Fourteen to zero.
That's the number of times Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sacked versus how many times Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre was sacked in the two meetings in 2009. Two touchdowns worth to nil.
The 14 sacks were a source of embarrassment for the offense and made up a good chunk of the 41 sacks allowed over the season's first nine games. Minnesota did most of the damage with its defensive ends, as the trio of Jared Allen, Ray Edwards and sub Brian Robison combined for 11 of those sacks.
"It was a huge problem," right guard Josh Sitton said. "Nine times out of 10 it comes down to fundamentals, so we have to look at that and not let that happen this year."
The hope is that having different offensive tackles blocking those ends will make a difference. Veteran left tackle Chad Clifton missed both Minnesota games with an ankle injury last year, and replacements Daryn Colledge and T.J. Lang struggled to block Allen, who had 7½ sacks in those two games. Clifton has a solid track record against Allen in his career, holding him to 1 ½ sacks over three meetings prior to last year (two with Minnesota in '08, one with Kansas City in '07).
Also, the Packers will have Bryan Bulaga at right tackle this year (he's slated to start his third straight game in place of the injured Mark Tauscher) instead of Allen Barbre, whose final start for Green Bay was the second Minnesota game last year before Tauscher took over.
The last couple of weeks have been a little rough for Rodgers, as he's absorbed nine sacks, but the quarterback this week complimented the performance of the line, a quiet acknowledgement that he bears some responsibility for the recent sacks by holding the ball too long and not eluding the pressure when he's had the chance.
"I like the way our line is playing," Rodgers said. "Bryan could be entering his third start at tackle, Chad is healthy, and the three interior guys are playing as good as they've played here."
Minnesota has a surprisingly low total of just six sacks through five games this season, with the trio of ends combining for 3½. Whether that means there's a blueprint out there for how to block them, or they're simply ready to bust loose remains to be seen.
But with the Packers' struggles on third down the past couple of games – converting just 5-of-26 against Washington and Miami – the last thing the offense needs is more sacks that create long down-and-distance situations. Fix the sacks and third downs could improve as well.
"Negative yardage plays are always going to put you in difficult situations, and we've had too many of those," Rodgers said. "I think we've had 16 third-and-11-plusses, and those are tough to convert.
"We need to try and avoid those negative yardage plays that put us in a hole last year, because we were having to convert some third downs that are tough to convert. We need to find a way to block those guys up, I need to get the ball out of my hand, and hopefully keep those sticks moving this week."
On the flip side, the Packers have to find a way to get to Favre. He's as good as there is at reading a blitz and releasing the ball before the pressure can get to him, but the zero sacks in 59 pass attempts last season hurt the defense's chances of disrupting Favre's rhythm.
"We know it's definitely a reason why we didn't win," defensive end Ryan Pickett said. "You have to hit Brett. You look at all the teams that beat the Vikings (last year), and it all came down to the same thing. They all got pressure on him, so we realize we do have to get pressure on him. We have to make it uncomfortable for him."
Indeed, when the Vikings lost three of their final five regular-season games a year ago, Favre was sacked a total of 10 times in those contests. This year he's been sacked seven times over Minnesota's last two defeats, to Miami and the New York Jets.
A healthy Clay Matthews would go a long way toward pressuring Favre. Despite missing last week's game against Miami, and the conclusion of the Washington game, with a hamstring injury, Matthews still leads the league with 8½ sacks. He has been limited in practice both days so far this week and appears to have a decent chance of playing.
"He's leading the league in sacks for a reason," defensive end Cullen Jenkins said. "Him being out there helps the whole defense out."
As frustrating as it was to not sack Favre last year, however, the defense can't get so distracted by that as to compromise other defensive responsibilities. The Packers effectively contained running back Adrian Peterson last season, holding him to a modest 152 yards on 50 carries in the two games (3.0 per rush).
Now the trick is to maintain that stoutness up front but still get to the quarterback when needed.
