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Vikings: On to Green Bay- the Matchup

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Some key match-ups as we look at the NFC North showdown at TCF Stadium this week.

Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

Here we are, getting ready for one of those circled games on the calendar, at home against the Green Bay Packers.  Not many would have predicted that the Packers would be looking up at the Vikings in the division race at this point, but having dropped three straight, while the Vikings have won five in a row, clearly the Vikings have all the momentum going into the game at home.

Obviously there is a lot riding on this game, in both the division and playoff picture.  Given the Packers' woes going into this game, this is a big opportunity for them to turn things around.  For the Vikings, a victory would give them a 2+ game lead over the Packers, the '+' being the tie-breaker advantage, and continuing confidence and momentum going into the last six games of the regular season.

THE MATCH-UPS

Packers offense vs. Vikings defense

Packers  Away Offense Stats (ranking)

Vikings Home Defense Stats (ranking)

Points per game

21.8 (#18)

14.5 (#1)

Points per game allowed

Yards per game

306 (#27)

337 (#20)

Yards per game allowed

3rd down conversions

34.04% (#24)

32.76% (#6)

3rd down conv. allowed

Red zone TD %

69.23% (#3t)

44.44 (#8t)

Red zone TD % allowed

Red zone atts/game

3.2 (#12)

2.2 (#12)

Red zone atts allowed

Rush yards per game

114 (#14)

86 (#6)

Rush yards/game allowed

Pass yards per game

193 (#28)

249 (#16)

Pass yards/game allowed

Giveaways / game

0.5 (#1)

1.5 (#13)

Takeaways / game

Punts per score

1.5 (#27)

2.0 (#1)

Oppt punts per score

Keep in mind I used away game stats for the Packers, and home game stats for the Vikings, thinking they would be more representative.

There are few stats that stand out to me- for the disparity.  Points per game, and Red Zone TD % and attempts, and the number of punts per each score (FG or TD).  Obviously keeping the Packers offense out of the red zone goes a long way toward limiting their scoring, as these stats highlight.  Both the Packers offense and Vikings defense suggest a low 3rd down conversion rate, which is the best way to keep the Packers out of the red zone.  Not being able to sustain drives, leading to more punts, as both teams stats suggest should be plentiful on Sunday, would make it a lot easier for the Vikings offense to wear down the Packers defense late in the game.

Packers run game

One of the main problems for the Packers offense has been the decline of Eddie Lacy and the running game in general.   Over the past 3 games, the Packers have averaged a paltry 69 yards rushing (30th in the league over that stretch) - even fewer yards than the Vikings stout run-defense has allowed at home this year.  Mike McCarthy, in his press conference on Monday, talked about the Vikings commitment to the run, and said that they needed to do more of that.  After a record-high 61 attempts for Rodgers last week against Detroit, it wouldn't take much to call more running plays, which I'm sure will happen.  They need to relieve some of the pressure on Rodgers to do it all, while having some balance to their offense, otherwise Rodgers is going to get beat up.  I suspect the Packers may try some WR sweeps and more double-TE sets to help out their ground game some, but it's difficult to see a dramatic improvement on the road against a top-rated, disciplined run defense.

It will be interesting to watch Linval Joseph vs. the Packers interior offensive line.  Obviously Joseph has been playing at a high level, and will likely draw double-teams from the (normally) stout Packer interior O-line.  Most recently the Packers normally stout guards- Sitton and Lang- have not been as good, perhaps in part due to back problems for both of them.  But Joseph being able to clog up the center and allow the LBs to pursue would go a long way to stopping the Packers mediocre run game.

Packers pass game

Rodgers hasn't been playing as well lately.  Obviously he's still a top QB in the league and is the guy to stop- or at least limit- on the Packers offense.  Part of the reason for the Packers relatively anemic passing game are the receivers.  Having lost Jordy Nelson for the season, the Packers were fortunate to pick up former Packer receiver James Jones - who they could plug back into the system- after Nelson went down.  And for the first few weeks, that worked well and Jones racked up a bunch of TD catches.   But more recently Jones is reminding them of why they let him go in the first place- he struggles to get open.  Randall Cobb is the go-to guy, but with a lackluster supporting cast from Davonte Adams, the Packers have been trying out a couple other receivers to see if they can help reignite the Packers stagnant passing game.

