After playing the sloppiest nationally televised game of the year, the Vikings are primed to repeat their performance against the high-flying Green Bay Packers, cross-border rivals who have recently gotten the better of their brothers to the west.
But in a league where any team truly does have a chance to win against any other team, Vikings fans who still maintain hope (or at the very least aren't cheering for a high draft pick) can take heart in the fact that there may not be a better time to play against the oft-injured Packers.
Green Bay has been run amok with injuries, with primary pass-rushers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry both out for the game. Other defensive standouts like Brad Jones and Casey Hayward are expected to play but are listed as questionable and may be limited.
On offense, James Jones (also listed as questionable) does not look likely to play, and season-ending injuries for Randall Cobb and Jermichael Finley seriously weaken the receiving corps.
Unfortunately for Vikings fans, Jamari Lattimore and Jarrett Boykin looked much better than expected in starter duty against the Cleveland Browns, which means—as per usual—that nothing is guaranteed.
Regardless, there are critical matchups the Vikings will need to dominate in order to win the game, which may seem out of hand but, truthfully, never is.
They're called trap games for a reason, and Minnesota will need to take care to set their own.
Xavier Rhodes/Josh Robinson/Chris Cook, CB vs. Jordy Nelson, WR
The Vikings rarely have their cornerbacks shadow opposing receivers, preferring to use a right/left alignment instead of delegating specific responsibility for certain players. That means base defensive formations will have either Robinson or Cook line up against the Packer's best outside receiver in Nelson.
This seems particularly likely, given that the Packers showed a lot more "12" personnel looks than their previously favored "11," which will encourage a response that favors linebackers instead of cornerbacks. In this familiar football terminology, the first digit refers to the number of running backs and the second to tight ends, leaving the remainder of the five skill players to be wide receivers.
That means that the Packers, in response to their injury troubles at receiver, have spent more time with more tight ends on the field than before and reducing the number of wide receivers. That increases the importance of a player like Jordy Nelson.
The former Kansas State receiver didn't test as quickly as other well-known deep threats in the league—he clocked 4.51 seconds in the 40-yard dash—but it would be foolish to dismiss him given his history with Aaron Rodgers, who averaged nearly 80 yards a game in Aaron Rodgers' incredible 2011 season and posted impressive numbers before injury the following year.
This year, he's on his most prolific pace ever, at 87.7 yards a game. That understates what could be his expected value against the Vikings given the situation surrounding their skill players.
Against the base defense, the Packers will want to line up Nelson against Josh Robinson, the most beleaguered of the three cornerbacks. Per Pro Football Focus, Robinson has given up a higher percentage of his targets to receivers he's covering than any other cornerback and, consequently, has allowed more yards than his competition, as well as the third-most yards per snap in coverage.
This matchup should be difficult for Robinson, who, despite having the physical tools in both strength and speed, seems to be lacking the awareness and instincts necessary to keep playing at a high level. He won't always be the cornerback on the outside, however, as he kicks in to cover the slot in nickel packages.
Rookie Xavier Rhodes doesn't see as much of the field as the other young cornerback, but he has played significantly better. Despite high-profile mistakes against Hakeem Nicks, he ranks among the league's best in yards per snap in coverage allowed despite ranking highly in targets per snap in coverage.
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy doesn't rely on timing as much as most West Coast gurus do in their offenses, which is just as well given Rodgers' ability to extend plays and tendency to keep the ball longer than most quarterbacks. But Rhodes' ability to jam receivers and move them around should keep things consistently tough for Nelson and limit his opportunities.
Chris Cook, on the other hand, has been a mixed bag. He received a lot of attention for allowing a touchdown that wasn't his fault. He also didn't play well against the New York Giants sorry passing offense. But in quieter games in front of smaller audiences, he's done very well. He ranks just better than average in all yards per snap in coverage and happens not to be targeted very often, either.
While he couldn't get his head turned around and haul in an easy Eli Manning interception, it was telling that he was in position to make the play on a poorly thrown ball; a reason he doesn't see many targets. When Nelson is lined up against him, Cook will attempt to push him around much like Rhodes but won't have to rely on it as much given his better awareness, particularly in zone coverage.
