3TFO: Vikings @ Packers, NFC Wild Card
Last Sunday the Vikings and the Packers faced off in one of the most exciting shootouts of the season. Both teams, and their fans, enjoyed themselves so much the NFL decided they should play again in an elimination match this Saturday night. So the NFC North rivals will head east to the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field, where the forecast calls for temperatures in the low 20’s.
This will be only the second playoff meeting between the two. The first time they met back in 2005 was a similar situation. The Packers won the North, while the Vikings were the last wildcard. The Vikings went to Lambeau and knocked off the Packers 31-17 that day, with Randy Moss infamously mooning the crowd. Only four players from that game are still with their respective teams (Donald Driver, Cullen Loeffler, Kevin Williams, and Antoine Winfield) and different head coaches will man each sideline.
The headline bout of Saturday’s contest will be the reigning MVP versus the MVP front-runner, but that is a gross oversimplification of what it’s going to take for each team to win. If we learned anything from the two games they played this season, it is that the two superstars won’t be able to win it by themselves. In their Week 13 matchup Adrian Peterson went off, rushing for 210 yards on only 21 carries while breaking four tackles — but he had little help from the passing game and the Vikings were downed 23-14. In the Week 17 matchup it was Aaron Rodgers’ turn. The Packers’ quarterback threw for 365 yards and four touchdowns, but it wasn’t enough as the defense allowed the Vikings to score 37 points, their highest offensive output of the season.
What we all want to know though is, what is going to happen this time. Many new factors have been added to the equation. The cold, the pressure of the playoffs, and a more intense familiarity with one another are all in play now, and they will assuredly have some effect on the outcome. The biggest effect on the outcome however, will come from these three to focus on.
The way these two teams have played this season this game could be decided by halftime. That is not to say it will be a blow out. Rather, both teams have units that are particularly built to play with a lead (Vikings offense, Packers defense) and it has shown this season. The Vikings are 9-1 when leading at halftime, while the Packers are 8-1 (lone loss was at Indianapolis). Those numbers are staggering, especially considering what the complements mean. The Vikings have come back once from a half time deficit all season, while the Packers have done it three times.
You would expect with the Vikings’ subpar passing game that they would have trouble coming back from a deficit, but it is a little surprising that the Packers haven’t been able to win from behind in more games. When you look at the situations though, it starts to make sense. The teams that have caused the Packers’ halftime deficits, and were able to come away victorious (49ers, Seahawks, Giants, and Vikings) all had success on the ground. In those four games no team passed for 300 yards, but all had more than 120 yards on the ground, at a yards per carry average of at least 4.4. The biggest way to combat their own run defense deficiencies would be for the Packers to score early and often. The more the Vikings are forced to go to the air the better, as it simply means less touches for Peterson. The reintegration of Charles Woodson should help the Packers’ run defense, but not enough that they can afford getting down early.
And, naturally, the Vikings would love to build another early lead. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Vikings can maintain their leads. They have done it simply by ‘Adrian Petersoning’ (should be a word) their opponents. He doesn’t even mind when the opponents know he’s getting the ball. When Peterson went for 212 yards against the Rams, a safety was in the box 58 times in 60 snaps. When he put up 154 against the Bears, a safety was there 47 times in 58 snaps, and his 199 against the Packers last week came with a safety close 77 times in 71 snaps (two safeties at a time is counted as two). The reason Peterson doesn’t mind is because he breaks so many tackles. He almost never loses balance or speed with contact. If there are more people at the line that just means less help behind, and one broken tackle will go for a longer gain. He averages a league-high 4.06 yards after contact per attempt to go along with his 62 broken tackles on the ground. Trying to play catch up with a running back like that is not advised. Recent history says this one will stay close to the end, but whichever team starts faster will give themselves a distinct advantage.
Vikings Ends vs. Packers Tackles
The biggest mismatch in favor of the Vikings’ defense exists in their talented edge rushers facing the young Packer tackles. Brian Robison, Jared Allen, and Everson Griffen combined for seven sacks, six hits, and 16 pressures in their two meetings with the Packers this season. Needless to say, those three will play a large role in the success of the Packers’ passing game. The hottest Viking coming into this week (even more so than A.D.) is Griffen. He has posted the second-highest Pass Rushing Productivity among all 4-3 ends each of the past two weeks, with PRP’s of 18.8 in Week 16, and 22.2 in Week 17. This success can be directly correlated to his increase in snaps from an edge position. He had been used mainly as a pass rushing defensive tackle (51% of snaps) until the last three weeks of the season (only 12% of snaps at tackle), and the results speak for themselves. The Vikings’ ends can win this matchup, and they probably must in order to take pressure off the secondary, especially if Antoine Winfield is unable to play.
The two men tasked with keeping the edge rushers at bay are Marshall Newhouse and Don Barclay. Newhouse is in his first full season as a starter, while Barclay has been starting only since week 14 after Bryan Bulaga went down with a hip injury and T.J. Lang sprained an ankle. Barclay’s strength in the running game allowed Lang to move back to his more natural guard position, but the undrafted rookie has been nothing short of a liability in pass protection. Barclay’s Pass Blocking Efficiency has been a paltry 91.3, while Newhouse has a little more respectable 94.4. A flawless pass-blocking performance is utterly unlikely for either of these two this weekend, and frankly their offense doesn’t necessarily need it. The key will be limiting the sacks and not having the pressures lead to turnovers.
Ponder’s Efficiency targeting Wide Outs
You may have thought that one of these ‘Three to Focus On‘ would have to do with stopping Adrian Peterson. The truth is that Peterson won’t be stopped just by improved play by Packer defenders. If the Packers really want to stop him, it will come from limiting his touches (see Fast Start above) and from forcing the Vikings’ offense to be one dimensional (this matchup).
Ever since Percy Harvin went down with an ankle injury against the Seahawks, the Vikings have been desperately searching for a consistent threat at the receiver position. The highest single-game total for a Vikings receiver since then was Jairus Wright’s 90 yards last week. Because of this, QB Christian Ponder’s average yards per game went from 217 yards through the first eight games, to 161 yards through the last seven (fortunately, Peterson’s went from 97 to 163 over the same stretch). The chart below illustrates the Vikings’ receivers production since Harvin’s injury, as well as both previous matchups with the Packers.
Since Week 9 Week 13 Week 17
Depth of Target 11.0 13.3 14.5
Targets per game 13.9 11.0 12.0
Accuracy % 67.0 27.3 75.0
QB Rating 74.2 39.2 140.3
Yards Per Attempt 6.6 3.5 13.2
Drops 11 0 1
It is clear that Ponder’s improvement against the Packers’ corners from game one to game two was what ultimately changed the outcome. That success was fairly surprising ,with all things considered. Sam Shields, Casey Hayward, and Tramon Williams are 1st, 6th, and 17th in cover snaps per reception among starting corners. All three gave up multiple catches and at least 46 yards last week. Williams had a particularly bad game as he looked aloof at times. On the day he gave up three of five passing, with another pass dropped, and committed a game-changing penalty in the red zone. The Packers cannot afford those same mistakes. If they allow the Vikings to move with a balanced offense they risk giving up another 30+ point game. If there is any ‘must win’ match up for the Packers, this is it.
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