Opposing defenses have found some success in limiting Aaron Rodgers by focusing on keeping him in the pocket.  That helps prevent his uncanny ability to extend plays and capitalize down the field on broken routes.  The other part of it is that the Packers receivers have been unable to get much YAC recently.  With often a short passing game, the Packers depend on guys like Cobb picking up a lot of yards after the catch to move the sticks and extend drives. Opposing defenses have also been been playing aggressive press-man coverage against their receivers, with 8 in the box to stop the run and contain Rodgers.  This has proven very effective, hence it has been repeated.  The Packers receivers simply have not been able to get off of press-coverage that well.  Against the Lions defense- one of the weakest units in the league- the Packers had nine punts in a row.  That tells you something.  Some say that the Packers suffer from limited route concepts, and have failed to run man-coverage beaters enough in recent weeks.  Others point out that a fair amount of the Packers success in their passing game comes from scramble plays when Rodgers buys more time and extends plays with receivers.  In any case, I'm sure the Packers expect this same defensive approach to continue, and are looking at ways to beat it.

My expectation is that the Packers will try a number of things to keep the Vikings defense off-balance, and to help their receivers against press-man coverage.  First, I expect they will run more, and stick with the run more, than they have in recent weeks.  Again,  opening up the offense some using sweeps and perhaps more double-TE sets to either pound the ball or occasionally max protect and go for a longer-developing shot down the field.  The Packers have a new TE - Perillo that they hope can add some play-making ability to their receiver corps, and has been a rare bright spot in their offense over the 3-game skid.  Also going back to some receiver stack formations to help beat press-man may be part of it.  Going no-huddle at times as well to change the tempo and restrict personnel changes on defense may also be part of the Packers game-plan.

Enter the Vikings defense.  Perhaps the best tackling defense in football right now.  One of its strengths has been sure tackling and not allowing much YAC.  The bubble screens are a good example.  Often a team looks to the bubble screen in the face of Vikings blitzes, but it has been ineffective as the Vikings DBs and LBs have been very efficient in shutting them down for minimal gains.  I suspect the Packers will have something other than bubble screens to try to improve their passing game, but as long as the Vikings defense does what it has been doing all season, I can't see it being tremendously successful.

For the Vikings, a combination of A-gap pressure from a LB while another covers-up a stack formation would be a nice response, particularly if their guards are not 100%.  As we know from Kalil's struggles of a year ago, back pain/problems often causes an O-linemen to play slightly more upright, and lose the leverage battle.  Facing a LB with a head of steam blowing through an A-gap is tough to absorb without good technique.  Wearing down those guys with excellent depth and physical play up front will make it that much more difficult for Rodgers to execute later in the game.   Meanwhile I'd expect our DEs to win their share of battles against a gimpy Brian Bulaga (RT) and a less than stellar David Bakhtiari.  I'm hoping Danielle Hunter gets a fair number of reps at LE against Bulaga, as that could be a nice match-up for the Vikings that also offers some versatility.

It will also be interesting to watch the coverage match-ups.  I could see Jones vs. Rhodes, Adams vs. Newman, and Cobb vs. Munnerlyn a fair amount during the game.   Could be wrong about that, and in any case the coverage match-ups will not always be the same.   My guess is that the Packers may look to find ways to match-up against Sendejo down the field as much as possible, as the weakest link in the Vikings secondary, which may include TEs.

But having just held the Raiders explosive pass offense- Derek Carr, Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree-  currently ranked 7th in the league, and earlier the top ranked passing team- San Diego- to 14 points, it seems unlikely that the Packers will be able to do much better with their passing game- assuming they're able to turn it around on the road in Minneapolis.  The fact that they could only manage 16 points against what was the 32nd ranked defense in points per game allowed, how well will they go against the #1 ranked defense in that category?

