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Minnesota's Front Four Will Provide Big Test


As Green Bay's offense focuses on staying in manageable down-and-distance situations on Monday night in Minnesota, establishing the run will be critical, and that challenge will come against the stingiest rushing defense in the NFL over the past three-plus seasons.

Since 2006, the Vikings have allowed 3,676 rushing yards (72.1 per game), the fewest in the NFL over that span. The opponents' average of 3.1 yards per carry is also the lowest in the league. The Vikings have been a little more vulnerable against the run thus far this season, currently ranking 12th in the NFL with an average of 92 yards allowed per game. They are coming off their best performance of the season, a season-low 58 yards allowed on 26 carries (2.2 avg.) in their home opener last Sunday against San Francisco.

"Running the football is so important every game," Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. "Sometimes you're going to run it more than others, no doubt about it. But you have to be able to run the football week in and week out.

"Ryan (Grant) has good numbers against the Vikings. Their run defense has been outstanding for going on three years now. But it's part of the game. It's something we're going to have to do, especially on the road. You can't have these guys, they're an edge defense, you don't want them teeing off on you all day, running up the field."

Minnesota's run defense is anchored by veteran defensive tackles Pat Williams and Kevin Williams, who have been named to the Pro Bowl each of the last three seasons. During that span, the Vikings became the first team since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger to rank first in the league against the run in three consecutive seasons.

"Pat is real instinctive and a real smart player," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "He's been around awhile. He understands blocking schemes. He plays off blocks well. He reads the backfield action well. He's very good.

"Then Kevin Williams is a load. He's a good football player. He's got good pass-rush skill. He's a big man and he's powerful. They're two very good defensive tackles."

Add in Pro Bowl defensive end Jared Allen, whose 59.5 sacks since 2004 are the most by any player in the league, and defensive end Ray Edwards, who ranks second on the team with 20 tackles and 1.5 sacks, and it's quite a foursome.

"They've got talent and they've got tons of it," guard Daryn Colledge said. "They've got three Pro Bowlers and the only reason Ray Edwards isn't one is he is on that line. They've got quality up front. They've got linebackers who move. They play physical. They've got way too much talent. I've got to check the books to figure out how they got it all."

The Packers were able to generate some production on the ground last season against Minnesota, highlighted by Grant's 92-yard output on 12 carries (7.7 avg.) in the season-opening 24-19 win over the Vikings on Monday Night Football. Grant's night included a 57-yard run midway through the fourth quarter, the longest run the Minnesota defense allowed all season.

Grant had another solid effort in the Packers' 28-27 loss at the Metrodome in Week 10, posting 75 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries (4.7 avg.). Combine that with his 119-yard performance in 2007 vs. Minnesota, and Grant has 286 yards on 53 carries (5.4 avg.) with two touchdowns in three games against the Vikings as the feature back.

"We've hit a couple of big runs on them," Philbin said. "I'm sure they are sitting over there coaching, 'Jeez, if we had better gap control and those things, that 57-yarder would have been a 3-yarder.'

"I don't know that it's one specific play that we have hit against them. It's having the right play called, maybe they weren't in the right gap, maybe we blocked it real well, break a tackle, those types of things."

Grant's 100-yard game against Minnesota in '07 was the last time the Vikings defense has allowed a running back to rush for 100 yards, a streak of 26 consecutive games, second only to Baltimore's string of 38 straight games without a back picking up 100 yards.

Since 2006, the Vikings have only allowed a team to rush for 120-plus yards seven times, and the Packers have done it twice, first with 120 yards on 32 carries in the '07 game at Lambeau Field, and then 139 yards on 27 attempts in the '08 season opener.

"As you grow up in coaching, you hear a lot of different things," Philbin said. "Obviously you want to expose weaknesses but you've got to attack strengths sometimes in the game plan. I think their run defense speaks for itself. It's been good for a long time. At certain points in different ballgames we've had some success against these guys.

{sportsad300}"Sometimes they are a type of defense where you're probably not going to get 4, 5, 6, 4, 5 (yards). You might be getting 1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 19, 20. I think that might be the case with the way they play. There has to be some level of patience in there."

Continuing that success on the ground will be imperative in Monday night's contest, especially with better results on first down. Of Green Bay's 37 first-down runs this season, 20 have gone for two yards or less, which puts them in more challenging distances on second and third down situations, something they are looking to avoid in a hostile environment at the Metrodome.

The importance of getting positive yardage on the opening two downs is evident when you look at the Packers' success on third down. They have converted 12-of-36 (33.3 percent) overall, but when they are in third-and-seven or less, their conversion rate takes a sizeable jump at 10-of-13 (76.9 percent).

"Normal down-and-distance has been a big theme for us this week," Philbin said. "It would be whoever we were playing, but now that we are going on the road, we're going into an indoor stadium, we're playing a very good football team that has a pass rush, it is easy to emphasize. I think the players can understand why it is so important that we do well."

Exactly who will be starting on the Packers' offensive line on Monday night is still up in the air, as left tackle Chad Clifton was called "at best a game-day decision" by McCarthy on Friday due to an injured ankle. If Clifton is not able to go, Colledge will slide over to left tackle from left guard for the second straight game, lining up across from Allen, with Jason Spitz at left guard and Scott Wells at center.

"Our ability to control the line of scrimmage is going to be a huge impact in the game because we feel like we have some good matchups," Philbin said. "We obviously believe in our skill players. We've got a good quarterback, we've got good receivers, we think we've got good options at tight end, and our backs have been productive in the past.

"But all of that is for naught if we can't get those guys out in space a little bit against their defense. As with most games, it starts up front. You've got to give the skill guys a chance, and then they have to deliver and make some plays on their own."

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