Pregame: Ponder-Tolzien to lead unique chapter in Vikings-Packers
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The next chapter in the Minnesota Vikings-Green Bay Packers rivalry will be the first since 1992 that doesn't feature either quarterbacks Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers in green and gold.
Quarterback Christian Ponder will start his sixth consecutive regular season Vikings-Packers contest since being drafted in 2011, but is the 14th Vikings' quarterback since 1992 to do so.
What appeared to be another uphill battle at Lambeau Field suddenly became a winnable game with Rodgers on the sideline. Running back Adrian Peterson vows he will play again through an injured groin, much like he did to the tune of 65 rushing yards last week at Seattle.
Peterson racked up more than 500 rushing yards against the Packers in three games last year and will need some of the same magic to overcome Ponder's deficiencies. The Vikings gave Ponder his fifth consecutive start this week over Matt Cassel and Josh Freeman despite his 1-6 record this season. Ponder's also accounted for 13 of the team's 22 turnovers and threw back-to-back fourth-quarter interceptions before his benching last week.
Listed questionable, receiver Greg Jennings (Achilles) also vowed he will play at his former home field in Green Bay. Jennings was a surprising scratch last week after the Vikings had listed him as probable with the injury. In a tumultuous first season since switching sides this offseason, Jennings has more tackles (3) than touchdown catches (2) through Week 11, per ESPN stats.
All the struggles may not matter on Sunday, as the Packers will trot out quarterback Scott Tolzien - who was signed to the Packers' practice squad in September, only to be elevated to starter after injuries to Rodgers and Seneca Wallace. Tolzien has thrown for 619 yards in his two starts (0-2), but has accounted for five interceptions against the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants.
The Vikings have just one defensive turnover in the last six games - an interception by cornerback A.J. Jefferson - even though they opened the season with 12 turnovers in four games. Tolzien should provide the best shot to reverse that trend as they've faced the likes of Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III and Tony Romo recently.
Packers cornerback Micah Hyde earned the starting kick returner job after taking a punt back for a 93-yard touchdown against the Vikings in Week 8. Former receiver Percy Harvin help set up a Seahawks touchdown before halftime last week after a 58-yard kickoff return and the Vikings will be put to the test by Hyde again on Sunday.
Let's take a look at the five key matchups heading into Sunday:
For the purple/gold
Edge pressure - Defensive end Brian Robison is questionable with neck spasms and will likely be a game-time decision on Sunday. If Robison can't play, defensive end Everson Griffen will try to take advantage of replacement tackle Marshall Newhouse, who will start for the injured Don Barclay. Robison abused Barclay in the Oct. 27 loss at the Metrodome and should do the same to his replacement. Griffen isn't much of a dropoff as he spells both Robison and Jared Allen in a rotational role already and will be key in pass deflections and forcing errant throws from Tolzien.
If the Vikings can get the Packers' offense into obvious passing third downs, that will go a long way toward winning the game. In the previous loss, with Rodgers, the Packers didn't face anything longer than a 3rd-and-6 until the third quarter. That's manageable enough for Tolzien, who can be taken advantage of if he has to stretch the field. Cornerback Josh Robinson (chest) will miss his first game of the season after fracturing his sternum last week. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes will likely start with cornerback Marcus Sherels in the slot.
Play-action pass - Like any other defense, the Packers will likely give the Vikings continuous single-high safety looks with eight to nine men in the box. The Vikings' limited downfield passing success has usually come off the back of play-action. Ponder's best two-throw stretch on Sunday came off play-action passes. He hit tight end John Carlson for 20 yards before connecting with receiver Jarius Wright on the 38-yard touchdown. On the next drive, the Vikings called four straight run plays and Ponder never continued his rhythm as he threw from the shotgun on three of his next four passes. Center John Sullivan (concussion) will return after he cleared the NFL concussion protocol on Thursday night and practiced Friday.
Off-tackle - Peterson was held to around two yards per carry off-tackle against the Seahawks. Left tackle Matt Kalil and right tackle Phil Loadholt both struggled against the Seahawks' ends and will need to seal the edge better for Peterson on Sunday. The Seahawks play a unique style of 4-3 defense, with a heavy DT playing end (Red Bryant) to stop the run. The Packers' 3-4 defense provides a little more finesse to stop, than the Seahawks' power. Linebacker Clay Matthews (thumb) will play with a smaller cast than he's sported recently. The Packers will be without linebacker Nick Perry (foot) and defensive tackle Johnny Jolly is questionable with a groin ailment. Peterson had just 13 carries in the Oct. 27 loss against the Packers and will likely come close to doubling that number on Sunday.
For the green/gold
Downhill running - Linebacker Erin Henderson (personal) will not make the trip to Lambeau Field for Sunday's game, meaning linebacker Audie Cole will get his first career start. The second-year pro also plans to call and relay the plays to his defensive teammates as the middle linebacker. Rookie linebacker Michael Mauti will likely rotate in with Cole here and there. Cole plans to stay in the Vikings' nickel packages with linebacker Chad Greenway.
Packers running back Eddie Lacy has been held to 3.0 yards per carry or fewer in the last two games as opponents stack the box with Rodgers out. Cole hopes to keep that streak going as he steps into a defense that held Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch to 54 yards on 17 carries. Lynch ended up with three touchdowns, but Lacy won't have the one-yard touchdowns set up for him by an excellent passing game. The Packers' best bet on Sunday is to get Lacy going early, wear down an injury-prone defense so Tolzien can pick them apart late with short, low-risk throws.
Scheme - A practice squad quarterback in Tolzien has still thrown for 619 yards on 73 attempts (8.5 yards/att.) against starting NFL defenses the past two weeks. The Vikings currently rank 29th in the NFL after allowing 280 passing yards per game through Week 11 as they have allowed: a league-leading 23 passing touchdowns through the air and two quarterbacks (Cam Newton, Russell Wilson) to hit their career-high passer rating this season. Wilson reached 151.4 last week.
Behind one of the best quarterbacks, Packers coach Mike McCarthy has developed one of the better passing systems in the NFL that rivals the New England Patriots in how it turns no-name receivers into regulars. Undrafted free agent Myles White caught five passes in last month's meeting, while receiver Jarret Boykin averaged 17.8-yards-per-catch. Without Rodgers, those numbers are sure to go down, but Tolzien has shown he's capable of flourishing in the system. It'll likely come down to whether or not the Vikings can capitalize on Tolzien's inexperienced-driven mistakes, much like the Giants and Eagles did to recently grab wins against the Packers.
Out - TE Kyle Rudolph (foot), CB Josh Robinson (chest), LB Erin Henderson (personal)
Questionable - WR Greg Jennings (Achilles), RB Adrian Peterson (groin), DE Brian Robison (neck), LB Michael Mauti (knee), C John Sullivan (concussion)
Probable - TE Rhett Ellison (ankle), RB Matt Asiata (shoulder), DT Fred Evans (knee), DT Letroy Guion (chest), QB Christian Ponder (shoulder), LB Chad Greenway (wrist), DE Jared Allen (back)
Out - RT Don Barclay (knee), CB Casey Hayward (hamstring), CB James Nixon (knee), LB Nick Perry (foot), QB Aaron Rodgers (collarbone)
Doubtful - DT Johnny Jolly (groin)
Questionable - CB Sam Shields (hamstring)
Probable - CB Micah Hyde (groin), LB Clay Matthews (thumb), DT Ryan Pickett (knee), DE/LB Mike Neal (abdomen), LB Mulumba (ankle), OL Dietrich-Smith (knee)