"I don't know if we have to sack him to win, but it's obviously something we'd like to do," Jenkins said. "It's something you have to play within the defense too. You can't just go out there and make things happen. You have to make sure you're playing within the scheme. If we get the run stopped and force them into passing downs, I'm confident we'll be able to get pressure on him."
The right decision
While gathering information about his options, linebacker Nick Barnett contemplated for more than a week whether he should continue to play with his injured wrist or have season-ending surgery. While he admitted to being on the verge of gutting it out, the more he talked to doctors the more the long-term issues of permanent damage to his wrist and potential loss of function in his hand led him to have the surgery and shut it down.
"If it would have been my left hand, to be honest with you, I would have played with it," Barnett said. "But being right-handed, for the rest of my life it was going to be kind of hard to not use my right hand the way you need to use it."
Barnett explained that a tendon in his wrist had detached from the bone and it needed to be repaired. Even as the surgery was being done, there was a chance his season wouldn't be over, but it didn't work out that way.
"We kind of had a plan where we were hoping for the best, that they were going to go in and scope it to see how it looked," he said. "If it was intact just enough they would have pinned it together and I would have been able to come back in a couple weeks. But it was a little bit worse than we thought, but not bad in the fact that it was in perfect condition to be fixed, so we got it fixed."
The length of time Barnett will have to wear a cast, followed by the rehab time needed before he could bang the wrist around in a game, prompted the move to injured reserve following the surgery. He's confident the wrist will be good as new by next season, and most important, he won't have to worry about whether he can play catch with his two sons in the backyard down the road.
"The best decision was to fix it," Barnett said.
Counting on him
Receiver Donald Driver rarely misses practice, so the fact that he has sat out two days in a row this week is an indication his quadriceps injury is legitimately bothering him. The injury cropped up in practice last week and then was aggravated somewhat in the Miami game.
But Driver, who hasn't missed a game due to injury since Week 2 of 2003 when he hurt his neck, insists he'll play on Sunday. The only other game Driver has missed dating back to midway through the 2001 season was when he was a healthy scratch in the 2007 regular-season finale to rest up for the playoffs. He has played in 140 of the last 142 regular-season games and 149 of 151 including playoffs.
"If you've seen my history, I'm going to play," Driver said. "You don't have to worry about that part of it. I'm feeling better. It's one of those things where you get banged up and you feel like you can still (practice), but the organization is going to do what's best for you. They realized I need rest for it to be ready for Sunday."
Head Coach Mike McCarthy suspected Driver would practice in at least some capacity on Friday.
"He tells me he's going to be ready, and I trust Donald," McCarthy said. "We'll see where he is tomorrow. Knowing his history, he'll probably want to get some work tomorrow."
More on injuries
While Matthews remained limited in practice for the second straight day, four players on the Packers' injury report were upgraded.
Clifton (knee) and Jenkins (hand) both went from limited to full participation, while safety Nick Collins (knee) and linebacker A.J. Hawk (groin) were limited after sitting out on Wednesday.
Linebacker Brandon Chillar (shoulder) was limited for the second straight day but could be on track to play for the first time since Week 3. McCarthy said Chillar is "making progress" and thought he had a good practice Thursday.
Tauscher also is making progress, practicing in pads on a limited basis to get used to a shoulder harness he's now wearing. McCarthy said Tauscher is between questionable and doubtful for this week as he works to regain full strength and stability in his shoulder.
Cornerback Charles Woodson (toe) was downgraded from limited to did not participate, but McCarthy said he was excused from practice for a personal matter. Backup offensive lineman Marshall Newhouse was added to the injury report with a back injury and sat out practice, but McCarthy didn't seem concerned it was a major injury.
Linebacker Brady Poppinga (knee), who has been ruled out for this week along with defensive end Mike Neal (shoulder), had arthroscopic knee surgery earlier this week but "they found a little more than we expected," McCarthy said. So a long-term diagnosis on Poppinga is still forthcoming.
Additional coverage – Oct. 21