The Fight For First Place: Round One

CAN YOU FEEL THE TENSION?  If you can't, it's probably because you're comatose.  Either that, or you don't rightly care about either team involved in Monday Night's NFC North showdown.  Which is fine, I guess.

For the rest of you that can feel the tension, let's take a deep breath and relax for a second.  Here, watch Daniel Tosh make fun of Nebraska.  It always makes me feel better.


As someone who has spent several fortnight-long excursions to Nebraska, I can't think of a state that would be more appropriate for Mr. Tosh's message.  Unless you say Montana, but I'm convinced that Montana just flat-out doesn't exist.

Alright, enough of that foolishness.  If you're looking for a breakdown of Packers-Vikings, have I got the treat for you...after the jump.

MIN rushing vs. GB defense: You've probably seen it, but it's pretty freakin' cool, so I'm gonna have you watch it again.

There are two glaring mistakes in this video: real life isn't in black and white, and AP doesn't have hexagonical scales that make him look like a cybernetic human-dinosaur-hybrid gladiator-assassin. 

Everything else is fairly realistic.  AP will smash, dash, cut, juke, spin, hurdle, and quite possibly double-stiff-arm his way through all challengers because, well, he's AP.  Granted, San Francisco did manage to hold him to 85 yards on 19 carries.  (WEAK!  I SCOFF AT ADRIAN PETERSON AND HIS PUNY 4.5 YARDS PER CARRY!)  That said, he's still managed to rack up 357 yards and 4 TDs with a 6.1 average.  Yikes.  But they have few other options to run the ball.  Chester Taylor is averaging less than 3 yards on his 17 carries, and Percy Harvin only has five carries.  They've generally been decent gains, but he lost 8 yards in his lone rushing attempt against San Francisco.  This doesn't mean that neither of them are capable of putting up yards on the ground, but they haven't shown it in a way that's demonstrable through numbers.

It helps that the blocking is usually superb.  Bryant McKinnie (6'8", 335) and Steve Hutchinson (6'5", 313) are stalwarts on the left side, but are 30 and 31, respectively.  On the right side, Anthony Herrera (6'2", 315) and Phil Loadholt (6'8", 343) have significantly less experience, but are competent in opening running lanes.  The weak link is definitely new center John Sullivan (6'4", 301), who is no Matt Birk.  But these guys are big, they are nasty, and they don't like it when defenses try to tackle Peterson behind the line (even though it happens more frequently than you'd think).

Green Bay extended the consecutive streak of 100+ yard outings from opposing running backs when Steven Jackson gained 117 on 27 attempts.  Jackson's performance was more impressive than Cedric Benson's before him because a) Jackson managed to break off some big gains (including a 20-yarder), b) he had weaker blocking than Cincinnati has, and c) the linebackers played well on Sunday.  A.J. Hawk, Brandon Chillar, and Nick Barnett combined for 19 tackles and looked much better (but far from perfect) in run support. 

Green Bay's best chance of corralling AP is to get good penetration from Jenkins, Jolly, Pickett, and Raji (if he is healthy enough) and string Peterson's runs to the outside where the linebackers and corners have a chance to flow and gang-tackle or use the sidelines.  Of course, it might help to use Peterson's violent running style against him to force a fumble or two; his biggest weakness is carrying the football consistantly (9 fumbles in 2008).

Advantage: Minnesota.  Unless Green Bay uses the 3-5-3 alignment with Kampman, Matthews, Hawk, Barnett, and Chillar to clog running lanes and direct defensive pursuit, which could actually keep AP under 100 yards.

Or if Peterson's "troublesome" back gives out.  Because he's, you know, carrying the team.  And some of those guys are heavy.

MIN passing vs. GB defense: Well, well, well, look who came crawling back to play Green Bay.  Wait...you say he's not crawling back?  He's playing well?  He did this?  Undefeated?  Oh.  Nevermind.  Let's skip all the drama (or at least save it for the other posts) and get down to brass tacks; we need to talk about Brett Favre v.2009. 

