GREEN BAY, Wis. — Five things to watch for in the Week 8 matchup between the Green Bay Packers (4-2) and Minnesota Vikings (1-5) at Mall of America Field:
1. Eddie Lacy’s month-long trend as the NFL’s top rusher
No running back in the NFL has had a better month of October than Lacy. With 301 rushing yards in the past three games, Lacy has given a face to the Packers’ running game and resurrected an aspect of Green Bay’s offense that’s been largely missing since 2009.
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One of the most important parts for the Packers’ ability to maintain this type of success on the ground is that Lacy had this production against good run defenses. And, if Lacy were to suffer an injury at some point throughout the final 10 games of the regular season, Green Bay can rest somewhat comfortably knowing that its two backups have been good, too. James Starks — who’s healthy again after a knee injury — and rookie Johnathan Franklin have both had 100-yard rushing games this season.
Like the Packers’ opponents earlier this month, the Vikings can stop the run and are currently ranked sixth in the NFL in yards allowed per rushing attempt. As Green Bay continues to see opposing defenses put seven or more defenders in the box on a more consistent basis, that’s when the next test for Lacy and the Packers’ run game begins.
2. Adrian Peterson’s touches
Peterson is capable of winning games for the Vikings almost single-handedly at times. But even though Minnesota has yet to find a consistent quarterback situation, Peterson has for some reason been a smaller part of the Vikings’ offense in recent games. Does 13 carries for 28 yards sound like an Adrian Peterson-type game? Of course not. Yet, those were his numbers in Minnesota’s last game (a 23-7 loss to a New York Giants team that picked up its first win in the process).
It’s fair to assume that the Vikings have realized the error of their ways and won’t go another game with Peterson touching the ball so infrequently. All that they’d have to do is go back to the film and box score from last season when Peterson rushed for 409 yards in two regular-season games against the Packers.
But for Peterson, Green Bay is not a desirable defense to face right now to help him break out of this mini-slump. The Packers are on pace to have the best run defense in franchise history, giving up an average of 79.0 rushing yards per game. Frank Gore, Ray Rice and Reggie Bush have all been unable to get going in their battles with Green Bay’s defense this season.
3. Jordy Nelson as the clear-cut No. 1 Packers receiver
Nelson led the Packers in 2011 with 1,263 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns, finishing in the top 10 in the NFL that season in both categories. But Nelson benefitted from being one of many targets that Aaron Rodgers had to throw to. Take a look at this impressive list that Nelson was sharing the spotlight with: Greg Jennings, Randall Cobb, James Jones, Jermichael Finley and Donald Driver. With all that talent, defenses couldn’t spend too much time worrying about Nelson, because that would only give an opportunity for one of the other five playmakers to have a big game.
Well, Jennings is now on the Vikings sideline, Cobb is out until at least Week 15, Jones is doubtful to play, Finley is just days removed from leaving the hospital with a spinal contusion and Driver is retired. Nelson is all that’s left.
Unlike a week ago, when Nelson was confident that he’d get Cleveland Browns star cornerback Joe Haden in single coverage most of the game (which he did), Minnesota doesn’t have that type of shutdown cornerback to stick on Nelson. And that could present a challenge for the Packers’ offense, because it means the Vikings might — and would likely be wise to — double-team him. If Minnesota decides that it’s going to take Nelson away and force someone else to beat them, Rodgers’ job becomes more difficult. Sure, Jarrett Boykin had 100-plus yards in his first career start last week, but can he duplicate that success? Nelson’s impact could go a long way in how this game ends up.
4. Christian Ponder had the best game of his career in this matchup last season
Ponder has had a very underwhelming first 2.5 years of his career. It got to the point this season that the Vikings basically admitted that Ponder was a flop of a first-round pick by adding Josh Freeman and almost instantly making him the starter.
Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers was midway through practice Wednesday when a team employee walked up to him and told him that Ponder would be starting Sunday night’s game. With Freeman battling concussion symptoms, Ponder took back the job that Minnesota hoped he would’ve locked down two years ago.
While most NFL teams would be in a significantly worse position if their starting quarterback was out, the Vikings might be better off considering that Ponder knows the team’s playbook a lot more than Freeman. Green Bay is also an opponent that Ponder has done well against. It was Ponder’s 120.2 passer-rating performance in Week 17 over the Packers last season that got Minnesota into the playoffs. If Ponder can put up another three-touchdown, zero-interception game like he did 10 months ago in this matchup, he’ll make it difficult for the Vikings to re-insert Freeman again right away in the following weeks.
5. Green Bay’s need for interceptions
It’s been obvious for weeks, but coach Mike McCarthy finally called the team out for it Friday: “We need to get some interceptions.” With only three interceptions as a team in six games, the Packers rank tied for 25th in the NFL in that category. Only two teams (the Jets and Steelers) have two interceptions, so Green Bay remains close to being at the bottom of the league.
Just about everything else has gone right for the Packers’ defense this year. McCarthy even mentioned that the team’s pass-breakups are where they need to be. But, as every NFL viewer knows, turnovers are often the difference between a win and a loss. And, even with forced fumbles added in, Green Bay is still the second-worst team in the NFC in takeaways.
Perhaps the return of Casey Hayward will help in the interceptions department. Hayward had six of them last season as a rookie, ranking him fifth in the NFL. But there’s no guarantee that Hayward will be on the field much yet, even though he’s fully recovered from a hamstring injury. The Packers will likely spend a lot of the game in their base 3-4 ‘okie’ defense to try to stop Peterson, which means only two cornerbacks on the field at a time. With Sam Shields, Davon House and Tramon Williams all playing well on the outside, it might take Hayward a while to become a featured member of the defense again. But whoever is in the secondary, Green Bay needs its interceptions to have an uptick in a hurry.