5 things: Vikings might be catching ailing Packers at right time
The Minnesota Vikings, led by their MVP running back Adrian Peterson, contend this season is not lost even at 2-8, four games out of a playoff spot with six games remaining and last in the NFC North.
Minnesota can lend some credence to the belief on Sunday. The Vikings go on the road and face the Green Bay Packers, themselves reeling from three straight losses.
Here are five things to watch as Minnesota tries to keep any hope this season alive at Green Bay:
1. Rodgers reprieve
The Packers are learning what the Vikings and other NFL teams have been dealing with for years: Life without an MVP-caliber quarterback can be tough. Green Bay has been blessed since 1992 to always know who would be taking snaps. Since Brett Favre replaced Don Majkowski in Week 3 in 1992, the Packers had only three quarterbacks start games before Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone on Nov. 4, and Matt Flynn only made two starts during that time. Finding a franchise quarterback isn't as easy as Green Bay has made it seem -- look only at Minnesota which has had three starters this season and 11 since 2005.
Because of injury, the Packers are on their third starter this season. Scott Tolzien will make his second straight start for Green Bay, a reprieve for the Vikings of sorts. Rodgers is 8-4 in his career against Minnesota with 27 total touchdowns and four interceptions with a 71.7 completion percentage and 117.9 quarterback rating.
Rodgers torched the Vikings' defense in the first meeting this year on 24-of-29 passing for 285 yards and two touchdowns and Green Bay didn't punt. Tolzien directed the offense in last week's loss to the New York Giants, but was undone by three interceptions. Otherwise, he finished 24 of 34 for 339 yards passing.
2. Change in the middle
Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier said middle linebacker Erin Henderson would miss Sunday's game while he tends to a personal matter and second-year, seventh-round draft pick Audie Cole would start in Henderson's place, play in the nickel defense and make the defensive play calls. Rookie Michael Mauti might also see time.
Cole and the Vikings' defense should benefit from Rodgers being out, but Cole will have his hands full getting the defense lined up in the proper spots and also have to deal with Green Bay's sixth-ranked rushing offense. Rookie running back Eddie Lacy helped the Packers' control the clock in the first game between the two teams with 29 carries for 94 yards.
However, Lacy's effectiveness has dropped off without Rodgers as teams can load up to stop the big rookie without the threat of Rodgers burning them deep. Lacy had 24 carries for 73 yards two weeks ago and then 14 carries for 27 yards in last week's loss. The Packers still want to be run-based and coach Mike McCarthy said he plans to work in backups James Starks and Johnathan Franklin.
3. How many more chances
Frazier wasted little time this week in naming Christian Ponder the Vikings' starter at quarterback. Frazier evaluated the position after he benched Ponder in the fourth quarter of Sunday's loss at Seattle. But when the team returned to practice on Wednesday, Ponder was back in as the starter. Even as patient as Frazier has been, Ponder might be running out of chances.
Ponder threw two interceptions in the fourth quarter on Sunday in the span of four passes, both right to Seahawks' defenders with one returned for a touchdown. Then backup Matt Cassel threw another on his second pass and Minnesota was routed 41-20. Cassel will backup again Sunday, but it's all about Ponder.
Ponder had shown signs of progress in the win against Washington then suffered a dislocated left shoulder. He didn't miss a start, but he was 13 of 22 for 129 yards against Seattle with three turnovers before being pulled. Sunday at Green Bay could be Ponder's last chance to prove himself. Frazier has already declared he will re-evaluate the position on Monday.
4. Pass rush is needed
Tolzien wasn't sacked last week against New York and has only been sacked once since replacing the injured Seneca Wallace early the previous week. Green Bay will be playing without starting right tackle Don Barclay because of a knee injury and center Evan Dietrich-Smith was limited during the week with a knee injury.
Minnesota's respected pass rush with defensive ends Jared Allen, Brian Robison and Everson Griffen hasn't been getting home as much this season. The Vikings are tied for 24th in the NFL this season with 22 sacks. Last season, Minnesota was tied for fifth with 44 sacks a year after being tied for the league-lead with 50 sacks.
Allen leads the Vikings with five sacks. Robison has four, followed by Henderson and Griffen tied with three. Allen was shut out by Green Bay rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari in the first meeting. Pressure on Tolzien and stopping Lacy will be paramount on Sunday.
5. Time for Peterson
Green Bay owns the league's 12th-ranked run defense, allowing 103.8 yards per game and 4.1 yards per rush. The Packers could also be short-handed in the secondary, but Minnesota could really use a big bounceback effort from Peterson and the running game.
Peterson has been limited by a groin injury since last week and missed two days of practice this week. He felt the injury kept him from breaking longer runs against Seattle last week when he finished with 21 carries for 65 yards. He said he plans to play on Sunday and he has usually enjoyed his games against the Packers and at Lambeau Field. Peterson averages 115.5 yards per game in his career against Green Bay.
Peterson has been held under 100 yards in seven of Minnesota's 10 games this season, including a 13-carry, 60-yard game against the Packers four weeks ago. Peterson and the Vikings could use a clock-controlling or big-play breaking performance from Peterson on Sunday, similar to when Peterson led Minnesota on its late playoff run last season, producing 409 yards against Green Bay in two regular-season games.
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