by Andy Benoit
This isn’t the Sunday night flex game, but it’s just as important. If the Vikings win, they’re in the playoffs. If the Packers win, they’re the NFC’s No. 2 seed. Let’s break down the matchup.
1. Peterson and run game
Adrian Peterson has been every bit as good as his numbers, it’s freakish. What stands out is that, improbably, Peterson is more laterally explosive than he was before his ACL surgery. Long gains on the ground, especially out of 12-, 21-, and 22-personnel sets the Vikings favor, usually include the running back moving east and west at some point. No one moves east and west with more power and burst than Peterson. And no one accelerates back downhill off east and west movement better than Peterson.
Peterson isn’t doing it completely alone, though there have been plays, including several of his long runs, where he almost has. The Vikings have committed to the ground by using more multi-back sets and H-back type blockers on the edges. The multi-back sets are interesting because Peterson, with his violent burst, has never quite had enough patience to wait for his lead-blockers. That’s changed this season, but the Vikings have also catered to his style by designing runs that have lead-blockers targeting defenders away from the point of attack. One of their most effective wrinkles with this has been to use the full house formation (three backs, also known as an inverted wishbone) on early downs.
Intriguing as the full house has been, expect the Vikings to predominantly use straight I-formations this week. The Vikings roughed up the Packers with this set the last time these two teams met.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
Fullback Jerome Felton has come on strong in recent weeks. Rookie Matt Kalil has been a Pro Bowl-caliber left tackle. Kalil has an uncommon ability to land controlling blocks from contorted platforms. Inside, center John Sullivan has done an outstanding job making the line calls and delivering help to teammates on motion-oriented run blocks. Sullivan has shown that, when clean from defenders, he can win with shrewd angles at the second level. The rest of Minnesota’s offensive linemen are what Bill Parcells would call JAG’s (Just A Guy). But that’s all the Vikings need given their superstar runner.
2. Packers defense
With corners Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, and Casey Hayward playing so well in man coverage down the stretch, the Packers will have no hesitation selling out to stop Peterson. When Clay Matthews was out with a hamstring injury, the Packers were often inclined to drop safety Morgan Burnett down in the box. (They even did this on early downs against the pass-happy Lions a few weeks ago.) Matthews is back, but expect to still see Burnett drop down in this matchup.
Life will be easier for Burnett in the box because Matthews is great at identifying run-blocking designs and then blowing them up with leveraged penetration, especially outside. Another player who thrives in this sense is Charles Woodson. If he returns from his collarbone injury, Green Bay will have the most agile run defense that Minnesota has seen all season. And it’s not a run defense built strictly on agility, as B.J. Raji is playing arguably his best football right now and controlling the trenches.
Packers defenders will have opportunities to land clean shots on Peterson. Of course, that doesn’t mean that they’ll make the tackle.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
3. Some perspective
Great as Peterson is, understand that the Packers do not have to stop him in order to win. They beat Minnesota earlier this month, and Peterson gashed them for 210 yards. Those 210 yards included bruising, clock-eating runs, and an 82-yard touchdown.
The Vikings are on a three-game win streak, but Peterson has only been directly responsible for one of those wins (two weeks ago at St. Louis). Against Chicago, Peterson put up big numbers, but 14 of Minnesota’s 21 points essentially came off turnovers. Against Houston, Peterson was held to 86 yards. The Vikings won with plays on defense and special teams, plus a long-awaited sign of life from Christian Ponder, who completed 16-of-30 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown.
4. Ponder and the passing game
In their previous matchup, Green Bay won by making Ponder lose. The second-year quarterback had two costly interceptions in the red zone, both to Burnett off play-action, where he threw into coverage back across the field. Ponder also missed a few downfield throws, most notably a wheel route where Peterson had beaten Brad Jones. The Vikings receivers failed to get any sort of separation against man coverage. The first catch by a receiver in Week 13 came with 4:00 left in the fourth quarter. Jerome Simpson’s unrefined route running has been an issue this year. Opposite him, Michael Jenkins no longer runs well enough to justify a high volume of snaps outside.
The Vikings know this. They know that Ponder is inconsistent in his drop-back mechanics and progression reads across a full field. "Inconsistent," remember, doesn’t mean "bad." There are cases where Ponder shows promise, but the Vikings can’t build game plans around promise.
To help the young quarterback, the Vikings call a lot of play-action rollouts. This not only takes advantage of a defense’s aggressive reaction to Peterson, it also splits the field in half for Ponder. That allows Ponder to make just one or two reads while relying on his quick feet.