After skipping training camp, people said that the only way Favre could succeed early in the season is if he played the role of game manager and let Adrian Peterson carry the offensive load.  Those people were correct.  In the first two weeks, Favre was 37 for 48 (77% completion) with 265 yards and 3 TD's.  Those are good-day Kyle Orton-esque stats, especially the 0 INTs and the 5.5 yards per attempt.  Peterson did what he did best, and the Vikings won both games despite being somewhat hampered by slow starts.

Whether it's simply getting into the groove of the offense, or healing from his bicep injury and subsequent surgeries, or even a result of the Vikings wanting him to get warmed up only in the week before the Packer game (/conspiracy theory'd), Favre was not the same quarterback against the 49ers.  Against a tough defense, he went 24 of 46 for 301 yards and 2 TDs.  He actually put some force behind his throws and displayed the touch on the deep ball and mobility in the pocket we came to know and love.

His biggest vulnerability is his pass protection, surprisingly.  Over three games, Favre has been sacked 9 times, and it would have been 10 were it not for a sweet side-step on the last play in week 3.  He is showing his age when defenses come at him, and his offensive line is showing a weakness I didn't know they had.  Part of it might be McKinnie's age (unlikely), Loadholt's inexperience (possible), or Sullivan's poor line adjustments (probable).  I don't follow the team well enough to know why Favre has been hit so many times against teams like Cleveland and Detroit.  But he is vulnerable back there. 

As far as receivers go, there are three main targets that pose a significant threat: Percy Harvin, Visanthe Shiancoe, and Chester Taylor.  Adrian Peterson would be dynamic in the passing game if he were a better catcher, and Bernard Berrian's deep route skills have not yet been displayed in the regular season (and I'm not sure they've done it in practice).  Harvin is extremely adept after the catch, Shiancoe has developed into a solid underneath and seam TE, and Taylor has always been an excellent 3rd down back.

Green Bay's pass rush isn't imposing statistically (5 sacks), but they do a good job of getting to the quarterback, disrupting his rhythm, and giving him a good hit when they're close enough.  Jenkins and Jolly should be able to get decent pursuit on passing downs, and Pickett and Raji should draw enough double teams to open up a lane for one or two of the linebackers, primarily Clay Matthews and Aaron Kampman.

The best hope Green Bay has of stopping Minny's offense is by baiting Favre into bad throws and forcing interceptions.  Charles Woodson, Nick Collins, Tramon Williams, and Al Harris are all outstanding ball hawks who can take advantage of poor routes by some of Minnesota's lesser receivers.  Favre has historically struggled against 3-4 zone blitzes, and he is certainly capable of a Favre-esque Cutler-esque multiple INT day.

Advantage: Green Bay by the slightest of margins.  Again Favre has struggled against zone blitzes from the 3-4, so let's hope this week is when Dom Capers earns his paycheck.  But don't think that Favre isn't licking his chops to get a chance at his old team, especially if they load the box with 8 defenders.

GB rushing vs. MIN defense: Green Bay's rushing attack is the very definition of the term "meh".  As a team, the Packers have 317 yards through three games (meh).  They're averaging 4.1 yards per carry (meh).  They have four touchdowns against one fumble (meh).  There's just nothing notable about this team's rushing attack.

I'm at a disadvantage because I haven't watched the games from the last two weeks, but either Grant isn't finding the running lanes or the offensive line isn't opening any up for him.  Grant is notorious for running into the backs of his linemen, but he's also well-known for his ability to break off a huge gain.  Considering his longest run of the season is 17 yards, I might be inclined to blame the offensive line.

Minnesota's rush defense has struggled to return to their regular insurmountable selves on a regular basis.  While they held San Francisco to 58 yards on the ground, 54 of those yards were after Frank Gore's first (and last) attempt of the game.  They did allow Jamal Lewis to rack up a 5.2 ypc against them in Week 1, and then Kevin Smith and Maurice Morris put up decent numbers before Detroit fell behind and abandoned the rush.  So it's not like they're a seive, but they aren't as suffocating as we're used to.

