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Updated: January 3rd, 2013 10:24pm
Zulgad: Slowing Packers' passing attack no easy task for Vikings' secondary

Zulgad: Slowing Packers' passing attack no easy task for Vikings' secondary

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Alan Williams made it sound so simple.

The Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator threw around terms this week like "plaster coverage" and talked about not turning receivers loose.

All of this makes perfect sense and seems extremely logical when you are putting together a plan to slow Pro Bowl quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers receivers.

Executing it on game day?

That is another matter.

When the Vikings face the Packers in a first-round playoff game Saturday night at Lambeau Field - the second time the teams will meet in less than a week - Rodgers will have all four of his top wide receivers for the first time in three months.

Randall Cobb will return from a sprained ankle. Jordy Nelson appears as if he will be good to go after injuring his knee last Sunday at the Metrodome. Greg Jennings and James Jones, who led the NFL with 14 touchdown catches this season, complete the foursome.

Cobb, who did not play last Sunday in the Packers' loss to the Vikings, led Green Bay with 80 catches and 954 yards receiving this season.

Then there is tight end Jermichael Finley, who finished third on the Packers with 61 catches for 667 yards and two touchdowns and causes matchup nightmares for defenses.

But it all starts with Rodgers.

Last Sunday, Rodgers hit on 28 of 40 passes for 365 yards with four touchdowns and a 131.8 passer rating. That marked the eighth game this season in which Rodgers had a rating above 100 and the sixth time in which he had thrown for more than 300 yards. Rodgers finished first in the NFL this season with a 108.0 rating and 39 touchdowns passes.

He also left many a frustrated safety and cornerback looking for a way to slow him.

This Saturday the Vikings will often employ five, and sometimes six defensive backs, in trying to stop Rodgers from getting his first playoff win at Lambeau Field.

Vikings cornerback Chris Cook said one issue with Rodgers is that it takes him no time to process what he's seeing.

"We disguise and try to confuse him and try to get him to do what we want him to do but a lot of times he sees it and he knows what's going on," Cook said. "He knows where he wants to go with the ball. I feel that's what separates him from a lot of guys as well as his accuracy and his arm strength."

Not to mention the fact that Rodgers is very elusive. He was sacked five times by the Vikings last Sunday but that figure could have been higher if Rodgers didn't possess the ability to escape pressure and throw on the run.

Vikings safety Jamarca Sanford called Rodgers the best quarterback the Vikings have faced this season because of that ability.

"He's more accurate on the run throwing the ball than he is just sitting in the pocket," Sanford said. "You don't see too many quarterbacks who can run like he can run and throw like he can throw. That's what makes him elite and makes him the best at what he does."

Last Sunday, the Vikings had the advantage of having Rodgers attempt to operate the Packers offense with a crowd that made plenty of noise in an attempt to help the home team. This made it difficult for Green Bay to run its no-huddle offense.

But that won't be an issue on Saturday night at Lambeau Field. Rodgers will have the ability to hush the crowd and increase the chances that the Vikings defense will have issues keeping up.

"That's going to give them an advantage as far as them being able to communicate and get the routes in if they want to check a route or throw a hot read or something," Cook said. "I guess that's an advantage for them, but if we play assignment football I feel like we can do an ample job against them."

The Vikings got a first-hand look at just how efficiently Rodgers can run the no-huddle attack in Green Bay's 23-14 victory on Dec. 2 at Lambeau Field. On the Packers' opening possession, Rodgers led an eight-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 32-yard touchdown pass to Jones. Rodgers completed all four of his passes for 46 yards.

Vikings cornerback A.J. Jefferson said the no-huddle creates issues for the defense.

"It makes us kind of get antsy and make some calls that we wouldn't necessarily make if we got a good look at (the offense)," Jefferson said. "You're not given an opportunity to look at what he's throwing at us and it kind of slows us down."

The Vikings, however, did rebound nicely that day and that first-quarter pass ended up being Rodgers' only touchdown throw.

Of course, in that game the Vikings had a healthy Antoine Winfield. On Saturday, Winfield will be playing with a cast on his broken right hand.

Winfield starts at the left corner and moves inside in the nickel when five defensive backs are employed. Winfield was forced to drop out of last Sunday's game late in the second quarter - he had been wearing a glove and not a cast on the hand - and Rodgers immediately went to work on targeting his replacement, Marcus Sherels.

If the Vikings go to their dime look, and Winfield can play the entire game, that also could put Cook, Jefferson, rookie Josh Robinson and safeties Harrison Smith and Sanford on the field at the same time.

Rodgers is going to know exactly where the weak spots are in that scenario.

Any of the defensive backs who do play will be relied upon to provide "plaster coverage," meaning that as Rodgers buys time with his feet behind the line of scrimmage and receivers try to get open, members of the Vikings' secondary will have to stick with them.

Easy to say and ...

"It's tough," Sanford said. "You cover the guy and then he's sitting right here, and then the next thing you know you takes your eyes off of him, you look back at the quarterback and (the receiver) ran off and went vertical.

"It's like back yard football when you're playing against that guy once he breaks the pocket. Aaron Rodgers can make every throw when he's scrambling. The same throws he can make when he's in the pocket. It's back yard football. It's tough. You're tired as a DB chasing the receiver around. You just have to execute and be ready and be prepared for the scramble." 

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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