Breaking down Monday night's Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers game (7 p.m., ESPN) ...
1. Keep an eye on the defensive ends -- and I don't just mean Jared Allen. Yep, the ex-Chief is expected to be the X-factor on this Vikings defense. He brings 15.5 sacks to a line that was already pretty stout, at least against the run, and all expectations are the Vikings' defensive backfield (the worst in the league last year) will improve with Allen breathing down opposing passers' necks. Of course, Chad Clifton, who's no slouch himself, will have something to say about that this week. The Packers' left tackle went to the Pro Bowl last year for, as an example, holding guys like Allen to just three tackles and half a sack during a Chiefs-Packers game last November. It might've been Allen's worst effort all year. (Or Clifton's best.)
That said, a more important match-up might be the Packers' right ends, Cullen Jenkins and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, against Vikings left tackle Artis Hicks. A converted guard who went undrafted in '02, Hicks slides into the void left by Bryant McKinnie, who was suspended for four weeks after four recent arrests. (Gotta love the symmetry.) And that has to make the Packers absolutely giddy.
In Week 4 of '07 the Packers traveled to Minneapolis and were leading by seven late in the game thanks in large to some heavy-duty pressure coming from the right end spot. KGB had already racked up three sacks on McKinnie when Brad Childress finally had enough. (In McKinnie's defense, he had just endured a bout with food poisoning and was ralphing all over the Metrodome carpet all game long.) Childress replaced McKinnie with Hicks, the starting right guard, for a last-ditch drive. On second down, KGB beat Hicks around the corner and pressured backup quarterback Kelly Holcomb into a sloppy throw that was tipped and intercepted by the Packers. End of game. Packers win 23-16. And Hicks never started again. Until now.
2. In fantasy football terms, it might be a good week to sit Ryan Grant. The Packers' feature back played the Vikings twice last year: The first time he gathered just 17 yards in limited action; the later time, he had 119 yards and his first NFL touchdown. Monday night's game looks headed in the direction of the prior.
Last year the Vikings allowed a league-best 74.1 yards per game and ceded just six rushing scores. Only Grant ever topped 100 yards -- and he had the luxury of playing with a growing lead for the entirety of that game. In their most indicative '08 preseason action, the Vikings' first team defensive line held Pittsburgh to just 26 yards rushing on 14 carries in the first half -- the same Steelers who rushed for 135.5 yards per game (third in the NFL) last year.
Of course, that's all irrelevant of Grant. He's cracked this line once, so why not again? Because, for one, he's not exactly revved up and ready to go. After a long holdout Grant missed a chunk of camp with a hamstring injury, and now he enters Week 1 with just one -- one! -- preseason play under his belt. Not terribly encouraging, especially facing the Williams boys again, eh?
3. We should know pretty quickly whether Minnesota's offseason maneuvering did anything to rectify the team's offensive problems, and that will speak volumes about both their short-term success against the Packers' declining corners and about the team's Super Bowl prospects. Simply put, the Vikings need Bernard Berrian to play like he did in '06, when he caught 51 balls with the Bears and made life a hell of a lot easier for both Rex Grossman and Thomas Jones. If he can stretch the field he changes the defensive makeup in Adrian Peterson's favor and makes a hero out of Tarvaris Jackson. If not -- if he plays like he did in '08, when he accumulated more receptions but seemed a step slower and was a liability with tons of dropped balls -- little is going to change in Minnesota.
In this game, Berrian's speed could hypothetically exploit guys like Al Harris and Charles Woodson, the Packers' two aging corners; but he doesn't have the size (he's just 6' 1") that helped, say, Plaxico Burress against Harris last January. And Berrian's body is working against him in more ways than one: he's still battling a toe injury that caused problems last year. The toe kept him out of all but three preseason series, during which he had just two receptions. Seems to me the Vikings may have ended up with damaged goods. We'll know by the end of the night.
4. Packers fans have very few moments to hang their hats on when it comes to Rodgers: a stirring 201-yard performance against Dallas in Week 13 last year; and a one-play appearance in the final preseason game this year against Tennessee. First play of the game. Sixty-eight yards to Greg Jennings for seven. Shades of Favre-to-Rison in Super Bowl XXXI. Sort of.
Anyway, forget all of that. This game will be nothing like that. Here are some stats that will matter. Rodgers has been sacked once every 6.55 times he's thrown in his regular season career. OK, so that was often in mop-up duty. Maybe his line was weak. But look at his '08 preseason: one sack every 7.71 attempts behind a starting line. By comparison, Favre has been sacked once every 19.95 attempts. Peyton Manning: 28.3. David Carr set a record in '02 when he was sacked 76 times, and those came once every 5.84 attempts.
Rodgers's numbers are awfully close. That type of timidity is the kind of thing that gets quarterbacks killed. Even if Jared Allen is kept under wraps, the Minnesota interior will have its way against Green Bay's reserves. Injured center Scott Wells and guard Josh Sitton are both likely to watch the bloodshed from the sidelines.
Every week, we'll ask at least one NFL assistant with relevant game experience to provide an anonymous scouting report on our Game of the Week. Here's what two different assistant from 2007 Vikings opponents had to say about game-planning reigning AP Offensive Rookie of the Year Adrian Peterson:
"What they try to do is when you get eight in a box is run a lot of shifts and have a lot of movement before the snap. That way they can get Peterson lined up on a cornerback because of all the shifting they do which the defense has to react to. Brad [Childress] does a great job of that."
"The biggest thing with that guy is you have to maintain great discipline in your gaps. He's such a great cut-back runner, you can't overplay or he's going to kill you. When we prepared for the Vikings, all we told our guys was, stay disciplined, play your gap, and don't over-play, because he'll cut back every time, and if you're not disciplined, that's when he's off and running."
OK, so maybe that was less obvious midseason in '07, when our scout took on A.P. If the Packers have any doubts about this analysis, they can just ask the Bears and Chargers, against whom Peterson racked up eight touchdowns and almost 600 yards over three games last year. On one run late in the second quarter of the Week 6 tilt against Chicago, Peterson started left and cut completely across the field through the secondary for a game-tying 67-yard score. Fifteen minutes later he stepped towards an off-tackle run to the right, thought better of it, and scooted 73 yards around left tackle for another score.
Among Green Bay's personnel, Aaron Kampman and Cullen Jenkins are the better run defenders and are probably least likely to over-pursue, as the Bears often did. If anyone's going to get burnt, it's more likely to be KGB from the right side. But how do you keep him off the field with his recent successes against the Vikings? It'll be a juggling act at right end for Green Bay.
I see Rodgers getting tossed around in this one, maybe even handing Minnesota a few defensive points. Add a score for A.P. and I've got the Vikings winning 14-9.