Nelson is more skilled than any of the corners who will cover him and will see both his fair share of targets and yards. But if the Vikings find a way to limit his contribution, they'll come out ahead.
Erin Henderson and Chad Greenway, LBs vs. Eddie Lacy, RB
Perhaps better sold as a matchup against the Packers run blocking, Eddie Lacy has quickly emerged as a surprising threat for the Green Bay packers, particularly given the challenges they've had passing.
After a disappointing opener against an admittedly powerful run defense in San Francisco, Lacy made an impact for himself later, recently putting up over 80 yards in the three most recent games after he returned from his concussion.
While he clearly benefits from a more open field, he doesn't lack talent. Pigeonholed as a "power back," Lacy has shown surprising vision and quickness and has used that to generate even more space than his prodigious offense already gives him.
He also forces his share of missed tackles, too—especially for a rookie. Neither Henderson nor Greenway have been particularly effective in the run game, and both have had their fair share of missed tackles, as well as poor tackling angles.
But they are clearly the team leaders in run defense, outpacing the rest of the team in tackles in the run game, as well as tackles for loss.
The good news is that despite an early struggle against running backs, the Vikings hold the fifth-best run defense by yards per attempt. But the bigger problem is that Minnesota gives running backs enough yards, they simply do not allow as many explosive runs as others (most of the highlight runs are from short passes to running backs, which are a different issue).
That means they'll often be hurt in the running game despite not allowing too many yards. It's not useful to stop a running back for two yards on 3rd and 1.
In that context, they are one of the worst in the league. Advanced NFL Stats uses "success rate" to gauge such a concept, and the Vikings rank as the seventh-worst team in the NFL at stopping run successes.
So, Henderson and Greenway's challenge will not be to simply prevent Lacy from getting big gains—it will be from preventing gains that are long enough for the Packers.
Both of them have had issues with gap discipline, sideline-to-sideline agility and recognition this year, although neither of them have been helped by their defensive line.
Regardless, both at least retain their ability to get off of blocks, which will be critical given the fact that the Packers still have strong guard play with Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang despite injuries elsewhere along the offensive line.
The increased reliance the Packers have on the run game, along with Lacy's increased productiveness, will force the Vikings to respect the run and, at least, play downhill against an emerging run threat. Whether or not Henderson and Greenway can do it is another question entirely.
Christian Ponder, QB vs. A.J. Hawk, LB
The Packers defense is fairly middle-of-the-road despite no distinguishing feature that makes a particular facet of the defense formidable.
A rotating corps of defensive backs and linebackers makes their defensive performance all the more surprising, and a good show by Davon House, as well as Jamari Lattimore, against the Cleveland Browns assures at least some consistency despite the injuries.
But without premier pass-rushers in Clay Matthews or Nick Perry, the primary matchup will be in the managers of their respective units.
Christian Ponder has been uninspiring as a leader of the Vikings offense, and he takes the field after having been benched for the previous three games in favor of Josh Freeman and Matt Cassel.
A.J. Hawk, despite being an average linebacker on the field, generally makes the on-field defensive calls and makes sure that defenders are where they need to be when the play begins.
As a result, two players won't often challenge each other (unless Ponder continues throwing short into linebacker coverage, a definite possibility) but will be playing a chess game for dominance on the field.
Regardless of the impact of the other matchups on the field, a potent Packers offense will make sure that the Vikings will need a way to keep up. Adrian Peterson will be critical in that endeavor, but without a quick-strike option, the Vikings might flounder.
This makes the strategic battle critical. Even if Ponder is limited in his play-calling flexibility, he will need to continuously make different decisions about hot reads and coverage calls as the Packers flex their defense in response to the Vikings formation. And Hawk will be at the center of it all.
Hawk is an instinctive linebacker who may not be the most physically gifted player on the roster and who occasionally underwhelms, but he doesn't often make mental mistakes, either. This back-and-forth will define the matchup and the Vikings offensive production for the game—and it could change the direction the Vikings go in when it comes to quarterback.
Ponder enters with a number of disadvantages, but he can at least say he was a resounding victor in their last matchup at the end of the previous season. Not only did the Vikings walk away with a win, but they did it with Ponder putting up a career performance.
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