Packers-Vikings: 5 things to watch
The teams: The Green Bay Packers (5-5) vs. the Minnesota Vikings (2-8).
The time: Noon CST Sunday.
The place: Lambeau Field, Green Bay.
The TV coverage: FOX – WITI (Ch. 6 in Milwaukee), WMSN (Ch. 47 in Madison) and WLUK (Ch. 11 in Green Bay).
The announcers: Kevin Burkhardt and John Lynch in the booth and Erin Andrews reporting from the sideline.
The coaches: Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 85-47 (including 6-4 in the postseason) in his eighth season as the Packers' coach and as an NFL head coach. Minnesota’s Leslie Frazier is 18-31 (including 0-1 in the postseason) in his fourth full season as coach of the Vikings and as an NFL head coach.
The series: The Packers lead the all-time regular-season series, 55-48-1 and hold a 21-17-1 edge in games played in Green Bay. The Packers have also won seven of the last nine meetings, including a 44-31 victory in Minneapolis on Oct. 27.
The rankings: The Packers’ third-ranked offense is No. 6 in rushing and No. 5 in passing. Their 18th-ranked defense is No. 12 against the run and No. 21 against the pass. The Vikings’ 26th-ranked offense is No. 16 in rushing and No. 25 in passing. Their 30th-ranked defense is No. 14 against the run and No. 29 against the pass.
The line: The Packers are favored by 4 1/2 points.
The injury report: Packers – Out: RT Don Barclay (knee), CB Casey Hayward (hamstring), CB James Nixon (knee), OLB Nick Perry (foot), QB Aaron Rodgers (collarbone). Doubtful: DT Johnny Jolly (groin). Questionable: CB Sam Shields (hamstring). Full participation: CB Micah Hyde (groin), C Evan Dietrich-Smith (knee), OLB Mike Neal (abdomen), DT Ryan Pickett (knee), OLB Andy Mulumba (ankle), OLB Clay Matthews (thumb).
Vikings – Out: LB Erin Henderson (not injury related), CB Josh Robinson (chest), TE Kyle Rudolph (foot). Questionable: RB Adrian Peterson (groin), C John Sullivan (concussion), WR Greg Jennings (Achilles’ tendon), DE Brian Robison (neck), LB Michael Mauti (knee). Probable: DE Jared Allen (back), RB Matt Asiata (shoulder), TE Rhett Ellison (ankle), DT Fred Evans (knee/shoulder), DT Letroy Guion (chest), LB Chad Greenway (wrist), QB Christian Ponder (left shoulder).
THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
Safety hazards: Questioning the production of safety Morgan Burnett will not get you anywhere in conversation with the Packers’ defensive coaching staff. Even if you limit your criticism solely to his failure to make “splash” plays – entering Sunday’s game, he doesn’t have an interception, a sack, a forced fumble or a fumble recovery – the coaches will tell you that Burnett has had one bad game, against Philadelphia two weeks ago. And even then, they barely admit that much.
“Morgan has played some good football for us. He can’t get caught up in reading some of the other things that may be out there,” said safeties coach Darren Perry, Burnett’s staunchest defender. “He’s a good football player and we have no doubts about him. We just have got to keep him going and making sure as a unit that we’re playing together and we’re not giving up the big play, because that’s where you want to make sure that you’re not slipping, because that just demoralizes a defense.
“When he came back (after missing the first three games with a hamstring injury), it was a noticeable difference for us in the secondary. Hey, when you lose, you’re going to get criticized. So you’ve just got to take it in perspective and see where we are and where we’re going.”
The Packers gave Burnett a four-year, $24.75 million contract that included an $8.5 million signing bonus in July. He came into this season with six career interceptions to go along with four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. He also has three career sacks.
Burnett is viewed as the latest in the Packers’ lineage of Pro Bowl safeties, a group that went from LeRoy Butler to Darren Sharper to Nick Collins. But to this point, Burnett hasn’t made enough plays to be viewed in that light.
