Packers Digest: Week 16

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Four down, two to go.  Almost five weeks after Rodgers declared the Packers could “run the table”, the Packers have rattled off four straight wins.  Their latest, which was a testament to both their fabled past and their modern game, revolved around creating turnovers, an effective running game, and Rodgers coming up big when they needed it most.  The Bears played an awful third quarter, turning it over three times which resulted in 17 Packer points that built them a 27-10 lead.  But, passive defensive play with the lead allowed the Bears to climb back in, tying it up 27 all with just under a minute to go.  On a third and 11, just when it looked like they might give it away, Rodgers connected with Jordy Nelson for a 60 yard pass play, and downed the ball with just enough time for Mason Crosby to drill the game winner home.  That win, plus a Lions loss to the Giants, puts them in the driver’s seat to win the NFC North.  With the Vikings and Lions left to go, the Packers need to shore up both sides of the ball to deliver two complete team games.

How Do The Packers Reverse The Trend Against Minnesota’s Defense?

The Vikings have taken the last two games from Green Bay, and this time they’ll be looking to stay alive in the playoff race.  This time, they will have to travel to Green Bay.  The Packers have great success at home in December with Rodgers at quarterback.  Now, it’s time to put up.  The Vikings beat the Packers back in September 17-14, when the Packer offense still had remnants of 2015 around.  Now, Rodgers has found his groove again, but how do the Packers change the result against this Minnesota team?

There are a couple things offensively the Packers have now that they didn’t have or utilize against Minnesota back in week 2.  Those two key parts of the offense were key in taking down the Bears this past week.

First, the running game will need to be a focal point.  Ty Montgomery and Christine Michael are key cogs to the revival of the Packers running game.  Montgomery broke out against Chicago, gaining 162 yards and scoring twice.  His effort after contact shows that he can in fact carry the load, even at his stature.  Montgomery isn’t just a threat running the ball.  He has shown to be a big time threat as a receiver as well.  With that type of versatility, Minnesota will have to respect Montgomery as a threat whenever he’s on the field.  As for Michael, Seattle cut him because he wasn’t able to find holes in their running scheme.  Even if that is true, the Packers gave him a big hole Sunday against Chicago and he took advantage, taking that carry to the house.  Michael is as much a bruiser as Montgomery, and having both will make the Packers less of a one-dimensional team.

The other important part of the offense is the utilization of Jared Cook.  Jared Cook has been huge lately for the Packers, especially on third down.  He provides a field stretching threat that the Packers have desperately needed.  Last time around against the Vikings, the Packer receivers couldn’t get open (one of Green Bay’s touchdowns was set up by a 50 yard pass interference play), but now with Cook being a threat outside and in the slot, Rodgers has found another target who works extremely well in the offense.

So, Green Bay has two objectives on offense this time around. One is to get the ground game going.  Montgomery and Michael need to run north and south to get what they can to provide Rodgers with short and medium third downs.  The offensive line is healthier, and JC Tretter has an outside shot to play this week.  A run game will bolster the effectiveness of the play action, and having Montgomery as a receiving threat will create mismatches against Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks.  And two, having Jared Cook out there gives Green Bay a third threat in the passing game behind Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams.

**An extra note here about the offense.  Randall Cobb has been a ghost recently, and hasn’t contributed much at all the past three weeks (6 catches, 52 yards, TD), and had nothing to speak of against the Bears.  He is questionable this week, but if he plays, it sure would be nice for Rodgers to have someone else in the slot making plays.  If he does indeed play, it’s time for him to step up in a big spot.

Are The Pass Rush and Secondary Postseason Ready?

Yes, the Packers aren’t guaranteed to make the postseason at this point.  Those hopes could be dashed as early as Saturday if the Packers fail to pull it out against Minnesota.  But, let’s take a look at two important pieces of the Packer defense: the secondary and pass rush.

