As the Vikings prepare for Sunday’s game with Green Bay at Lambeau Field, we asked Tyler Dunne, who covers the Packers for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, to give us his up-close-and-personal scouting report. Here are four things you need to know …
1) The Packers are far from unbeatable.
At 7-4. Green Bay has already lost three more times than it did during the entire 2011 regular season. The Packers have been banged up considerably on both sides of the ball. And their most recent loss, a 38-10 drubbing by the Giants on Sunday night, shined a bright light on several of their shortcomings.
New York totaled 390 yards of offense in that win and did so with strong balance, rushing for 147 and passing for 243.
The Packers defense – operating right now without key starters Clay Matthews (hamstring), Charles Woodson (collarbone) and Sam Shields (shin/ankle) – had few answers and surrendered scores on six of the Giants’ first nine possessions.
On offense, meanwhile, Aaron Rodgers threw for only 219 yards and was sacked five times as Green Bay produced only 10 points, its lowest output since a 7-3 loss to Detroit in Week 14 of 2010.
Defenses have had success against Rodgers this season by rushing only four and keeping both safeties deep to take away the big play.
In Green Bay’s five losses, Rodgers has been sacked 21 times. He’s been taken down only 16 times in the Pack’s seven wins.
“First things first,” Dunne said, “you have to try and get pressure by rushing only four and not needing to blitz. Rodgers reads the blitz so well that any team that goes that route frequently does so at its own peril.
“But when defenses have sat back and taken away the deep ball, they’ve been able to force Green Bay into this game of small ball. Rodgers will stay patient; he’s not going to force things. But that also creates a ton of frustration because nothing ever really opens up. Against the Giants, nothing ever opened up.”
2) At present, the Packers’ offensive line is in disarray.
Four weeks ago, right tackle Bryan Bulaga injured his hip and was placed on injured reserve. That forced a move in which left guard T.J. Lang had to shift outside to tackle and Evan Dietrich-Smith supplanted Lang inside.
“Lang had really settled in at guard,” Dunne said. “He had a very nice year last season there. He got himself a contract extension. That was his spot. And now he’s out at tackle. He’s played there a little before earlier in his career. But it’s still a huge adjustment.”
Smith, meanwhile, can be manhandled at times. Two weeks ago, Detroit’s Nick Fairley was a menace on the inside.
And veteran center Jeff Saturday, a five-time Pro Bowler in Indianapolis who signed with the Packers last spring, just hasn’t provided the same level of production as his Packer predecessor Scotts Wells.
“Saturday can be solid because he knows how to run an up-tempo offense,” Dunne said. “But overall, this line is just not as good as it was last year. That’s been obvious.”
3) The trust between Rodgers and Randall Cobb is growing rapidly.
Cobb’s emergence was obvious during Green Bay’s recent five-game winning streak. In that span, the second-year receiver totaled 32 catches for 330 yards and six touchdowns while also rushing for 67 yards and holding down duties as a kick and punt returner.
“You’d think this guy would be over-worked with all he’s doing,” Dunne said. “But he’s not. And as a receiver, a lot his catches are those quick-twitch plays – those throws 5 or 10 yards off the line and he does something with it.”
Cobb is also making strides as a vertical threat. And Rodgers’ trust in him has grown considerably. Look back at the game-winning 22-yard TD pass to Cobb with 1:55 left two weeks ago in Detroit. On a post corner, Rodgers put up a bit of a prayer and Cobb used his body control and focus to haul in the score in traffic between Lions defensive backs Jacob Lacey and Ricardo Silva.
“That wasn’t a perfect pass,” Dunne said. “But the fact that Rodgers made that throw was most notable. Cobb was asked after the game if Rodgers would have thrown that ball to him last season and he just laughed and said, ‘No way. Not a chance.’ So their rapport has been fantastic.”
4) Big doubts remain as to whether the Green Bay defense has enough of an edge to aid a deep postseason run.
Said Dunne: “The question that seems to be hanging there is ‘Are they physical enough, are they tough enough to really compete with the 49ers and the Giants?’ In those two games, they really got pushed around. And those are the two teams that played for the NFC Championship last year.”
The 49ers rolled to a 30-22 win in the season opener. The Giants won by 28 last week.
So here we are again, heading for December with Rodgers having another superb season but the Green Bay D not quite carrying its share of the load.
On the plus side, the Packers are seeing noticeable growth from young defensive backs Casey Hayward, Davon House, Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings.
But the way Eli Manning and Hakeem Nicks flourished last Sunday, there’s reason for concern.
“When you get beat 38-10 by a team that ended your Super Bowl hopes the year before, you better be concerned,” Dunne said.
As for this week, Green Bay’s defensive players have made it no secret that Adrian Peterson is the player they’ll have their eye on, their respect for the Vikings running back off the charts.
In fact, before heading to Houston in Week 6, a number of Packers players were asked whether Texans star Arian Foster was the best back in the NFL.
“Every guy in that locker room was pretty up front,” Dunne said. “They said, ‘It’s Peterson. He’s the best. And it may not be close.’”