5 keys to beating the Vikings

Welcome to hype week.

At least that’s what the Green Bay media is calling it.  I guess when you create your own media circus you get to name it.  I understand that.  What I don’t understand is why they settled on a stupid name like “hype week.”

The media is right though:  the Packers/Vikings game this Monday is important, though not because its Brent Favor’s first game against his former team.  Rather, this game is important because the winner will sit atop the NFC North—well, at least for a week.

Earlier this week, I said I didn’t feel good about the Packers’ chances heading into this game.  Unfortunately, those feelings haven’t changed.  Nonetheless, I think the Packers can beat the Vikings this Monday, but to do so, they’ll have to do a combination of, if not all of, the following:

The offensive line needs to keep Rodgers upright

The offensive line needs to keep Rodgers upright

(1)  Protect Aaron Rodgers.  This should be a no-brainer any week, but with how poorly the Packers’ offensive line has played the first three weeks, this is a must against the Vikings, who field one of the best defensive lines in the NFL.  Want proof?  Here you go:  the Vikings have led the NFL in rush defense the past three years, and sent three of their four defensive lineman to the Pro Bowl in 2008—Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, and Pat Williams.  Although they’re only ranked 12th in rush defense after three games, they’ve moved up to 4th in pass defense.  I can only imagine the excitement oozing out of Allen’s pores at the prospect of facing Daryn Colledge at left tackle.  Even if Chad Clifton is able to tough it out and play, I’m not sure he’ll fare much better.  Mike McCarthy better have something up his sleeve to keep Rodgers upright.  Bootlegs, playaction, rollouts, whatever.  If the line doesn’t protect Rodgers better than they did the first three games, his name will pop up on the injury report sooner rather than later, perhaps starting after Monday’s game.

The Packers need to try to establish the run

The Packers need to try to establish the run

(2)  Keep the Vikings’ defense honest. In saying that, I mean the Packers need to run the ball.  Given the talent along their defensive line and the way the Packers’ offensive line has struggled, the Vikings will probably feel content rushing only four and five lineman, dropping the rest back in coverage.  If that’s the look the Packers get, Rodgers needs to audible to the run and force the Vikings to put more players in the box.  Even if the running game isn’t working—which it probably won’t, all things considered—the Packers still need the Vikings to think there is a chance they’ll run it.  To assist them in this regard, the Packers’ offense cannot put themselves in unfavorable downs and distances, which they have far too often this season.  This means no sacks.  This means no holding penalties.  This means catching the ball.  At this point, that seems like a tall order for this offense, but if they’re going to be the elite unit many think they can, these are the little things they need to do.  And there’s no better time to start than against the Vikings.

(3)  Continue to force and not commit turnovers. The Packers lead the NFL with a +8 turnover ratio.  Part of that is due to the defense snagging a league leading seven interceptions, but the other part is due to Rodgers’ smart quarterback play.  Three games into the season, Rodgers has yet to throw an interception, and he has only fumbled once, after a blindside sack.  Rodgers needs to continue that sort of play against the Vikings, who are equally opportunistic themselves, ranking fourth in the NFL in the turnover ratio department with a +4.  As cliché as it sounds, the winner of this game might be the team that makes the fewest mistakes, so the Packers’ secondary needs to take advantage of the opportunities Brent will surely give them.  That leads me to…

The Packers need to take advantage of Brent's penchant for the turnover

The Packers need to take advantage of Brent's penchant for the turnover

(4)  Make Brent beat you. Or put a little less provocatively:  contain Adrian Peterson.  For some, that may sound crazy.  Why would you want to put the ball in the hands of Brent, who led his team to a heroic last second victory just last week?  Why:  because Brent is undoubtedly a lesser threat than Peterson.  In fact, the Packers want Brent to throw the ball.  Peterson is going to get his fair share of carries, and he is going to get yards here and there.  What the Packers need to do is limit the big run.  In the past, the Packers have been able to keep Peterson under wraps about 95% of the time.  The other 5%, he busts off 20+ yard runs.  That trend can’t continue.

As for Brent, he’s still prone to the turnover, which was evident throughout Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers.  He had great completion percentages his first two games—66.7 against the Cleveland Browns and an amazing 85.2 against the Detroit Lions—but most of that is due to his sudden affinity for the checkdown pass.  His career per pass attempt average is 7.0 yards; his average the first two games:  5.2 and 5.7.  Until last week, Favre had reigned himself in and had been very reluctant to throw down the field, mostly because he didn’t need to and because his receivers are quite pedestrian (they might even be worse than—*gulp*—the Bears’).  Last week, however, the Vikings became a little pass-happy for some inexplicable reason.  Yes, they were trailing for parts of the game, but never by more than four points; furthermore, Peterson was averaging 4.47 yards a carry.  Either way, the Vikings let Brent sling it more than they had all season, and in doing so, we saw the Brent of old.  Sure, all anyone is going to remember from that game is his last second touchdown to Greg Lewis (who, by the bye, was the only receiver running a route in the endzone, which speaks volumes to that receiving corps’ field awareness), but what the game tape will show is Brent forcing the ball into double and triple coverage.  What’s new, eh?  You can bet the Packers’ ballhawking secondary is eagerly awaiting the chances Brent is sure to take.

(5)  Play within their limits and don’t get too excited. Despite what they say to the media, the Packers will be out to prove a point this Monday.  They’ve had to endure Favre-a-palooza for two years straight, though admittedly not as much this year as last year, and now, they have a chance to do something other than play the role of the diplomatic interviewee.  Considering the storylines inherent in this matchup—division rivalry, first place in the NFC North up for grabs, Brent’s first game against his former team, national stage—everyone is going to be looking to make a big play.  That’s fine.  What the Packers need to avoid is being overzealous to the point where they make a costly mistake.  In other words, they need to play within themselves and try not to force the issue too much.  That’s Brent’s job.  One might assume that he’ll approach this game with a similar mindset—just play within your limits—but a leopard doesn’t change his spots.  Oh, and despite his recent recanting about wanting to stick it to Packers’ General Manager Ted Thompson, everyone and their mothers knows Brent is still out for revenge.  Eventually, Brent, like he always does, is going to force the issue.  It may pay huge dividends for the Vikings; it may prove costly.  That’s always been the Catch 22 with Brent.  Either way, the Packers need to treat this like any other divisional game.  They don’t need to prove anything to anybody else; rather, they need to prove to themselves that they are a good team by playing sound, fundamental football.

McCarthy summed it up best in his press conference this past Monday:  “I clearly am in tune with the size of this game outside the building, but for us to play to our ability, we have to focus on ourselves.”  Let’s hope the players heed his words.

Overall, this seems like a tall order, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t.  Nonetheless, if the Packers can accomplish just some of these goals Monday night, they’ll give themselves a great opportunity to leave Minnesota 3-1 and atop the NFC North heading into a bye.

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