Pregame: Rodgers is without Jennings for first time in Vikings-Packers
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The Minnesota Vikings are calling upon quarterback Christian Ponder in a similar situation as his debut two years ago.
In 2011, Ponder's first start came against the Packers in the Metrodome. The Vikings were 1-5 and looking to provide a spark after a primetime drubbing the week before.
In 2013, the Vikings are 1-5 and going back to Ponder again after their offense was shutout on Monday Night Football with newly-added quarterback Josh Freeman thrown into the mix.
The Vikings' quarterback situation remains the same: unstable. However, one team in this matchup ranks sixth in rushing offense and third in rushing defense - and it's not the Vikings.
Packers rookie running back Eddie Lacy leads the NFL with 301 rushing yards in the last three games. Second on the list is Kansas City's Jamaal Charles with 272 rushing yards in the same stretch, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
After not producing a 100-yard rusher in 44 regular-season games, the Packers have had three in six games this season with Lacy, James Starks and Johnathan Franklin.
With the newly-found running game, the Packers are 3-0 in October and have not allowed more than 17 points in any of those three wins. Conversely, the Vikings have lost two of their last three meetings with the Packers. This will be the fourth time the two teams have met in 11 months.
The Vikings only victory came off the arm of Ponder, who had his best career game in the Dec. 30 win that jettisoned his team into the playoffs. Ponder threw for 234 yards, three touchdowns and a 120.2 passer rating.
Receiver Greg Jennings will face his former team for the first time after switching sides. This week, Jennings attempted to defuse comments he made about quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Packers this offseason. Jennings and Rodgers went back-and-forth through the media this summer, but Jennings claims there's "no hatred" for anyone in the Packers locker room. Rodgers told reporters this week that he's not focused on one particular Vikings player, but added that he hasn't forgotten Jennings' comments.
Rodgers' 12th meeting against the Vikings will be his first without Jennings.
Let's take a look at the five key matchups heading into Sunday night:
For the purple
Capitalize on injuries - The Packers have been decimated by injuries, starting with their defensive unit that ranks 24th against the pass and has just three interceptions (second-lowest in NFL). Packers' linebacker Clay Matthews, their most dynamic pass rusher, is ruled out with a broken thumb. Linebackers Brad Jones (hamstring) and Nick Perry (foot) are listed as questionable. Those three starters account for seven of the Packers' 20 sacks this season. The Vikings offensive line has failed to put together a complete performance since the Sept. 29 win in London, but Sunday night will be inherently easier with Matthews watching in street clothes.
Packers' cornerback Casey Hayward is expected to make his first start of the season after missing six games with a hamstring injury. Hayward's six interceptions last season led all rookies.
However, the Packers seem to be turning into the New England Patriots as injuries have depleted their receiving corps. Yet, their respective star quarterbacks remove the "no" from no-names like Packers receiver Jarret Boykin, who has stepped up for injuries to Randall Cobb and James Jones. Boykin caught eight passes for 103 yards and a touchdown in last week's win over the Cleveland Browns. The Packers will have to rely on Boykin and Myles White, an undrafted rookie out of Louisiana Tech, as their receiving threats to aid Jordy Nelson.
The Vikings' porous secondary won't be tested by Cobb, who was placed on injured reserve-to return, or tight end Jermichael Finley, who is out indefinitely after a scary neck injury last week. But without a decent pass rush, Rodgers could prove to be successful even without receivers as the Vikings secondary has allowed the fourth-most passing yards to quarterbacks this season.
Pass rush and pass pro - The Vikings have won once in the last seven meetings against the Packers. In that Dec. 30 victory, their pass rush was able to bring down Rodgers five times - three by defensive end Everson Griffen. To go along with a Jared Allen sack-fumble, Rodgers still put up 34 points on the road. Allen will need to take advantage of a relatively easy matchup against Packers rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari, who has allowed four sacks in six games this season. Vikings defensive end Brian Robison only has one sack this season, but could get going against Packers second-year right tackle Don Barclay. Barclay has allowed two sacks and eight pressures in his last three games.
Ponder was sacked just once by Matthews, who won't be playing on Sunday night, in the Dec. 30 win. The Vikings offensive line has been a disappointment after looking like one of the better units in the NFL last season. They've allowed 2.5 sacks per game, up from two sacks per game last season, but there's no excuse against a neutered Packers pass rush. The Packers have a tendancy to blitz defensive backs as the position has accounted for six of their 20 sacks.
Run, Adrian, run - In the last three games against the Packers, Peterson has accounted for more than 500 yards and three touchdowns. The NFL MVP has just 23 carries for 90 yards in the last two games, which left a demand at Winter Park this week for giving Peterson the ball more. Not just by media or coaches, but Peterson. When asked if he had to tell coaches, he replied "I don't think I had to." There have been many problems this Vikings team has had to reactively 'rectify,' but giving your best player the ball shouldn't be one of them. Peterson has torched the Packers, much like Rodgers has torched the Vikings. However, the quarterback position dictates the scoreboard much more than any other position in sports. But what Peterson can do is make life easier for Christian Ponder if he gets the 20-plus carries he deserves.
For the green
Discount doublecheck - Rodgers career numbers vs. the Vikings: 25 touchdowns, four interceptions and a 70.9 completion percentage in 11 meetings. Rodgers has won six of his last seven outings against the Vikings, but is 7-4 in his career as he lost three of his first four in 2008 and 2009 (twice at the hands of Brett Favre). Rodgers will be without three of his top four receiving threats on Sunday night, but still has receiver Jordy Nelson, who has caught 11 touchdowns in the last 12 games he's played in. The Vikings have made three egregious drops on interception attempts in the past two games. The only Vikings player to grab a Rodgers interception since 2010: safety Harrison Smith, who will sit out his second straight game after being placed on injured reserve-to return with a foot injury.
No fat cat - Months after photos circulated of Packers rookie running back Eddie Lacy looking on the chunky side at training camp, the Alabama product has more rushing yards than any other running back in the past three weeks. The Packers have consistently given him the ball 22-23 times per game in that stretch and it's paid off as Lacy has averaged just over 100 yards per game. The Vikings haven't had to respect a Packers running back since the days of Ahman Green, but if given the option, I'm sure they'd take Lacy over healthy receiving threats for Rodgers.
Out - RB Matt Asiata (shoulder), TE Rhett Ellison (knee), QB Josh Freeman (concussion), WR Rodney Smith (hip)
Questionable - DT Fred Evans (knee), S Jamarca Sanford (ankle)
Probable - RB Adrian Peterson (hamstring), LB Chad Greenway (wrist), CB A.J. Jefferson (ankle), LT Matt Kalil (back), K Blair Walsh (hamstring)
Out - TE Jermichael Finley (neck), OLB Clay Matthews (thumb), TE Ryan Taylor (knee)
Doubtful - WR James Jones (knee)
Questionable - LB Brad Jones (hamstring), OLB Nick Perry (foot)
Probable - CB Jarret Bush (hamstring), CB Casey Hayward (hamstring), S Jerron McMillian (non-injury), RB James Starks (knee)