This preview is coming several hours later this week then usual because I had to wait until Friday's practice was over for the Green Bay Packers. The injury situation left too many variables re: the linebackers. Will Hawk and Chillar return to help the run defense? Will Matthews return to provide a pass rush?
The answer to those questions now appears to be that they will play on Sunday. My complete analysis is after the jump, and it details the two different Viking offenses (pass-heavy vs. run-heavy) that have showed up over the past two weeks since the return of Moss. Unfortunately I'm expecting this game will be somewhere in the middle with a lot of AP on early downs to keep them out of 3rd and long, and a lot of attacks down field on passes to Moss, Harvin, and Shiancoe.
Based on the Packers last five games, I expect this will be another close one. The return of Matthews is essential in getting the defense off the field (something they struggled with in his absence last week). I would have predicted a loss he wasn't able to return. Still I remain pessimistic about this game. The Packers managed to score 20 points last week despite having their offense stuck on the sidelines for most it, and the Vikings haven't scored more than 24 points in any game this year while averaging 17 ppg. Packers 20, Vikings 17.
How will the Packers offense play against the Vikings defense?
- The Vikings are the best defense the Packers have faced this season. The next closest defense according to Football Outsiders is the Bears, and you could expect to see a similar offensive attack where QB Aaron Rodgers takes the short passes the Vikings give him, but they're unable to connect on anything deep. That could lead to a lot of yards, but not a lot of points.
- The Packers offense is similar to the Cowboys offense, according to Football Outsiders, which has the Packers ranked No. 7 overall, and the Cowboys at No. 9. Looking back at the drive chart from last week's Cowboys at Vikings game, the Cowboys managed three touchdown drives, and were completely shut down the rest of the game. Those TD drives were kept alive by converting on 3rd down, something the Packers have been lousy at the past two weeks. They also seemed to rely mostly on short passes to TE Jason Whiten and RB Felix Jones. This outlook might lead to another pass-heavy game for the Packers as they slowly move down the field. But they'll have to convert better on 3rd down (and avoid any difficult 3rd and long situations like they were in constantly against the Dolphins) to make it work.
- One other note: while the Vikings know Mike McCarthy and his offense well, the defensive coordinators in the last two weeks (Jim Haslett for the Redskins, Mike Nolan for the Dolphins) really know McCarthy well since they were his head coach in New Orleans and San Francisco when McCarthy was their offensive coordinator. Maybe they knew him too well, and that was part of the problem over the last two weeks.
How will the Packers defense play against the Vikings offense? It's been a tale of two games since they traded for WR Randy Moss.
- Against the Jets, they were twice as likely to throw as they were to run. Maybe the plan was to throw the ball more, but they were shut out for the first 40 minutes of that game and that forced to throw the ball a lot. QB Brett Favre had 34 attempts, and 27 of them were thrown to either Moss, WR Percy Harvin, or TE Visanthe Shiancoe. Putting pressure on Favre, and forcing him to make a bad pass, is one of the keys to the game. That pressure is a lot more likely to happen since Mike McCarthy expects LB Clay Matthews to play.
- Against the Cowboys, Shiancoe was nursing an injured hamstring and blocking TE Jim Kleinsasser made the start. This time, they were 50% more likely to run the ball instead of throwing it. This decision was a surprise since the Cowboys do not have a good pass defense, but they do have an elite pass rusher in LB DeMarcus Ware. Once again Favre played favorites, attempting 12 passes to Moss and Harvin, while the rest of the receivers only targeted a combined 7 times. I'm not expecting a run heavy attack. The return of LB A.J. Hawk and LB Brandon Chillar, who seems ready to play, should reinforce a good run defense that limited the Dolphins to 3.8 ypc last week while allowing no run longer than 12 yards. But just as the Dolphins used those runs on early downs to keep themselves out of 3rd and long, the Vikings might lean heavily on RB Adrian Peterson on 1st down.
How will special teams play a role against the Packers?
- They've been noticeably bad to anyone who's watched them play over the past four weeks. If they had avoided a missed (or blocked) FG in the Chicago or Washington games, and if they could have avoided a huge illegal formation penalty on a 4th quarter punt, they're three losses could have easily become wins. Kicking at WR Devin Hester was not a good idea, and avoiding Harvin, no matter how bad his hamstring is hurting him, on kick off returns would be another good idea.