As far as the pass rush goes, Green Bay looked to be getting healthier along the edge.  Nick Perry practiced some this week and is listed as questionable for Saturday’s game.  Clay Matthews has been dealing with a shoulder issue, but has since been removed from the injury report.  Jayrone Elliott hurt himself against Chicago and will be unable to go on Saturday.  Everyone else is fired up and rearing to go for this game.

The pass rush is extremely important to guarantee a victory against Minnesota.  The Vikings have one of the worst offensive lines in football, so it is in Green Bay’s best interest to be able to tee off and get to Sam Bradford at will.  Julius Peppers, who might be the most consistent pass rusher at this point, will get limited snaps.  So who can the Packers rely on to get to the quarterback?  Well, there’s no guarantee Nick Perry plays in this game, and no one knows how effective he will be with a club on his hand.  Kyler Fackrell hasn’t panned out yet, so he won’t get many looks either.  Dean Lowry has gotten pressure as of late, but you can’t guarantee much from either rookie at this point.  It is time for Clay Matthews to turn back the clock and for Datone Jones to step up in this situation.

If the Packers can get to Sam Bradford at will, and if there can be different faces in the backfield throughout the game, we will know that this Packers pass rush is postseason ready.  The offensive lines will be better in January, so Green Bay needs to make the most of this matchup and secure a win by living in the Minnesota backfield.

Now for the secondary.  We all remember what happened in September.  When the pass rush was neutralized, Sam Bradford found Stefon Diggs all night long, running free against a helpless Packers secondary.  Damarious Randall looked like he was a linebacker against Diggs.  Also, the Vikings have had success getting Cordarelle Patterson the ball, another speedster.  With Sam Shields not returning this season, and no guarantee that he will be back at all, Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins, and Ladarius Gunter will have to step up and make plays in the secondary (Randall especially, with his speed).  The Packers’ secondary does not have an easy task on Christmas Eve.

This of course all comes full circle.  The pass rush must at least make Sam Bradford uncomfortable as much as they can.  Sacks are good, but just getting pressure and not giving Bradford a clean pocket will help hide the deficiencies in the secondary.  The secondary isn’t bad, but they are still inexperienced and need help from the multitude of pass rushers so that Green Bay can get off the field on defense.

Key Players

Offense: Jared Cook

There isn’t much else I could come up with as a key player.  Everyone knows that Bakhtiari and Bulaga have huge assignment to stop the Minnesota pass rush, and we know the running game will be important for balance.  So, I’m going to continue to push the Jared Cook agenda.  He came up big at times last week, and he needs to do it again.  Rodgers does have Nelson and Adams outside, but there will be times that they fail to get open.  When that happens, Cook’s speed gives him an advantage across the middle.  He could draw guys like Eric Kendricks, Andrew Sendejo, and Harrison Smith in coverage.  He has the speed advantage in every single matchup there.  When Nelson lines up inside, Cook often goes outside, so he could also draw Xavier Rhodes.  Then, he has the height advantage.  Cook is a matchup nightmare anywhere you put him, and he should have a big day on the second level.

Defense: Morgan Burnett

The pass rush is important, but Morgan Burnett has been an unsung hero for this defense. Two weeks ago, he played linebacker and safety in sub packages.  He took on Jimmy Graham and ended up picking off a pass.  Despite registering a pick last week, he was all over the field, especially cheating up to make plays on running downs.  This week, even with Peterson out, Burnett will still need to be up at the line to stop the run.  He will be asked to cover Kyle Rudolph at times.  And of course, he will also be back deep.  I expect Burnett to play a huge part in getting the defense off the field.

The Prediction

The Packers are rolling right now on both sides of the ball.  Take out that fourth quarter against Chicago where Capers got prevent-happy and they’ve played real well on defense.  The Vikings are still trying to pick up the pieces on offense, and their defense goes flat at times.  The defense will show up this week, but a balanced attack will do the job on offense.  The big plays will be limited, but Rodgers will do enough to put points on the board.  The run defense will limit Asiata and McKinnon, but the pass rush must get to Bradford on third downs to limit big plays from Diggs and Rudolph.  This will be a total team effort.  The Packers get it done at home.

Packers 24, Vikings 17

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