Vikings' Big Plays Haunt Defense Again

In many ways, the second meeting this season with the Minnesota Vikings went much like the first. The Packers played from behind most of the contest. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sacked too often while his counterpart, Brett Favre, played practically mistake-free. And the Packers had some chances in their second-half comeback attempts they let slip away. But the similarities didn’t end there.

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Vikings WR Percy Harvin scores on a 51-yard TD reception in the third quarter on Sunday at Lambeau Field.

In many ways, the second meeting this season with the Minnesota Vikings went much like the first.

The Packers played from behind most of the contest. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sacked too often while his counterpart, Brett Favre, played practically mistake-free. And the Packers had some chances in their second-half comeback attempts they let slip away.

But the similarities didn't end there.

Heading into last week's rematch, defensive coordinator Dom Capers lamented that in the first meeting, the Vikings struck on four big plays of 20-plus yards, totaling 124 of their 334 yards of offense.

On Sunday, that penchant for giving up the explosive play to Minnesota bit Green Bay again, as three pass plays and two runs for 20-plus accounted for 169 of the Vikings' 355 yards, or nearly half of their production on less than 10 percent (five of 60) of the snaps.

"It was kind of the mirror of the first game," Capers said. "We have to take away a few of those to where we don't give up big chunks."

Add in a 19-yard pass to convert a third-and-17, plus kickoff returns of 77 and 48 yards and a punt return for 20, and there were just too many explosive gains to overcome.

To recap, Minnesota's five big plays from scrimmage came (in order) on a 20-yard catch-and-run by running back Chester Taylor, a 33-yard rush by Adrian Peterson, a 51-yard TD catch by Percy Harvin, a 21-yard run by Peterson, and a 44-yard gain on a screen pass by Peterson.

Interestingly, the two long runs by Peterson - his only two runs longer than 12 yards in 50 carries against the Packers this season - didn't prove costly. The Packers got caught bringing a corner blitz on the back side on both runs and Peterson took advantage, but Green Bay eventually stopped the Vikings on both of those drives.

On some of the others, though, the timing and results couldn't have been worse.

Coming out after halftime, the Packers were down 17-3 and the Vikings got the ball first. A holding penalty on Minnesota set up a third-and-17 and a great chance for Green Bay to get off the field quickly.

But Favre found Bernard Berrian over the middle for 19 yards to convert, and the Packers defense was clearly deflated.

"We weren't real smart on that," Capers said. "We need to get back to where those sticks are and make them throw the ball underneath and break up on it, rather than getting influenced by crossing routes."

Unfortunately, one mistake led quickly to another, as on the very next snap Favre fired to Harvin with cornerback Charles Woodson and safeties Nick Collins and Atari Bigby surrounding him. Harvin came down with the ball, the three Green Bay defenders collided and knocked each other down, and Harvin continued into the end zone for a touchdown and 24-3 lead.

"Most quarterbacks don't throw the ball in there," Capers said. "You've got three guys around him. He sticks the ball in there, we knock each other off and he goes for the touchdown. We've got to find a way to not give up those big plays."

The sequence - going from a third-and-17 to allowing 70 yards and a TD in two plays - is symbolic of the inconsistencies that have plagued the Packers in all three phases all season. Head Coach Mike McCarthy said on Monday the team needs to focus on being more consistent, and that will come from reacting to the bad plays, and the good ones, with steadiness.

"You're going to have some plays that don't go very well, number one," McCarthy said. "Number two, you need to respond from those. We had a big third-down conversion and they convert and we kind of drop off a little bit, and the next play it's another big play. We've had a number of those this year."

Minnesota's last big play was a killer as well. Having just missed a 51-yard field goal that would have pulled them within two points, the Packers trailed 31-26 with 5:38 left, needing a stop to get one final chance at a go-ahead score.

But on the first play following the missed field goal, Favre dumped a screen pass to the left to Peterson, who took off up the sideline for 44 yards to the Green Bay 15. Three plays later the Vikings were in the end zone, sealing the game.

"We were really making a comeback offensively, and that screen play really hurt when it happened because I thought we had a little momentum going in the game," Capers said. "We have to keep that momentum going. You don't want to give it back to them."

{sportsad300}The good news is that surrendering big plays hasn't been a trend for Capers' defense in 2009, except against Minnesota. In only one of the other five games did the Packers allow more than three explosive gains of 20 yards or more.

That came in the season opener against Chicago, when the Bears had six, but only scored one touchdown. In that game, the red-zone defense carried the day, just as it did against Detroit and Cleveland when the Packers allowed just three points over two contests.

So overall, Capers is by no means discouraged despite the frustrations with Minnesota's big plays. With his 3-4 scheme, the Packers currently rank tied for fourth in the league in yards allowed, up from 20th last year.

Key to that has been a No. 3 ranking in yards allowed per rush (3.5), up from 26th and more than a full yard better than last year (4.6). The efforts against Peterson in particular have been notable, because taking out his two long runs against blitzes, he had very similar numbers in the two contests (25 carries for 55 yards on Oct. 5; 23 for 43 on Sunday).

The fact that the Packers have faced three of the top four rushers in the league in four of their seven games (Peterson twice, plus the Rams' Steven Jackson and the Bengals' Cedric Benson) yet still have that ranking says something about where this defense could be headed.

But as Minnesota showed, it's still a work in progress.

"I see a lot of things that I'm encouraged by," Capers said. "I just know we have to be more consistent if we want to be a real top-notch defense and reach our potential."

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