At the start of the season, anyone could have circled Week 12's Green Bay Packers vs. Minnesota Vikings contest as a critical NFC North battle. The Packers, perennial Super Bowl contenders, and the Vikings, coming off a surprise playoff berth, would surely be playing for big stakes this late in the season.
In a way, it's come true: This game certainly has big playoff implications, but not for the reasons we thought. The 5-5 Packers have their backs against the wall, and the 2-8 Vikings are playing for little more than personal pride.
Without injured quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the Packers appear punchless. They've now dropped three straight games. Most recently, they lost to the then-3-6 New York Giants—the kind of defeat a Super Bowl contender in a neck-and-neck division race simply can't suffer.
The Packers now have zero margin for error. They're one game behind the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears in the NFC North race, and head coach Mike McCarthy "[doesn't] have a timetable" for Rodgers' return, per Tyler Dunne of the Journal-Sentinel.
Playing against the Vikings at home, the Packers simply must win.
How can they do it without Rodgers?
To someone who didn't watch the Week 11 matchup against the Giants, Scott Tolzien's performance sounded pretty typical for an undrafted reserve quarterback who didn't even camp with the team: No touchdown passes and three interceptions in a 27-13 loss.
However, Tolzien completed 24 of 34 passes for 339 yards. Interceptions or no, completing 70.6 percent of your passes for an average of 9.97 yards per attempt is not easy to do in the NFL.
Let's look at what Tolzien and the Packers did right and what they did wrong.
First, they "established the run." On the Packers' only two possessions of the first quarter, both series went like this: Run, run, incompletion, punt.
Then, in the second quarter, Tolzien and the Packers used play action to get vertical.
Here, the Packers send out 21 personnel (a tailback, a fullback and a tight end) and give all appearances of a run. Look how little the Giants respect Tolzien:
The Giants are in a base 4-3 with tight man coverage and a single high safety. Other than the two cornerbacks, the entire defense bites on the play fake, even the high safety. Once Tolzien sets up to throw, the defensive backs and linebackers furiously try to get back, but it's too late:
James Jones releases free to the inside on the go route, and Tolzien hits Jones for a 45-yard gain.
The Packers kept using play action, keying on the Giants' fear of bruising rookie tailback Eddie Lacy. When the Packers spread the field with three and four receivers, though, Tolzien struggled to hit short throws quickly and accurately (and his receivers didn't help him out with many clutch grabs).
The Giants decided to flummox Tolzien by blitzing, and it was quite successful. Right tackle Marshall Newhouse struggled with pass protection on outside rushing, and the Packers tried to compensate by using "max protect," keeping backs and tight ends in pass protection to keep Tolzien clean.
Max protect has its drawbacks. Here's Tolzien's first interception:
Like the play above, the Packers have a tailback, fullback and tight end in, but tight end Andrew Quarless is lined up alongside fullback John Kuhn as dual offset fullbacks, or H-backs.
The Giants are again in a base 4-3, but the corners are giving more cushion. Not wanting to get burned again, both safeties line up deep at the outset. After the snap, the play action again draws up the linebackers and strong safety.
This time, the free safety keeps his depth:
The two H-backs charge forward to "run block," helping sell the play as a run to the linebackers. All the linebackers and the strong safety plunge forward, but the press coverage on receiver Jordy Nelson (at the top of the screen) is blanket-tight, and Jones (bottom) will have to beat double coverage.
Jones breaks to the inside, getting open, but the Giants middle linebacker recognizes the play action and hits the brakes:
With all three backs now in pass protection, Tolzien has all kinds of protection. But with only receivers running routes, and five defenders in coverage, those are terrible odds for a quarterback not named Aaron Rodgers.
Tolzien is at his best when throwing downfield, so spreading the field with many receivers and relying on his accuracy isn't the answer.
Still, if Tolzien had one fewer blocker and one more receiving option, preferably one who can take advantage of the run-conscious strong safety, this play could still have been successful. Instead, Tolzien forced it inside to Jones, and Jon Beason was able to get enough depth to pick it off.
On the Right Track
The Vikings are the NFL's worst scoring defense, per Pro Football Reference, allowing 32 points per game. They're ranked 10th worst in the NFL in average yards per attempt allowed, with 6.8, but 10th best in average yards per rushing carry allowed.
The Packers will again try to run to set up the pass, and Lacy may well have some success. To put up points, though, they'll need to throw—and throw safely.
Forcing Tolzien to do a lot of field-reading is not the way to protect the football:
Just as they did against the Giants, the Packers should hold off on deploying max protect until the Vikings generate effective pass rush. Even after that, the Packers need to make sure Tolzien always has a hot route, or outlet receiver, to go to in case his first read isn't open.
While play action with a lead-blocking fullback is highly effective, the Packers should also consider using a pulling guard to accomplish the same convincing run action. That would make it possible to swap out a fullback for a receiver or tight end.
Another possibility: Use Quarless as an H-back alone, without Kuhn. That makes a run slightly less likely, but Quarless would present the defense with another receiving threat they have to cover.
All told, the Packers have more than enough talent to take down the flailing Vikes—and that includes Tolzien. His two other interceptions were a ball that sailed on him and got tipped back to a waiting safety and superlative individual play by defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul.
Were it not for those two flukes, and this correctable problem in game-planning, we might be talking about how well Tolzien played against the Giants, instead of how the Packers can beat the Vikings without Aaron Rodgers.