It's rather easy to picture the 2013 Green Bay Packers as the grizzled heavyweight, a pro's pro in the ring who has always taken numerous body blows but now lacks his go-to countermove. He is bruised and beaten, with a stumble in every step, and one more swift punch could easily put him on the canvas.
The rounds in this fight are dwindling. And the right hand is still unavailable.
If ever the Packers (5-5) needed to launch one more counter offensive, it would probably be Sunday, when the 2-8 Minnesota Vikings come to Green Bay to face a team that has lost three straight games without Aaron Rodgers—the undeniable eraser of this team's fighting deficiencies.
Rodgers will watch another game from the sidelines. Once again, Scott Tolzien and a suddenly average-looking supporting cast are tasked with keeping Green Bay's season alive just long enough for Rodgers to save.
The Packers, down just one game in the division standings, are still standing. But there's a back-and-forth wobble to this season, and a home loss to the unraveled Vikings Sunday could be the kind of glancing blow that forces the referee to call it a match.
Here's five questions the Packers need to answer in Week 12 to avoid the knockout blow:
1. Will the Run Defense Make Another Stand Against Adrian Peterson?
Despite a nagging groin injury that both he and his coach admitted bothered him last week, Peterson sounded confident he'll play Sunday when I asked him earlier this week if he'd consider sitting out a game to let the injury heal. "If I can roll, I'm rolling," Peterson responded, while also shaking off any idea that he'd sit because the Vikings are 2-8. He believes the Vikings can still qualify for the postseason. He'll need to power any chance of Minnesota staying alive at Lambeau Field. Peterson is coming off back-to-back games in which he's received 20 or more carries but failed to crack 80 rushing yards. And in the first meeting of these two teams, Peterson ran for just 60 yards on 13 carries. The Packers sealed up some leaks in the run game against the Giants, but recent failures against the Bears (171 rushing yards allowed) and Eagles (204) provide frank reminders of how this defense can still be gashed on the ground. The Vikings are still scrambling at quarterback, which makes containing Peterson all the more important. Minnesota probably can't score enough points to win on the road without Peterson playing a major role.
2. Is a Struggling Secondary Prepared to Take on an Underachieving Passing Game?
Let's not confuse Minnesota's trio of Greg Jennings, Jerome Simpson and Cordarrrelle Patterson for the one the Packers just faced in New York. Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and Rueben Randle are a tough matchup for any secondary, and especially for one playing as poorly as Green Bay's. That said, the Packers are still in desperate need of "cleaning up their own house," as Mike McCarthy put it Thursday. This idea applies directly to the secondary, which is still out of place and lacking the communication necessary of a good unit. The last thing the Packers want to see Sunday is Jennings finding his way into the end zone because of a mixup in the back end. And in all reality, Green Bay should feel that its defense against Christian Ponder is a big advantage for the Packers. He'll throw one or two passes a game that shouldn't be thrown. Can the Packers capitalize? Getting back Sam Shields would certainly be a big boost, as would an improved pass rush featuring a healing Clay Matthews. It's time for the back seven to take a major step forward.
3. How Will the Packers Run Against Stacked Fronts?
It's a question the Packers need to find an answer to, and fast. In back-to-back weeks, the Eagles and Giants loaded the box to stop the run, and the result has been just 154 total rushing yards for the Packers, their lowest two-game total of this season. There's no easy solution to beating seven, eight or even nine man fronts. It's simple math. Blocking more defenders than the offense has to counter with just doesn't add up. At some point, the Packers will need to make enough plays in the passing game to force defensive coordinators to reconsider the stacked fronts. But with Tolzien under center, that scenario doesn't look very likely. The Packers are still easier to defend when the running game is stalled and a young quarterback has to make difficult conversions on third down. The Vikings aren't a good defense by any stretch of the imagination, but teams are only averaging 3.9 yards per rush against them this season. Eddie Lacy and James Starks could be in for another long, tough day at the office.
4. Will the Defense or Special Teams Finally Provide a Hand to the Offense?
It was no secret that when Rodgers went out three short weeks ago, the rest of the Packers roster needed to elevate around the new quarterback. Both the defense and special teams needed to increase its impact on games for Green Bay to survive. So far, neither have consistently pulled its weight. The defense finally showed a pulse against the Giants, but Tolzien and the offense were still swimming up current against long fields on seemingly every drive. At this point, any kind of contribution—a turnover in Minnesota's end or a long kick or punt return—would be more than welcomed. Making stops is obviously a win for the defense, and the special teams hasn't made any glaring mistakes. But instead of not losing games, these units need to be the reason for a win.
5. Can Scott Tolzien Limit the Turnovers?
Likely no other question listed above will have as much say in whether the Packers win or lose Sunday than Tolzien's ability (or inability) to avoid turnovers. Without much doubt, Tolzien has played above and beyond anyone's most optimistic projections. Remember, this is a third string quarterback who wasn't drafted and has spent more NFL time on practice squads than active rosters. Still, Tolzien has shown enough—especially attacking downfield—to think that there's a real NFL quarterback in the Wisconsin alum. Now, he needs to clean up the mistakes and keep the football in the right people's hands, which was something McCarthy continually emphasized this week. If Tolzien throws one or fewer picks against the Vikings Sunday, the Packers have a very good chance at keeping their season alive. If he throws two or more, the winning percentage will swing heavily in Minnesota's direction. The one area to watch in this area? How Tolzien handles the blitz, which has played a factor in four of his five giveaways. The Vikings should be expected to bring extra rushers against Tolzien Sunday. It's on the young quarterback to better handle those situations.
Prediction: Green Bay 20, Minnesota 17 (7-3)
Zach Kruse is a 25-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covered prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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