call against a Peterson run and made contact with him at or near the line. I know it’s Adrian Peterson and he’s a tough tackle, but the Packer defenders might as well have had butter on their hands.
AP, on numerous occasions, bounced outside and was able to get to an edge that was nowhere close to set by the defense. I realize that the Packers are without Des Bishop and have had to move Brad Jones inside to fill in that hole. I realize that Erik Walden has consistently had trouble setting the edge. I know no one wants to step in front of a moving bus but Tramon Williams did all but roll into the fetal positoin. But all of these guys are worthy of a “Come On Maaaaaaaaaan” by ESPN’s Chris Carter. They were awful last week. Again, I get that it’s the best running back in the game, but it’s playoff time. Both have to fight off the block and for their positioning.
Several Packers players, during this week, have said they had the right defensive calls to stop Peterson last week and that they were just momentarily out of position or lost their gap responsibility. This is a KEY to this game. There will be no excuse for this on Saturday. Not only is there a six year stockpile of film on Peterson, there are two recent matchups against this very defense that they can study, analyze and study some more. It’s simple: lose your gap, lose the game.
Peterson is, will be and must be public enemy #1 this week. Because I don’t believe that Christian Ponder can have two spectacular games in a row against the Packers, I’m almost willing to give up Clay Matthews on the pass rush to spy on Peterson. Pick your poison and I will gladly take Ponder on his best day against Peterson any other day. Also expect to see more of cornerback Davon House, whose size is more of an advantage against the hard-running Peterson.
Ponder had a day against Green Bay last week. I sincerely believe and hope that it won’t be very often that I’m typing that sentence again. Yes, he’s an NFL quarterback and has two full year so of experience, but in the playoffs, it’s a new season. It’s Ponder’s first postseason game and the elements will not be with him. It’s going to be cold and loud.
The Packers had zero takeaways on Sunday. That stat usually means the team struggled in whichever game is in question because their scheme is predicated on creating and capitalizing on mistakes. Ponder didn’t make any and if he did, the ball somehow fell harmlessly to the turf. While I did pick the Vikings to win, I wouldn’t bet on the Packers not forcing a turnover for a second game and week in a row.
If the Packers take care of key #1, Ponder will have to start throwing more than he wants. That’s when magical things can start to happen for the Green Bay defense.
Speaking of that Packers defense, welcome back Mr. Woodson. He hasn’t played since October 21st so that’s 10 weeks out of action. Let’s not pretend that that won’t be a factor this week. As smart and savvy as Woodson is, a 10 week layoff means he will have to re-acclimate to the speed of the game.
It has been theorized by many that defensive coordinator Dom Capers will ease Woodson back in and pick his spots carefully to insert him into the lineup. While he’s not the cover back that he once was, I have to think Woodson’s leadership, determination and fresh legs will likely offer some sort of boost to the defense. My initial thought is that boost may come in the form of a more effective blitz from the slot in the secondary.
Ponder’s favorite target. He is really coming into his own and soon will be mentioned among the Gronkowski’s, Graham’s, Miller’s and Gates’ of the world. Beyond his pass catching ability and the matchup problem that he poses, Rudolph can block.
In last week’s game, he was shoving Matthews clear out of the play and had CM3 on his back on a few occasions during running plays. With a sometimes shaky quarterback in Ponder, Rudolph is just the type of safety valve the Vikings need. Green Bay already has their hands full containing Peterson but they have to find a way to keep Rudolph from having his way in every facet on Saturday.
Woodson could help in this area but his pass coverage has dropped off this season. He has been flagged numerous times for defensive holding, which is a back-breaking penalty. The Packers will likely have to utilize safety Morgan Burnett to help over the top. The one advantage for Green Bay is that Minnesota doesn’t have a true and consistent threat at wide receiver. This at least gives the corners a chance to man up on the receivers and cheat a safety in on Rudolph.
Marshall Newhouse vs. Jared Allen
I’m not one to really keep stats on offensive linemen but it has been said that Newhouse had one of his better games against Allen last week. Allen did have a sack, but that’s because he’s Jared Allen and he always makes a key play or two against the Packers.
As good as Newhouse was last week, he needs to be better this week. Allen is a very emotional player and will impose his will on opposing linemen. In a Thursday night matchup earlier this season, Tampa Bay Buccaneers tackle Donald Penn scuffled with Allen and bloodied Allen’s nose. On the very next play, Allen sacked Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman. And all of America just knew he would.
Allen will be amped up to the max this week. He’s starting to age and knows his chances at playoff glory are likely numbered. Newhouse and the Green Bay protection scheme can’t let him take over and they shouldn’t kid themselves. He can.
This is where having a Ryan Grant at running back is helpful. Grant is a decent blocker and can at least chip Allen to give Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers another split second to find an open man. With Rodgers, that’s all he needs. Tight end Jermichael Finley will also likely be called on to help and fortunately, Finley’s block has improved lately. Allen must be stifled!
The Cobb Factor
Receiver Randall Cobb sat out last week’s game after suffering an ankle injury against Tennessee the week prior. The Packers nearly got away with not having their most dynamic offensive player on the field. While Rodgers can only throw it to one receiver at a time, adding Cobb to a stable that will likely already have Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and James Jones is no joke to opposing defenses.
Cobb is dangerous from the slot and Minnesota’s secondary is banged up. Their two best defensive backs, Antoine Winfield (hand) and Harrison Smith (knee) are dealing with injuries. They are both expected to play, but won’t be at 100%. Any setback against the Packers passing game is one too many. Green Bay has to exploit any chink in the armor. Their playoff lives depend on it.
The last big question regarding Cobb is what Green Bay will do on special teams. It was on a punt return that Cobb was injured two weeks ago. It has already been argued that the Packers are gambling every time they put Cobb back there to return a kick. But as head coach Mike McCarthy says, Cobb is their most dynamic player and they want the ball in his hands as often as possible. He has also said they won’t “play scared” when it comes to the return game.
McCarthy, however, has also been known to go with the “hot hand” and after last week’s performance, one could argue that the hot hand in the return game is Jeremy Ross. If able to focus on his receiving duties and saving some of the wear on his legs, Cobb could become a bigger problem for Minnesota’s defense late in this game.
This one is simple. Rodgers has to avoid mistakes. Rodgers had a low interception total again this season so let’s assume he can avoid throwing one and also that the football Gods don’t let one bounce off a Packer receiver’s hands or pads for a pick.
My biggest concern with Rodgers is pass protection, which is not totally in his control. But in watching many of his sacks, many have been avoidable. I know it’s asking a lot of a quarterback to have eyes on every side of his head and to feel the pressure or have that internal clock after the snap. Unfortunately, the Packers offensive line is what it is and if Green Bay is to survive, Rodgers needs to do all of those.
On too many occasions this season, Rodgers has been overly patient waiting for a route to develop and down he went into a defender’s arms. This is a mobile quarterback who has made countless plays with his feet. McCarthy has to get Rodgers on the move, where he is the most accurate quarterback in the league. Rodgers had zero rushing attempts last week. He’s not Robert Griffin III or Russell Wilson, but he will likely have to get mobile at least a few times to keep the chains moving on Saturday.
The alpha and the omega. This began with Peterson and it ends with Peterson. For those who remember the Karate Kid II, the theory is simple. Rule number one: stop Adrian Peterson. Rule number two: first lean rule number one!
Enjoy the game and bundle up!——————
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on "AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason at: Jason Perone
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