“It’s all about doing your job, really. It’s not about one guy worrying about his stats. It’s about winning,” Burnett said. “Right now, that’s our main focus. You want to dominate together as a defense. It’s not about numbers or who’s doing what. We just have to stay the course and do our job.”
Bouncing back: What will the future hold for cornerback Tramon Williams? He’s set to turn 31 in March and will be the Packers’ highest-paid defensive player next season with a $6.9 million base salary and $600,000 in bonus money, and before last Sunday’s game against the New York Giants, there was reason to wonder about his level of play. But he was terrific against the Giants, snapping a 23-game streak without an interception, tackling like a man possessed (eight solo tackles) and looking like he did in 2010, when multiple personnel men said he was one of the league’s top 5 cover men.
Whether he can sustain that level of play is unclear, but the Green Bay defense needs him to play that way now more than ever, especially if Shields sits out a second straight game with a hamstring injury. Williams hasn’t been the same player as he was before his 2011 shoulder injury, but he reminded everyone what he can do when on top of his game.
“I thought Tramon had a really good game, but at the end of the day we need to win football games. But him personally, yes, he probably had one of his finer games since we’ve been working together,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “His technique was really, really good. The things that we talked about, where we wanted to send balls, where we wanted to send certain players, and how they’re going to attack us and how we’re going to defend them, he was flawless on those things. That was good to see his attention to detail on every aspect of how we wanted to do it.”
Asked how much he thinks Williams has left, Whitt replied, “That’s a question that I’m not prepared to answer right now because my mindset is not even there. I’m worried about how Tramon is going to play [on Sunday]. After the season, that would be a better time for me to answer that question. … If he plays the next six games and going into playoff like he played this last game, we’re going to say, ‘Wow.’ (But) it would be better answered after the season.”
“You feel that something has to be changed, or someone has to step up or do something a little different, and I feel that I’m one of the guys who needs to step up, whether it’s by example or whether it’s by being a vocal leader,” Williams said about whether he felt he needed to make a statement. “Different guys do it different ways. We just have to make sure we’re getting effort out of everybody. I’m not saying we’re not, but when it comes to times like this, you want to make sure you’re maxing out on everything.”
Under siege: Opposing defensive coordinators had reached the point with Rodgers that they didn’t even bother blitzing him anymore. That hasn’t been the case for his replacement, third-stringer Scott Tolzien. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Tolzien has been blitzed on roughly 1/3 of his dropbacks, and the results haven’t been pretty.
Four of Tolzien’s five interceptions have come against the blitz, and his passer rating is just 52.9 when opponents send five or more rushers after him.
“We prepare for pressure here regardless of who’s playing quarterback. Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’t,” quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo said. “You can’t control what the defense calls, but you need to be prepared to handle anything they throw at it. We’ve been doing it with Aaron. We did it with Seneca (Wallace) and now we’re doing it with Scott. Whether it’s a pressure game, a coverage game, we’ll be ready for it. We look at pressure as an opportunity and we need to take advantage of it when it comes.”
As pointed out by ESPN.com’s Rob Demovsky, Tolzien has faced five rushers on 20 percent of his dropbacks, six rushers on 10 percent and seven on 1.3 percent. Although he’s only been sacked once, it’s still had an impact, clearly.
Rodgers had been blitzed on 25.6 percent of his dropbacks and had a 104.5 passer rating with five TDs and one INT on those plays. While Tolzien isn’t Rodgers, he has to be more productive when the opponent comes after him.
“I think it's just something that's in the back of your mind. But you've still got to play ball. It's a reactionary sport,” Tolzien said. “You just keep it there and you just try to make good decisions ultimately. I think the more you prep the better you feel about the decisions.”
Full Nelson: Tight end Jermichael Finley is done for the season. Wide receiver Randall Cobb is on injured reserve with the designation to return but didn’t sound particularly optimistic about playing on Dec. 15 against Dallas – the first game he’d be eligible to play. And wide receiver James Jones, after missing two games with a knee injury, hasn’t been the same player since returning (seven receptions, 116 yards).
Oh, and the star quarterback is about to miss another game.
And yet, on and on and on goes Jordy Nelson, who now leads the team in receptions (57), receiving yards (889) and touchdown catches (seven).
