ReFo: Vikings @ Packers, NFC Wild Card
Last week Minnesota was able to knock off the Packers at home in a ‘win-and-in’ game to crown their regular season. This week always figured to be a much tougher affair at Lambeau Field, and without the interest of Adrian Peterson’s chase for Eric Dickerson’s record, but it was made doubly so by the late news that QB Christian Ponder would be sidelined with an elbow injury. Whatever fans think about Ponder, this game showed why he has never really been threatened by Joe Webb as the Vikings’ starter.
The Packers were able to bottle up Peterson far better than in either of their previous outings this season, holding him to just 99 yards and letting him loose on only a few runs in the day, never for anything like the damage he did to them previously. That was enough to stifle the Minnesota offense, which couldn’t get the plays needed in the passing game without Ponder.
Green Bay was efficient and methodical on offense, getting enough done to put the game out of reach and ensure they were never really threatened. Let’s take a look at who stood out.
Minnesota – Three Performances of Note
Christian Ponder’s late withdrawal provided an intriguing angle to the game. Joe Webb may have had his struggles as a passer in the past, but he is an electrifying athlete that can hurt teams not prepared for him. Unfortunately, it seems the Packers were either prepared for the few option plays Minnesota ran early, or were simply in the right place anyway given their game plan to bottle up Peterson by trapping him inside and maintaining contain on the perimeter. Webb’s running was limited and his arm was soon required to make plays as the Vikings fell behind. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get it done, missing even routine plays, but most damagingly missing the deep shots that could have dragged the Vikings back into the game in an instant. With 2:42 to go in the second quarter Webb was given a chance to hit Green Bay deep. WR Jerome Simpson was sent downfield on a post route, gaining inside position on the corner, but was then gifted the deep middle when Charles Woodson made a mess of his coverage. Webb overthrew the route by nearly 10 yards, missing on the opportunity. Between the overthrows, his nasty penchant for throwing the ball while in the grasp of defenders, and his eventual interception down the left sideline, Webb earned a -5.4 grade (-7.6 in passing alone) for the game.
Two Sides of a Coin in The Run Game
They may have bottled him up far better than his previous outings this season, but Adrian Peterson actually had his second-best grade of the season, grading marginally better than either previous effort against the Pack. As hard as that is to believe, Peterson was as good as ever, maximizing what he had to work with and squeezing every yard from the game possible. However, the difference was the blocking around him, particularly the weakness at guard that the Packers were able to exploit perfectly. Charlie Johnson (-4.1) and Brandon Fusco (-1.6) were the root cause of the majority of the failed runs because they simply couldn’t move Green Bay’s big-bodied defenders off the line. The Packers simply stacked the guards with linemen and challenged the Vikings to create the hole, which they often failed to do. Johnson in particular was completely unable to win at the point of attack against B.J. Raji or Ryan Pickett, while the Vikings again allowed Fusco to be overmatched while they had a stronger run blocker sitting on the bench in the shape of Geoff Schwartz. Peterson may not have been able to have the effect on the game he did in the last two meetings, but it wasn’t because he was playing any worse, the Packers just found the kryptonite to the Minnesota run game, eventually.
Positives on D
As a unit the Vikings’ defense was unable to contain the Packers as much as they needed to in order to keep this game close, but there were a few players that stood out. Fred Evans (+5.9) was the one defensive lineman who made plays in the backfield and around the line of scrimmage. On just 25 snaps he graded more than twice as well as any other DT for Minnesota, and late in the game he was still trying as hard as anybody. With 5:47 to go in the game, and things pretty much done, Evans still tore through T.J. Lang on a run play and torpedoed the run 5-yards deep in the backfield. The other standout from the game was rookie safety Harrison Smith (+5.9), who saved his finest performance of the year for the playoffs, even if it was ultimately in vain. Smith excelled in both coverage and against the run in this game, breaking up a pass in man-coverage on TE Jermichael Finley, but also shooting up to make tackles in the run game when needed. Smith can feel hard done by to miss out on the Pro Bowl in his first season, but if he can have days like this, and iron out the poor games, the Vikings have found a very good player.
Green Bay – Three Performances of Note
Saturday to Return?
It became an interesting story when Jeff Saturday was named a Pro-Bowl player at around the time he was being benched in Green Bay for his performances this season. He has been dealing with injuries and ranks 28th in our C list, but didn’t have a game all season as bad as his replacement, Evan Dietrich-Smith, did in this one. Like Saturday, he was better as a pass protector, the more important facet for a Packers lineman, if not all linemen in the NFL at this stage, and he surrendered just a pair of pressures on 38 snaps pass protecting. The issue though, is that he was completely man-handled in the run game. His blocks yielded five defensive stops and what could, and should, have been two more but for missed tackles by Vikings players, and those are plays that put the offense behind the chains and in unfavorable situations. Last week Dietrich-Smith performed far better against the same group of players, so maybe the Packers will put this down to just a bad day at the office, but they might think about putting Saturday back into the lineup for their next game after they watch the tape.
Going against Minnesota’s stable of receivers is not the biggest challenge in the world when you no longer have to worry about Percy Harvin. That becomes even more so when Joe Webb is at quarterback, but nonetheless the Packers corners, in particular Sam Shields (+3.1) and Tramon Williams (+3.6) dominated in this game, leaving Webb with nowhere to go on numerous plays and limiting anything that did come their way to just what was gained in the air. The pair allowed just 73 yards in the air on 11 targets, and got their hands to four passes themselves (two PDs for Williams and a PD and interception from Shields). The Packers were forced to go deep into their bench at corner this season and blood a lot of young players, which can only do them good long-term, but it speaks for itself that it is two of their veterans that had the best game here. Shields was particularly active against Adrian Peterson, coming up to wrap him around the ankles rather than risk getting run right over a few times.
The Highlights Can Mislead
Watching the game you might be forgiven for thinking Erik Walden had a great outing, as he was routinely around the quarterback or making a nuisance of himself against the run. How can it be then that he ended up with a -2.4 grade overall? He notched a sack, two hits and two more hurries, which is a fine haul for any pass-rusher, but only one of those hurries involved actually beating a man, and that was FB/H-back Rhett Ellison. The rest were either entirely unblocked or came as a result of somebody else flushing the quarterback toward Walden with more dominant and immediate pressure. Walden’s best play in the run game, a tackle for loss of Peterson in the third quarter, came because the pull block of LG Charlie Johnson was blown up to his inside by ILB Brad Jones, forcing Peterson to the outside where he had nowhere to go.
Other than that, Walden had far from a great game in run defense, losing out to his blocker a couple of times and failing to close and finish the play on both Peterson and Webb. Your TV screen might have been full of Walden all night, but don’t let that fool you into thinking he had a great game.
— Adrian Peterson finished the season gaining over 4.5 times more rushing yardage than the leading Green Bay rusher (Alex Green). Here, he outgained DuJuan Harris by 99 to 47, although Harris scored.
— Antoine Winfield and Chris Cook, two of Minnesota’s top three corners, allowed 100% of the balls thrown at them to be caught. They combined to allow 9 catches for 115 yards.
— Joe Webb was pressured on 18 drop-backs. He had a passer rating of 7.5 on those plays.
PFF Game Ball
For one big turnover each at crucial times Clay Matthews and Sam Shields each take home a PFF Game Ball.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam