There is no hiding the fact that the Green Bay Packers defense has been less than stellar for the first month of the season. There have been bright spots, but there are also some disturbing trends developing and if the Packers want to make the postseason for the sixth straight year, they need to fix the problems on defense quickly.
After surrendering over 250 rushing yards in a 38-17 win over the Bears last Sunday, the Packers (2-2) will welcome the Minnesota Vikings and new starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to Lambeau Field for a critical NFC North showdown. The Vikings (2-2) are coming off an impressive 41-28 win over the Atlanta Falcons and in Bridgewater’s first career start he threw for 317 yards and completed 19-of-30 passes, but most importantly, he threw no interceptions.
With Bridgewater under center and a solid running game even without Adrian Peterson, the Vikings offense looks much more dangerous than expected at the start of the season. Bridgewater is definitely an upgrade over Matt Cassel and the rookie has weapons in the passing game such as Cordarrelle Patteron, Greg Jennings and Jarius Wright.
Overall, the Vikings rank 21st in total offense through four games, but are still eighth in the NFL in rushing yards with 539 (134.7 YPG) and ninth in the NFL with 4.6 yards per carry. Minnesota will hand the ball to a pair of runners; Matt Asiata (47 rushes, 159 yards, 3.4 YPC) and Jerick McKinnon (23, 142, 6.2). Each will get a chance to run against a porous Green Bay defense that is last in the league in rush yards allowed.
Defensively, the Packers will have their work cut out for them again this week, so along those lines here are five keys to shutting down the Vikings offense.
1. Contain the ground game:
The Packers cannot allow the Vikings to come in and run the ball the way they did against the Falcons. With Peterson out, the Packers should be able to slow the Minnesota running game enough to force Bridgewater to take more of the game on his shoulders. It’s a bit much to expect Green Bay to completely shut down the Vikings running game but holding them under four yards a carry will be important. The Packers can’t allow Minnesota to pound the ball and keep Aaron Rodgers on the sideline, while at the same keeping Bridgewater in manageable down and distances.
2. Play Nick Perry and Mike Pennel more on run downs:
Julius Peppers has played well for the Packers, particularly when it comes to pass rushing but he and Clay Matthews have both had issues setting the edge. That’s where Perry comes in — the 2012 first round pick does as good a job as anyone on the roster of setting the edge and should be given more snaps to help improve an ailing run defense. Perry is also a solid pass rusher so he won’t hurt Green Bay on pass plays either. Something needs to change for the run defense to improve and Perry can help. Pennel is another big body that should be able to help against the run. LeTroy Guion has been a disappointment, so why not give Pennel more snaps at nose tackle after he had two tackles a week ago.
3. Amp up the pressure on Bridgewater:
Through four games, the Packers have just six sacks. Those numbers are not bad by any means but they aren’t great either. Getting pressure hasn’t always been the issue, part of the problem is just not being able to finish. Bridgewater is not super athletic, but he is good enough to avoid pressure and run a bit if needed. Green Bay will need to watch the scrambling but they also need to get him to the ground. A three or four sack night would go a long way towards securing a victory on Thursday night.
4. Capitalize on rookie mistakes:
Bridgewater played well a week ago but every rookie quarterback is going to make mistakes, especially one making his first career start on the road. Mark my words, Bridgewater will give Green Bay opportunities for interceptions and it will be up to the Packers to take advantage of them.
5. Shut down the screens:
One thing the Vikings did to get Bridgewater comfortable against the Falcons was throw lots or screens. They are easy, safe throws and with Patterson and Wright, they have the potential to go for big yardage. Containing the screen game will be key Green Bay and a big part of that is tackling. Expect to see a lot of three safety looks with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and also Davon House as the nickel corner instead of Casey Hayward due to size and tackling ability. If the Packers can slow down the screens and limit the YAC (yards after catch) it will force Bridgewater to make more conventional throws down the field, into tighter windows. Bridgewater is accurate but lacks some arm strength, so it will be important for Green Bay to make him test his arm.
For more coverage leading up to the Packers-Vikings game keep following the Packers Guru Blog. Tomorrow, the Packers Guru will make five bold predictions for Thursday night’s game. There will also be a breakdown of the Packers offense against the Minnesota defense.