The Packers have the always formidable Aaron Rodgers at the helm, but unlike previous years, the Vikings present him with very little in terms of match-up advantages, which he has exploited to his advantage time and again.  Moreover, the Packers talent at the skill positions has deteriorated this year, compared to last.  Losing Jordy Nelson for the season is a big part of that, but also the sudden decline of Eddie Lacy.  The Packers don't have immediate replacements for this fall-off in talent and production.  Rodgers can't do it all.  I wouldn't be surprised to see the Packers try some out-of-the-box play-calling to help make-up the deficit, but if the Vikings simply stick to their knitting and 'small-ball' as Linval Joseph refers to it, it will make it plenty difficult for Rodgers to make much headway.  And with Zimmer calling the shots and making adjustments, whatever gaps the Packers may seek to exploit in the Vikings defense will likely be filled quickly.

Vikings Offense vs. Packers Defense

Vikings Home Offense Stats (ranking)

Packers Away Defense Stats (ranking)

Points per game

23.5 (#18)

23.0 (#18)

Points per game allowed

Yards per game

312 (#29)

381 (#23)

Yards per game allowed

3rd down conversions

35.85% (#23)

45.61% (#27)

3rd down conv. allowed

Red zone TD %

53.85 (#21)

46.15% (#8)

Red zone TD % allowed

Red zone atts/game

3.2 (#16)

3.2 (#21)

Red zone atts allowed

Rush yards per game

148 (#5)

139 (#28)

Rush yards/game allowed

Pass yards per game

164 (#32)

242 (#13)

Pass yards/game allowed

Giveaways / game

1.2 (#10)

1.0 (#25)

Takeaways / game

Punts per score

1.1 (#19)

0.9 (#22)

Oppt punts per score

What is striking about the Viking offense vs. the Packer defense stats, is the relative lack of disparity.  If both teams play an average game, the Vikings should score 23 points, average 40% on 3rd down, 50% in the red-zone, run for a little over 140 yards and pass for about 200.

Vikings Run Game

In terms of league rankings, this match-up is one of the best rushing offenses in the league against one of the worst run defenses.   Over the last 3 games, the Vikings have averaged 185 yards on the ground- #1 in the league over that stretch.  Oakland and Chicago rank about the same as Green Bay against the run.  St. Louis ranks higher.

I would expect a full dose of 8-in-the-box, don't allow AP to beat us mentality, with the believe that the Packers DBs can hold their own against the Vikings receivers.   This would essentially be the same game plan defensively the Packers have employed against the Vikings for many years now.   It makes sense, but will it be effective?  In the past, there have been times when it has been spectacularly ineffective.  The Vikings have done a good job reducing the negative- and no-gain runs the past few weeks, which makes a big difference in sustaining drives.  Berger has been placing very well in replacement of John Sullivan, as has Mike Harris at RG.  Brandon Fusco, who had not been playing well, turned things around last week at Oakland- let's hope that continues.  With Kalil steady, that leaves TJ Clemmings as the weak link.  I expect he will continue to get TE help blocking.

Overall,  the Vikings seem to be coming together now after a slow and awkward start to the year.  The juking around in the backfield by AP and the difficulty run-blocking have evolved into power bursts and creating gaps and creases.  AP's average yards per carry has gone from 4.3 yards over the first five games, to 5.6 yards over the past 4.  Seems unlikely that the #28 ranked run defense on the road will be able slow #28 down much.  We'll see.

Vikings Pass Game

I also expect Norv Turner to use some plays not seen on tape in recent weeks, and to not back away from getting vertical against the Packers coverage, particularly given their focus in stopping the run.  The Packers have a good, if banged-up, secondary, but also some youth and inexperience.  There will be opportunities for big plays, in addition to the more pedestrian move the chains variety receptions.  Let's hope this time the Vikings can capitalize more on those opportunities down field.

The Packers haven't had any sacks over the past 3 games, but they have generated pressures.  From a match-up perspective, clearly TJ Clemmings vs. Julius Peppers is the most worrisome.  Once again, I expect Clemmings to have FB or TE help all day in pass protection.  Hopefully they will spend some time in practice this week to help coordinate that effort, which should be adequate to the task.

