3TFO: Packers @ Vikings, Week 17
It’s pretty much ‘win or go home’ for the Vikings. A victory earns one of the more unlikely playoff berths of the season. Without it, they’ll need a trifecta of losses from the Giants, Cowboys, and Bears to back their way in. The Packers can ‘win and play at home’ — sewing up the No. 2 seed in the NFC and topping off a clean sweep of the NFC North for the second straight season.
Expect an ‘all-hands on deck’ approach for two teams trying to put the final pieces in place for a run to the Super Bowl.
Jerome Felton vs. A.J. Hawk
In their 2011 meetings, the Packers bottled up Adrian Peterson and did so predominantly with a nickel or dime defense (69% of their defensive snaps). In their Week 13 matchup this season, Green Bay reversed strategy, sticking to their base 3-4 formations, and only adding extra DBs in obvious passing situations. You’d think putting more beef into the front seven would be the right call for countering the Vikings’ run-first mentality, but the results were staggering — Peterson averaged 10 yards per carry, forced four missed tackles, and gained 186 of his 210 yards after contact.
Yes, it was one of the great individual running back performances of the year, but it helped having teammates that were winning their individual battles as well. Minnesota does the majority (41%) of their running out of a two-back, one-tight end set. The second back has usually been fullback Jerome Felton, who currently ranks fifth among FBs in run blocking (his less-used teammate Rhett Ellison ranks second). Felton had one of his best performances of the season against the Packers and mostly at the expense of inside linebacker A.J. Hawk. The pair appeared to have similar assignments that game — meeting in the hole time-after-time in some violent collisions. Felton gave up no ground and even pancaked Hawk to spring a 9-yard run early in the second quarter.
That hasn’t been a typical day for Hawk, who’s shown big improvement in his run defense this year. In 2011, he graded out 47th among ILBs against the run (-10.7), but fast forward to 2012 and you’ll find he’s worked his way up to 17th (+4.2). While Hawk still doesn’t deliver the big play (only two sacks, no interceptions, and no forced fumbles), he’s managed to at least cut back on giving them up. He’s missing only one tackle for every 22 attempts, effectively doubling his Tackling Efficiency from last year. The Packers are also getting more impact out of those tackles. Last year Hawk delivered a stop on only 5.7% of his run snaps — Run Stop Percentage that was at the bottom of the league for ILBs. This year he’s up to 11.8%, good for sixth in the league.
Christian Ponder vs. Dom Capers
The Vikings are looking for QB Christian Ponder to cut down on the poor throws and decisions that haven’t always allowed the Vikings to ride Peterson’s exploits to victory. Ponder currently ranks 37th out of 39 QBs in passing, with only two positive grades on the year. Pressure appears to be his biggest enemy. Give him some time and a clean pocket, and you get a 70% completion rate that rivals some of the league’s top QBs — but when defenses start getting in his face, his percentage plummets to 40, one of the biggest differentials in the league.
Perhaps Packers Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers knows this, and that’s why has brought the heat the past three games against Ponder (65% blitz rate). That’s more than double the NFL average, and well above the Packers’ own average. Capers’ aggressiveness has paid off, as Ponder hasn’t played particularly well in any of those games (five interceptions to three touchdowns) and has only a 37% completion rate when blitzed.
If the Packers continue their blitz-happy strategy again this week, expect their defensive backs to get into the mix. In last year’s games, Charles Woodson and Jarrett Bush were used heavily as blitzers (about 20% of passing snaps) and mostly from the slot corner position. With Woodson on the sideline much of the year, Capers has been slowly opening up blitzing opportunities for rookie Casey Hayward who had a season-high 13 pass rushes last week against the Titans.
Packers Tight Ends vs. Antoine Winfield and Chad Greenway
The Packers look to bolster their receiving corps with the possible return of wide receiver Jordy Nelson this week. During his absence, the Packers’ tight ends have helped pick up the slack. Jermichael Finley’s snaps, targets, and overall production have been on the rise since Nelson’s Week 13 departure. He’s also been more likely to run routes from outside the formation (53% of the time vs. 40%).
Second-year man D.J. Williams has quietly established himself as the Packers’ best blocking tight end during limited reps this season. He gets the majority of his action on running plays and will often motion into the backfield as a FB. His run blocking grade (+3.9) is well above-average for tight ends. He also has been a stellar in pass protection — yet to yield a single pressure in 24 pass blocking snaps.
Four weeks ago, it was CB Antoine Winfield and OLB Chad Greenway getting most of the coverage duty on Packers tight ends. Greenway seems to have recovered some from a midseason swoon, but is still much more likely to contain a receiver than to shut them down (80.2% completion rate allowed and only three passes defensed).
Winfield is nursing a broken hand, but expects to play on Sunday. While he is our top-graded CB primarily on the strength of an unmatched prowess in run defense, he’s also among the elite in coverage. Like Greenway, Winfield isn’t one to necessarily challenge receivers on the reception (68% completion rate allowed and only three PDs), but punishes after the catch with physical tackling and a yards per catch average that’s among the best in the league (9.7 average).
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