Preview: Odds stacked against Vikings as Christian Ponder era begins
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Who: Green Bay Packers (6-0) at Minnesota Vikings (1-5).
When: 3:15 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Mall of America Field at the Metrodome (capacity: 64,111), Minneapolis.
Line: Packers by 10.
Coaches: Vikings -- Leslie Frazier (1st year, 4-8); Packers -- Mike McCarthy (6th year, 61-37).
Series: Packers lead 51-48-1.
Last meeting: QB Aaron Rodgers threw for 301 yards and four touchdowns as the Packers pounded the Vikings 31-3 on Nov. 21 at the Metrodome, completing a season sweep and sealing coach Brad Childress' firing the next day.
At stake: The Packers can take another step towards an unbeaten season. An unlikely upset over their greatest rival would give the Vikings quite a start to QB Christian Ponder's career as the starter.
Vikings: CB Chris Cook (not injury related) is out following his arrest early Saturday on two domestic assault charges. SS Jamarca Sanford (concussion), C John Sullivan (concussion) and CB Antoine Winfield (neck) are doubtful. WR Percy Harvin (ribs), RT Phil Loadholt (knee), LB Kenny Onatolu (hamstring), LB E.J. Henderson (knee) and LG Steve Hutchinson (knee) are probable, although Henderson is expected to play a reduced role and Harvin may be limited for the second straight week as well.
Packers: LT Chad Clifton (knee/hamstring), LB Jamari Lattimore (shoulder), LB Frank Zombo (knee) and DE Mike Neal (knee) are out. CB Sam Shields (concussion) is doubtful. DT Ryan Pickett (concussion) is questionable. S Morgan Burnett (hand), G/T Ray Dominguez (not injury related), LB Clay Matthews (quadriceps), T Marshall Newhouse (not injury related), TE Andrew Quarless (knee), RG Josh Sitton (knee) and CB Charles Woodson (foot/knee) are probable.
Five things to watch
Pressure on Ponder: The only other first-round draft picks the Vikings have spent on quarterbacks, Tommy Kramer (1977) and Daunte Culpepper (1999), yielded 350 touchdowns, nearly 49,000 passing yards and four Pro Bowls. But both players had their issues and were a combined 4-5 in postseason games, neither taking the franchise to a Super Bowl. Ponder's first start ushers in a new era, roughly six months after his selection with the No. 12 overall draft pick was met with boos at the team's draft party and one week after he replaced veteran Donovan McNabb in the fourth quarter of a blowout loss at Chicago. Where it ends remains to be seen, but Ponder's immediate task is taking on Packers DC Dom Capers' exotic defense -- one that brings pressure from all angles but also has struggled to defend the pass this season. The best attribute Ponder owns at this stage is an ability to feel pressure, extend plays with movement and keep his eyes down the field. It's on coaches to get him in some sort of rhythm in the face of blitzes they know are coming.
Won't get out of jail free: Cook had been playing better than anyone in the secondary since he moved into the lineup for Winfield two weeks ago. Now he's behind bars and facing a potential felony charge that could impact his future with the team -- and puts the Vikings in a major bind at an already-depleted position. Winfield didn't do much of anything in practice on Friday and is expected to sit out for a third straight week. That likely would force the Vikings to fill out their base defense with CB Asher Allen, who gave up nine catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns in 15 targets against the Packers last season. Perhaps worse, CB Marcus Sherels -- who has played only 19 NFL snaps on defense -- likely would be on the field most of the game as the nickel and against a Packers team that uses three wideouts in its base offense. In dime, the Vikings would have to play one of two rookies, CB Brandon Burton or FS Mistral Raymond, who haven't even been active yet this season. Plus, SS Tyrell Johnson is expected to start in place of Sanford after struggling in fill-in duty the first six weeks. That's not the crew coaches would prefer against a quarterback who is playing on another planet right now.
Bring the heat: For the second straight week, the best matchup in the Vikings' favor is RE Jared Allen and LE Brian Robison against the Packers' tackles. They have to hope that duo does more damage than in last week's disappointing effort against the Bears. Rodgers, who has been sacked 12 times this season, is one of the NFL's best against the blitz. So, generating pressure with a four-man rush is even more important for a Vikings defense that usually relies on that anyway. Newhouse will start in place of Clifton, whose absence has impacted this series before. Can Allen have a repeat of the teams' matchup at the Dome in October 2009, when he had 4½ sacks on a day the Vikings pressured Rodgers 19 times and hit him 10 with Daryn Colledge filling in for Clifton at left tackle and forgettable Allen Barbre on the right side? Probably not to that degree, but exploiting Newhouse and second-year pro Bryan Bulaga on the edges is the Vikings' best shot at protecting their depleted back end.
On the nose: The Vikings have rushed the ball relatively well in three matchups this season against 3-4 defenses, with HB Adrian Peterson gaining 300 yards on 68 carries (4.4 average) against San Diego, Kansas City and Arizona. But they've yet to face a nose tackle as good as Green Bay's B.J. Raji, who wasn't dominant against the Vikings last season but created some problems against LG Steve Hutchinson and RG Anthony Herrera. Starting bigger C Joe Berger (6-foot-5, 315 pounds) probably won't hurt, although Sullivan had held up OK before struggling against the Bears and then getting concussed. The Packers' No. 5 ranking against the run (82.8 yards per game) is somewhat deceiving, because they're giving up 4.0 yards per carry (16th) and their near-perpetual leads have forced opponents to the air. One of the best things Vikings OC Bill Musgrave can do to help Ponder is establish the running game, setting up the play-action fakes and bootlegs the rookie quarterback can exploit with both his legs and his feet. But that plan is only as good as the line and Peterson can make it.
Stem the tide: The last time the Vikings played at the Metrodome, McNabb was booed throughout a lopsided win over the Cardinals. Clearly, fans have reached their wit's end, and with good reason. Starting Ponder should buy the Vikings some patience, but the atmosphere figures to be tense, with some 20,000 Packers fans rooting for the heavy road favorites. It's been said nearly every week in this space but deserves repeating -- the Vikings must find a way to start fast, get the crowd on their side and tilt the field in their defense's favor. Easier said than done, sure, especially against the Super Bowl champions. But momentum means a lot in the NFL and the Vikings need all they can get.
The Vikings' only real chance is to change the game with turnovers, and they've only succeeded in doing that once all season -- against a far inferior opponent, the Arizona Cardinals, two weeks ago. The guess here is this won't a repeat of last year's debacle at the Dome, but it won't be far off either.
Prediction: Packers 37, Vikings 20.