It’s on Ponder to make good decision and protect possession. In other words, it’s on him to not lose the game. He can't crumble when Matthews gets penetration. And that will happen, either off the edge against stiff, upright tackle Phil Loadholt, or with A-gap blitzes designed to exploit weak link Brandon Fusco.
5. Packers offense vs. Vikings defense
It’s easy to look at the 55 points Green Bay hung on Tennessee last week and assume that this offense is in Super Bowl form, but in Green Bay’s previous three games, the offense scored 21, 20, and 23 points against their NFC North brethren. Decent, not dominant. All three of those NFC North teams play a predominant two-deep zone defense.
In a lot of ways, it’s remarkable that the Packers offense has even produced that much. Their front line has been in flux all year. The most recent change is at center, where Evan Dietrich-Smith has taken over for rapidly declining "Pro Bowler" Jeff Saturday. The Packers’ serviceable-at-best ground game is nothing to fear. Their receiving corps has been hampered by injuries, with Greg Jennings (groin) missing Weeks 5-12, Jordy Nelson (hamstring) missing most of Weeks 13-16 and Randall Cobb's availability for this game in doubt due to an ankle strain. The lack of continuity has eroded Green Bay’s catch-and-run timing, making for a more randomized passing attack. The only reason the Packers have managed so well is that Aaron Rodgers has an unbelievable ability to keep his eyes downfield and make accurate, strong-armed throws from different platforms on the move. He’s a master at breaking down the integrity of zone coverage late in the down.
Even with his jaw-dropping abilities under duress, Rodgers is the most-sacked quarterback in football this season. Sacks are what the Vikings need on Sunday; as they learned the hard way four weeks ago, simply pressuring Rogers isn’t enough. Defensive linemen have to finish the job when they arrive.
Two players for Minnesota who have really stood out lately are defensive end Everson Griffen and safety Harrison Smith. Griffen has uncanny athleticism both in space and in the box. The Vikings, a fairly vanilla 4-3 team, would be wise to use him on more zone blitzes and amoeba looks before the snap. As for Smith, he has improved by the week in his debut season. He doesn’t have ideal range, but he’s shown an ability to take smart angles to the ball. He’s also a very good open-space tackler who is comfortable weaving into the box.
Cowboys offense vs. Redskins defense
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In their Thanksgiving matchup, Washington’s defensive-line stunts gave Dallas offensive linemen trouble. Tony Romo also had some issues with processing information against a multitude of different man and zone coverages. However, Romo has played much sharper in recent weeks, in part because receivers Dez Bryant and Dwayne Harris have come on. The Redskins don’t have any corners who can handle Bryant outside, and coverage in the slot has been hit-or-miss with this defense all year. (It did get better once DeAngelo Hall started playing more deep safety in the sub packages.) This week, though, the wide receivers might be second in a lot of Romo’s progressions. As we’ve mentioned throughout the season (including in the Thanksgiving Film Room piece on these teams), Washington is very comfortable putting linebackers in solo coverage on tight ends. London Fletcher is much better in coverage than his numbers indicate, but the Cowboys should still like Jason Witten’s chances against him.
Redskins offense vs. Cowboys defense
One thing we’ve learned since Robert Griffin’s knee injury is that Washington’s offense is not as reliant on the read-option as we thought. They barely ran it against Philadelphia. And, aside from one laughable play where Alfred Morris got stuffed, they did not run it at all with Kirk Cousins against Cleveland. But even without the read-option, Washington’s play-action game is very potent. That’s due to a fantastically-coached zone-blocking offensive line. On the field, defenders do not react to possibilities and probabilities -– they react to what they see. When they see five linemen plus a couple of tight ends explode off the ball with unified run-blocking technique, they react to the run. Griffin, though somewhat unrefined from the pocket at this point, has a quick, strong release to burn defenders. Sunday night, the Cowboys defense must play with patience in all facets.
Chiefs offense vs. Broncos defense
We’ve seen all season that Kansas City is incapable of sustaining offense without Jamaal Charles getting chunk plays on the ground. Chunk plays are tough to come by against Denver. Not only is Denver’s linebacker corps fast and strong, but the defensive line might be the best in the league at holding ground against double teams. Derek Wolfe and Justin Bannan are terrific anchors near the B- and C-gaps. Further inside, Kevin Vickerson amplifies his 300-pound strength with very good initial quickness. The Chiefs have a lot of size up front, but don’t be surprised if they struggle getting movement in the ground game this week.