Asked if he feels any more pressure with those other playmakers sidelined, Nelson said he doesn’t.
“I don't think so. I'm going to play the game the same with or without those guys,” Nelson said. “I can only control one thing on game day – that’s the way I play. I would hope to believe that with Aaron out there, I would play the same if it's Aaron or Scott. Or if Randall and James (were) out there. I'm going to run my route to the best of my ability and try to get open. It doesn't matter who's throwing it or who else is out there. I can only control what I can control.”
Nelson’s career best season came in 2011, when he caught 68 passes for 1,263 yards and 15 touchdowns. He’s currently on pace for 91 receptions for 1,422 yards and 11 TDs. While he’s also leading the Packers statistically, his coaches say he’s also leading them another way.
“He’s always played well. He’s always been a consistent player. But he’s taken on a little bit more of a leadership role, especially with Aaron out of the game,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. “He’s been effective on the field and he’s been good on the practice squad with the younger guys and talking to them. He’s just an outstanding player.”
Marshall, Marshall, Marshall: With Barclay having been ruled out, Marshall Newhouse will get the start again at right tackle. He didn’t play well in relief against Chicago on Nov. 4, played poorly again in relief when Barclay went down against Philadelphia on Nov. 11 and was only slightly better last Sunday against the Giants. In three weeks, Newhouse has given up two sacks, two quarterback hits and seven hurries in only 125 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
“Marshall struggled in moments. For him, and for me, it’s just, he’s got to be more consistent,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “If you go out and you stone a guy, and then he rushes the same rush pattern and he gets your hands and gets around you, it’s like, ‘What the (expletive) are you doing?’
“That’s the consistency that gets really frustrating. Just do that, Marshall. He gets totally frustrated and starts to think, ‘I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that.’ No. Just do your two or three techniques and you’ll be fine.”
While far from perfect, the guy played left tackle for the better part of two seasons, and Rodgers won an MVP with him protecting his blind side. In 28 starts including playoffs at left tackle, the Packers were 22-6.
“I think it’s more just because I literally have taken thousands of reps at left tackle from college to now, and right tackle, it’s not even close to that. It’s just comfortability and being confident in trying things out,” said Newhouse, who’ll be a free agent at season’s end. “I think (Campen) is absolutely right. It’s just being cognizant during a game of what’s working and what’s not working. I still can’t be afraid to take chances. Playing safe most times will win you a block, but you also have to change things up.
“I feel like I can block anyone, block them well. It’s just a matter of connecting everything that’s up here (points at head) to my feet and my hands and all that stuff. No matter how well I did or what happens, I have to move on.”
If he doesn’t, the Packers will have to move on. Their 2011 first-round pick, Derek Sherrod, played three snaps last week on special teams after missing the better part of two years with a broken leg suffered on Dec. 18, 2011. Campen didn’t want to address the possibility of benching Newhouse and going to Sherrod if he plays poorly again, in part because of Sherrod’s limited practice time in pads.
“Not making excuses, but the guy started 30-plus games, but he’s also been sitting on the bench. Now, he’s got a full game, another one, let’s see what he does now,” Campen said of Newhouse. “I expect him, I shouldn’t even say rebound, I expect him to play at the level he’s capable of playing at. Because he is capable of doing that. We’ve all seen him. He’s capable of doing that. And I expect him to be better. And he does. He’s disappointed, but he’s got to learn, ‘Hey, throw away the shit game, learn from the good things and the bad things, and let’s move on.’
“I’m not avoiding your Derek question. Do I think Derek’s ready to play? Yeah, I do.”
The Packers need this one. The guess here is that they get it. If they don’t, Thanksgiving Day in Detroit either becomes very, very interesting – because Rodgers will do everything in his power to convince the medical staff to let him play – or a virtual moot point. McCarthy believes his team can win with Tolzien at quarterback, but the key word is team. If there was ever a time for every other phase to rise up, it’s now. We’ll see what happens. Packers 24, Vikings 14. (Season record: 8-2)
– Jason Wilde