A big reason for that is the alleged decline of Pat Williams.  While I'm not sure it's true, it is certainly a feasible argument to say that a 36 year old defensive tackle might start to fall off after 13 seasons.  Regardless, he's still a mammoth load in the middle of the line and will eat up space in a hurry.  His line-mate and namesake Kevin Williams is significantly younger and more athletic.  Jared Allen is above average against the run, as is Ray EdwardsE.J. Henderson's return from his freak toe injury gave the defense a huge boost, mainly because it took the pressure off of Chad Greenway and Ben Leber, who are outstanding complimentary linebackers but falter when burdened with higher-level responsibilities. 

Advantage: Minnesota, but Ryan Grant has historically found success playing against the Vikings.  I would be more surprised if he was held below 50 yards than if he breaks 100.

GB passing vs. MIN defense: There are two statistics in the passing game that have been huge in keeping Green Bay at 2-1 rather than 1-2 or even 0-3: Rodgers has been sacked 12 times this season (losing 92 yards in the process), but has committed exactly 0 turnovers.  That's downright remarkable.  His yardage (714), completion percentage (56.7), and QB rating (97.2) are middling at best, but he has kept the team afloat whenever he was able.  Those 12 sacks are the most troubling thing, though.  While I'm glad that Rodgers has kept the ball despite getting smacked around (one fumble, which was recovered by Allen Barbre), I'm doubtful that he can keep such a streak alive for long. 

My biggest concern has actually been the receiving corps.  Donald Driver has been the only guy to really step it up so far in 2009 (he's playing as if he's a #1 guy again).  Greg Jennings seems to have reverted to being a deep-route specialist.  James Jones, Jordy Nelson, and Jermichael Finley were supposed to be dynamic contributors, but none of them have stood out yet.  Perhaps the offensive line's issues have disrupted the timing so much that the receivers' routes need to be recalibrated, and only the eldest member (Driver) has figured out how to do it.  Still, Green Bay's passing game remains a highly potent group that hasn't performed to capacity yet.

Minnesota's pass defense has been outstanding, allowing only 167.7 yards per game (4th in the NFL).  That stat needs to be tempered with the list of quarterbacks Minnesota has faced: Brady Quinn, Matthew Stafford, and Shaun Hill.  Additionally, they have only played against two receivers that can be compared to Green Bay's receivers: Braylon Edwards and Calvin Johnson.  While the duo of Driver and Jennings will give cornerbacks Antoine Winfield and Cedric Griffin and safeties Madieu Williams and Tyrell Johnson a difficult test, the more concerning matchup is the duo of Edwards and Allen against Green Bay's tackles.

Allen Barbre is lucky that Ray Edwards is not nearly as dangerous as his counterpart, but he will still have his hands full if McCarthy trusts Barbre to take on Edwards one-on-one.  Green Bay faces a tough decision on who to put against Jared Allen.  On the one hand, Chad Clifton may be available from his ankle sprain, and he has been somewhat effective against Allen in the past.  On the other hand, Clifton routinely resorted to holding Allen whenever he got beat, and his lateral quickness was in decline before he injured his ankle.

As counterintuitive as it seems, I actually think Daryn Colledge might stand a better chance of locking down Allen.  Colledge is much faster than most LTs, which matches up well against Allen's speed rushing.  He also plays higher than most LTs are taught to play, which is usually a problem, but playing higher will make lateral movement easier and could help him ride Allen out of the pocket.  It also makes him more susceptible to double moves, which Allen is highly proficient at, so Colledge might give up some hits all the same.  In any case, I feel more comfortable matching up the younger, healthier, more athletic Colledge against Jared Allen than the older, injured, and surgically-repaired Clifton.

Advantage: Push.  If the trends from this season continue, Minnesota has the edge.  If the players actually perform up to their potential, Green Bay has it.

Preliminary verdict: This is a game that both fans are overly optimistic about their team's chances.  Both teams have significant strengths and weaknesses, and both fan bases are convinced that their team will have the upper hand.  I am firmly on the fence about what's going to happen on Monday, but I can tell you that there will be a whole lot of Favre-centric coverage.

Just imagine what this scene would look like if it were being played in Green Bay.  Yikes.

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