Broncos offense vs. Chiefs defense
A lot of Knowshon Moreno’s success has come from running against defenses that are aligned to stop the pass, either via sub-package personnel or two-deep coverages. This week, Moreno will be facing a Chiefs defense that, thanks to Derrick Johnson, is capable of stopping the run out of pass-stopping fronts. Johnson has been a one-man wrecking crew as the lone linebacker in dime sets this season. Those sets, which often feature just two defensive linemen, afford him plenty of space for using his speed and quickness to get downhill in the box. Johnson has capitalized by displaying his tremendous instincts against the run.
Dolphins offense vs. Patriots defense
There’s not a lot of mystery here, as these teams met earlier this month. In that game, the New England front seven was terrific against the run. Vince Wilfork controlled the trenches with his usual strength and explosiveness, while Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick feasted on one-on-one matchups. New England’s linebackers all played to their athleticism and did a good job filling gaps behind their stalemating linemen. In the air, Ryan Tannehill was somewhat erratic with ball placement. With solid man coverage by New England’s secondary, Tannehill had few opportunities to make throws within the timing of the play design. The Dolphins, perhaps not prepared for the zone-happy Patriots’ heavy dose of man coverage, didn't do much with formations or route combinations to help their overmatched receivers. There were far too many isolation patterns out of spread sets. That’ll have to change this Sunday.
Patriots offense vs. Dolphins defense
On this side of the ball in the last meeting, it was a methodical performance by the Patriots. They wore down the Dolphins by going to the ground on the final drive, which lasted seven minutes and ended with a field goal that put New England up 10. The Dolphins secondary did a very good job in man coverage after a slow start. Up front, the defensive ends posed problems for tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder in pass protection. Strongside linebacker Koa Misi was particularly impressive playing with his hand in the dirt. The only negative was that the Dolphins failed to make enough game-changing plays. That’s what you have to do against Tom Brady; otherwise he’ll own the game simply by controlling tempo and flow in the pre-snap phase.
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Texans offense vs. Colts defense
Even though it’d be great to win in Chuck Pagano’s return, the Colts, with their playoff spot essentially locked up, may want to consider giving their guys some rest heading into the playoffs. (They’ve said they won’t, but we’ll see.) The Texans, needing a win to secure homefield, will be going hard. In Week 15, they went hard against this defense and got ahead early by exploiting great route combinations against Indy’s base 3-4. In the second half, Houston’s zone ground game came to life after getting stymied by Indy’s fast-improving inside linebackers. Arian Foster controlled the action with 16 second half carries for 131 yards.
Colts offense vs. Texans defense
J.J. Watt has a great opportunity to get the 2.5 sacks he needs to break Michael Strahan’s single season record. As expected, Watt dominated the right side of Indy’s offensive line in the previous matchup, working against guard Mike McGlynn and backup tackle Jeff Linkenbach (aka The Weak Link). Normally, teams that have this kind of match-up problem in the trenches look to compensate with tight end help. The Colts are no exception. One thing they do extremely well is use Dwayne Allen as a blocker early in the down and then throw to him on a late release. Houston’s outside linebackers (Connor Barwin in particular) are very good at peeling back into coverage after beginning their pass rush. They’ll have to be on high alert for that this week.
Bears offense vs. Lions defense
Earlier in the season, in an effort to hide their bad offensive line, the Bears started using more play-action. They should consider a heavy dose of that again this week. The Lions fast-flowing defense has been consistently vulnerable against play-action over the years. It’s one of the few instances where their speed at linebacker and safety is counterproductive. As the Falcons showed last Saturday night, there are similar issues with screen passes. Matt Forte isn’t fast enough to outrun Detroit’s linebackers, but with the help of some misdirection, he could catch them out of position.
Lions offense vs. Bears defense
It’s fitting that Calvin Johnson’s pursuit of 2,000 yards comes to a head with a match-up against Charles Tillman. The veteran corner has the size and craftiness to disrupt the almost-unguardable Johnson. The only major concern is making sure that Tillman doesn’t get beat by speed over the top -- something that happened with him against Johnson on a Monday Nighter in 2011. The Bears have played a lot of Cover-3 behind eight-man boxes this season. Don’t be surprised if they revert back to their Cover-2 looks in an effort to give Tillman consistent help. They might as well; everyone and their brother knows that Stafford is going to be forcing the ball to Johnson in Detroit’s meaningless finale.