CLEMENS: Packers vs. Vikings

Inside moves most important

Mike Clemens
September 15, 2018 - 7:59 pm

Dan Powers/Appleton Post-Crescent via USA TODAY NETWORK

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Green Bay, WI – Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers practiced for the first time this week in preparation for Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field.

The Saturday run-through practice under Mike McCarthy is in helmets and football pants, but no pads. It’s designed to quickly rifle off dozens of plays at a high tempo, line up in a variety of formations, with some on-the-fly substitutions. Think of it as a high speed dress rehearsal, so players understand what units they’re in, and where and when they’re supposed to be during the course of the upcoming game.

It was the first practice of the week for Rodgers, giving him the most amount of time to heal, reduce pain, and reduce swelling in the left knee he sprained last Sunday night against the Chicago Bears, when he awkwardly bent his leg under the weight of Bears defenders.

The Packers will have tested Rodgers for his ability to move about, take note of how much pain the knee is giving him, and then wait until Sunday morning to examine him, and perhaps let him take some early game warm-ups out on the playing field at Lambeau to test the knee out, and see if in fact he can start at noon against the Vikings. He could be out there as early at 10am.

So while the status of Rodgers is the number #1 factor in the game, followed by Kirk Cousins as the new Vikings quarterback, Minnesota running back Delvin Cook, covering Vikes wide receiver Stephan Diggs, I think the top challenge for the Packers to pull off a win over the Vikings (favored by 1 point) is play of Green Bay’s interior offensive line.

Last week the focus was on containing the Bears new outside linebacker #52 Khalil Mack. From the very first snap of the game, the 6-foot-3 252lbs. Mack displayed tremendous strength in his raised forearms, twitch, and the ability to push back veteran right tackle Bryan Bulaga 7 to 8 steps backwards into the Packers backfield as Rodgers stood looking for an open receiver. Bulaga would eventually lose the battle completely, and spend the rest of the night trying to re-think his technique on how to handle Mack, until the linebacker eventually wore out due to a lack of football conditioning by sitting out the Raiders training camp in a contract dispute.

The match up reminded me of a game I covered Oct. 22nd, 2006, in Miami. It was McCarthy’s first season as the Packers head coach, trying to turn around a franchise that had finished 4 – 12 the previous year. Wins were hard to come by that first season under McCarthy as GM Ted Thompson was rebuilding the roster, and plugging gaps with street free agents while drafted rookies continued to develop.

Pro Bowl left tackle Chad Clifton had eaten some bad seafood in Miami the night before, and on the morning of the game against the Dolphins was ruled out with a case of food poisoning. I phoned in a live report to WSSP to studio anchor Cliff Saunders that 2nd year left guard Daryn Colledge would move over to left tackle to replace Clifton.

“Daryn Colledge? Mike, that means he’ll have to go up against Jason Taylor! Colledge is going to get killed,” said Saunders, on the air. Sure enough, in  the opening drives of the game, Colledge was no match for the speed of Taylor coming off the edge from his defensive end spot.    

A young Mike McCarthy, who talked about “body types” and making players “interchangeable” made a creative  and important move. He shifted big, broad shouldered tight end David Martin, from the line of scrimmage, to the Packers backfield, and moved him right over Jason Taylor, and for the rest of the game, the double team on Taylor made him a non-factor.

As I thought about that game in the press box last Sunday night, a few hours before kickoff, as God is my witness, here comes Jason Taylor walking thru the cafeteria area. Jason was there at Lambeau as part of the national radio broadcast team to cover the Packers vs. Bears on Sunday Night Football for Westwood One.

As the Bears/Packers game unfolded, I was stunned McCarthy did little or nothing to adjust to Hurricane Mack. It was either up to Bulaga, or running back Ty Montgomery’s pass protection blocks from the running back position.

Why?

I asked that question of McCarthy the day after the game, with the reference to the 2006 game in Miami, which the Packers went on to win, thanks to the blocking of David Martin, and a sensational 70 - yard dash off the left side by Ahmad Green that had McCarthy’s offensive coordinator, and West Allis native Jeff Jagodzinski jumping for joy down the sidelines. By Week 7, the Packers offensive line and top running back Green had finally broken the code on the new zone blocking scheme that had been installed, and now maybe the turn-around of the franchise was underway.

To my surprise McCarthy remembered everything about that hot day in South Florida, but as for the Bears game on Sunday night, the circumstances were different.

Why didn’t McCarthy shift a tight end like Marcedes Lewis, the 6-foot-6, 267lbs. tight end the Packers brought in from the Jacksonville Jaguars, to line up over Mack, and help Bulaga? As it turned out the 34-year-old Lewis only got 7 snaps in the Bears game.

“Because we had way too many other issues up front, in our interior line against the Bears last night,” replied McCarthy.

He’s right.

The Packers left guard, Lane Taylor, playing through some leg injuries, center Corey Linsley, and right guard Justin McCray were at times overwhelmed with the power, size, and leg strength of the Bears Akiem Hicks, Roy Robertson-Harris, and nose tackle Eddie Goldman, who not only shut down the Packers interior run game, but had a straight shot at Rodgers on passing downs.

It was an odd training camp for the Packers starting offensive line. McCray had been designated as the starting right guard in the spring, after the team moved on from former Saints Jahri Evans after just one season. But injuries in camp to left tackle David Bakhtiari, Lane Taylor, and the rehab of Bulaga (ACL) from last season rendered 4 preseason games without a single snap together for the starting five, in games or even a single practice. The first time the Packers O-line took a snap together in 2018, was the first play from the line of scrimmage during the season opener against Chicago.  

The task against the Vikings interior defensive line Sunday is even tougher. Pro Bowler Bakhtiari has fended off the Vikings outstanding defensive end Everson Griffen in the past. But Lindval Joseph, Danielle Hunter, and former Jets, Seahawks Sheldon Richardson absolutely dominated the 49ers last week, sending two of their offensive lineman to the locker room with injuries, in a 24-16 Week 1 win in Minnesota.

So while we’ll all be waiting to see how Packers receiver Davante Adams (shoulder) deals with Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes, or if Jimmy Graham can shake off double coverage, my eyes those first few snaps will be on the Packers center and two guards, if Aaron Rodgers has any chance of playing through four quarters in hopefully a Green Bay victory – and perhaps a little revenge, for Anthony Barr changing the entire division’s outcome with a single hit on #12 that resulted in the broken collar bone in his throwing arm.