The Minnesota Vikings will be invading Lambeau Field Sunday, and naturally the first thing that comes to mind when you look ahead to the annual meetings with the Packers' neighbors to the west is their high-powered offense.
2004's Vikings are no different, spearheaded by an aerial attack of Daunte Culpepper and his arsenal of receivers and a four-headed monster of running back options. However, with the first of their two clashes this season just days away, Packers' GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman is also concerned with a group of four men on the other side of the football.
Sherman believes that a key to the game will be the match-up between his vaunted offensive line and the front four of the Vikings' defensive line.
The emergence of Minnesota's line, which consists of tackles Chris Hovan and Mike Williams on the inside along with ends Kenny Mixon and rookie first-round draft choice Kenechi Udeze has played a big role in the defense that ranks fourth in the NFC against the run and is picking up two and a half sacks per game.
"I think they've really improved their defense," Sherman said, giving a scouting report during his mid-week press conference. "They've done a great job drafting. Udeze is a good addition. Their first-round pick has done a real good job for them. I'm real impressed with his ability not only to play the run, but also to play the pass. He's pretty adept at both areas. Kevin Williams I think is one of the better defensive linemen in the National Football League going into his second season. I think Kenny Mixon coming back solidifies their defensive end position on both sides, both ends are pretty stout against the run. I think that's very challenging."
The Packers' head man also gave a good review of the play of his offensive linemen that will be facing that front all afternoon Sunday. From the job Grey Ruegamer has done as a replacement for the injured Mike Flanagan, to the impressive recovery tackle Mark Tauscher has made from a torn ACL in 2002, to the continued steady play of Chad Clifton, Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle, Sherman is happy with what those five have given him and the team this season.
"I think Ruegamer has made steady progress and really has made a lot of improvement," said Sherman. "He's come farther than I anticipated him to come at this point.
"I believe that Tauscher is having his best season this year. To appreciate Tauscher, you have to understand what he went through last year playing on that knee and not fully recovered until mini-camp in May or June this year. He's playing much-improved football. Clifton is doing a nice job for us. Marco and Wahle are doing what they do - I'm pleased with the group."
Tauscher, who agreed with his coach that 2004 has been his best season to date, also agreed with Sherman that he and his linemates will have their hands full with the Vikings' front.
"They've got a good front four. Hovan, Williams, Mixon, and their rookie - they're good," said the fifth-year pro. "It's always a challenge; we always have good games (with them). Usually when we're effective running the ball against them, we have a good chance to win, and when we don't, we lose. That's kind of the recipe to beat these guys and that's what we're going to try to get done."
Wahle echoed the statements of his coach and fellow lineman in giving his assessment of this week's opponent along the line of scrimmage.
"They're the strength of their defense by far," Wahle said. "They're very, very tough - they play an attacking defense. Their first step is always upfield attacking our guys. A lot of them are first-round picks, they're very, very talented, and they play hard. It will be a good battle. They seem to be mixing up their fronts a lot this year. It's going to be key for us to be able to recognize what's going on and be on the same page."
While getting the running game going and dominating the point of attack is definitely their main goal, Ruegamer pointed out that won't be the offensive line's only job on Sunday. They will also be working to give the defense a break and keep that high-octane Viking offense looking on from the sideline.
"You want to keep their offense off the field," said the center. "They're an explosive offense, and if we can get some drives going, run the ball, score some points, we'll see how it ends up at the end of the game."
However it ends up, rest assured that the battle between these two lines is going to be a good one and have a heavy impact on the contest.