Unlike last week against the Raiders, I expect more open receivers for Teddy.  The Packers have a good, if inexperienced, secondary.  But they are not consistent, and will give up plays downfield on occasion.  As long as Teddy continues to be patient and not force balls, I expect the passing game to be productive enough to yield 20+ points on the day.  Not turning the ball over to Rodgers and a short field will be just as important.

Special Teams Comparison

Vikings Home Special Teams Stats (ranking)

Packers Away Defense Special Teams Stats (ranking)

Kickoff touchback %

72.73% (#5)

63.16% (#10)

Kickoff touchback %

Oppnt KO touchback %

26.67% (#1)

54.55% (#14)

Oppnt KO touchback %

FG Conversion %

100% (#1t)

75% (#28t)

FG Conversion %

Oppnt FG Conv %

85.71% (#15)

90.00% (#21t)

Oppnt FG Conv %

Non-Offense TDs/game

0.2 (#9t)

0.0 (#21t)

Non-Offense TDs/game

Net Punt Yards/attpt

37.9 (#23)

39.5 (#20)

Net Punt Yards/attpt

Net Punt Yrd allow/attpt

38.8 (#9)

41.9 (#25)

Net Punt Yrd allow/attpt

I include special teams comparisons as they often have an impact, especially in close and division games.

Other than a narrow (and meaningless) Packers advantage in net punt yards per attempt, the Vikings have the advantage in all the other special teams stats listed here.   Whether field-goal conversions, or a kickoff allowing Cordarrelle Patterson another return attempt, special teams could have a significant effect on the outcome of the game, and give the Vikings another phase of the game where they have a distinct advantage over the Packers.

Overall

The Packers know they need to turn things around in a hurry or their string of division crowns will come to an end.  In the past, they have not had this type of slump going into a game against the Vikings.  But I expect they will do everything they can to put things right for Sunday's road game.

If they do, I expect a close game, but also a game the Vikings will win.   The stats above point to an uphill battle for the Packers in every phase- offense, defense and special teams.  And unlike past years, this Vikings team is showing the confidence, discipline and fight to battle through whatever the Packers may dish out, and not fold or get psyched-out before the game even started.   In truth, this challenge could not have come at a better time, at home, for this Vikings team.  They have been ramping up and building confidence each and every week following the opening day debacle at SF.   This is not a game to be endured, as has been the case in the past, this is a game they're ready and waiting for.

By contrast, the Packers are coming off an inexplicably bad performance at home- their first loss at home to the Lions in 24 years, and their first 3-game losing streak since 2009.   Their confidence is shaken.   They've lost talent on offense and they know it.  Their defense isn't strong enough to carry them.  They know that too.  Despite all that, I expect them to come out strong and give it their all from the first kickoff.   The players and coaching staff know what's at stake, and undoubtedly will have a creative game plan designed to turn things around- and mask their weaknesses.

The Vikings need only be disciplined, stick to 'small ball,' and continue what they've been doing all season, and they'll stop the Packers.  They've got the talent, and they've been doing it since week 2, building confidence every week.  In front of a home crowd, they'll be energized and resilient.  They know they have the team to beat the Packers.  The Packers know it too.

But I expect the Packers to put up a good fight, and to lose a close game.  The Packers are currently the underdog- the first time they have been all year- and the first time in who knows how many years against the Vikings.

There is also, however,  the possibility the Packers are not able to turn things around this week, and that whatever is ailing them, bringing them down, will continue to do so when they take the field at TCF stadium.   It's not easy to shake off a #28-ranked pass offense on the road, while also averaging only 69 yards rushing over the past 3 weeks- against one of the best defenses in football.   It's also hard to expect a win when you've been averaging 18 points a game recently, while your opponent is averaging 25- and is only giving up 14.5 points a game at home.

If that turns out to be the case, and the Packers can't turn things around, they may well be walking into a statement game at the hands of the Vikings neither team will soon forget.

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