3TFO: Vikings @ Packers, Week 13
It’s been more than a full year since these two teams have faced off, but this NFC North rivalry is about to be renewed. It hasn’t been too much of a rivalry as of late, as the Vikings haven’t topped the Packers since Brett Favre’s first year with the team in 2009.
But, Minnesota has been full of surprises in 2012, as few can say they predicted a 5-2 start for the team. And while they’ve cooled off recently, the Vikes are currently tied for the sixth seed in the NFC playoffs. They’ll have to keep on winning if they want to play into January though, as recent losses to the NFC’s other 6-5 teams (Seattle and Tampa) ensure that Minnesota is unlikely to be winning any tiebreakers. It’s an uphill battle for the Vikings, too. After their trip to Lambeau Field, they still must travel to Houston and host rematches with the Bears and Packers.
Unlike Minnesota, Green Bay started out slowly but has been on a tear recently. Injuries seem to have finally caught up to them, and after five consecutive victories, the Packers were straight up embarrassed last week at the hands of the Giants. Green Bay is still in full control of its own fate, just a game behind the division-leading Bears with a Week 15 visit to Chicago looming large. And while the Packers have their sights set on the division crown, they’ll have to quickly forget their performance a week ago if they want to take down Minnesota. Let’s look at a few matchups they’ll have to focus on if they want to win.
Pressure off the Edge
With the loss of Bryan Bulaga to injured reserve in Week 9, left guard T.J. Lang was forced to fill in at right tackle. He hasn’t fared particularly well there either, since nearly half of the pressure he’s given up this year has come in the three games since his position swap. At left tackle, third-year man Marshall Newhouse has improved greatly on his poor 2011 campaign. After giving up 58 QB disruptions a year ago, Newhouse has cut that to just 25. His Pass Blocking Efficiency of 95.4 is a massive improvement on the 92.2 he achieved last year, which was good for second-worst in the league.
Facing off against these two will be a combination of veteran Jared Allen and the up-and-coming Brian Robison. Compared with what we’re used to seeing from the ninth-year defensive end, Allen’s seven sacks are a bit disappointing, but sacks aren’t the whole story. He’s pressured opposing quarterbacks 46 times this year, sixth most among 4-3 DEs, and Allen recorded a pair of sacks in both games against the Packers last season. Robison will be working primarily on Lang, and while he hasn’t been quite as productive as Allen, he’s done a fantastic job of making his presence felt even when he can’t reach the quarterback — his six batted passes trail only J.J. Watt’s 12.
Can Ponder Stretch a Young Secondary?
In just his second year out of Florida State, Christian Ponder has been underwhelming. He’s recorded just one 300-yard passing game this year compared with two games where he failed to surpass 70 yards. Much of that comes down to Ponder’s reluctance to throw deep. He’s attempted deep throws (over 20 yards in the air) just 24 times this year, completing a league-low six. Three quarterbacks have more deep completions than Ponder has attempts. He’s struggled with his accuracy on the balls he has thrown, as just 29.2% of those 24 have made it to the receiver (six caught, one dropped).
Limiting the deep ball opportunities will the responsibility of Green Bay’s safeties. With fan favorite Charles Woodson still out with a collarbone injury, the Packers have turned to a couple of young players in M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian. McMillian has been targeted once every 9.9 coverage snaps, and despite being one of the most frequently targeted safeties, quarterbacks have had little success when throwing at the rookie fourth-rounder. He’s given up a QB rating of just 66.4 and has yet to concede a touchdown pass. Jennings, who’s spent a larger portion of his time lined up deep (83.3 percent vs. 47.4% for McMillian) has surrendered five completions for a meager 34 yards this season, an exceptional return on a player who went undrafted in 2011. And though Morgan Burnett has given up a completion percentage of 64.9 percent, he’s yet to allow anything into his coverage over 30 yards. If Ponder can’t stretch the field early, expect these guys to make their way closer to the line as the game progresses.
Green Bay’s Pass Rush, or Lack Thereof
The losses of Bulaga and Woodson have undoubtedly hurt the Packers, but it’s hard to argue that either was as impactful as the loss of Clay Matthews. Without Matthews on the field, Green Bay had to rely on B.J. Raji last week as the only player to get consistent pressure. As has come to be the norm, Erik Walden drew a blank last week rushing the passer, making that the fourth time that’s happened this year. Even when he recorded a couple of sacks in Detroit two weeks ago (his only pressure in that game) it was due to his teammates flushing the quarterback into him rather than Walden actually beating his man. Dezman Moses has challenged offensive tackles from time to time, tallying just five fewer pressures than Walden on 164 fewer pass rushing opportunities.
All of this bodes well for the Vikings, who seemingly found their left tackle of the future in this year’s draft. Outside of a rough outing in Chicago last week, fourth overall pick Matt Kalil has been lights-out for Minnesota, giving up a stingy 12 pressures in the previous 10 games. Green Bay’s best chance to pressure Ponder might come against right tackle Phil Loadholt. Defenders have notched four sacks working against Loadholt, and though that leads the Vikings’ linemen, he’s far from a liability in pass protection. His Pass Blocking Efficiency of 94.8 is roughly average among tackles, and he should have little trouble dealing with Walden. Even so, giving Ponder a clean pocket must be a top priority for Minnesota. Ponder’s completion percentage drops from 71.2% without pressure to 41.3% when he has defenders in his face.