Defense shuts down Peterson, Vikings

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews (52) reacts after stopping Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson (28) in the third quarter during Sunday's game at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn.

MINNEAPOLIS - Mike McCarthy laid down the challenge early last week.

With his team trapped in a three-game losing streak, the Green Bay Packers’ 10th-year head coach had only one request as they traveled to TCF Bank Stadium on Sunday to spar with the NFC North-leading Minnesota Vikings.

“Coach asked everybody to search (within) themselves,” defensive tackle B.J. Raji said. “Sometimes it’s easy to look at the other guys and say, ‘Him, him, him.’ But if you really want to be a good team everyone has to look inward.”

The Packers’ defense answered McCarthy’s call and channeled three weeks of frustration into their best performance in more than a month. Green Bay controlled the trenches and manhandled the Vikings’ front to secure a 30-13 victory in front of 52,529 to retake control of the NFC North.

The locker room tried to limit the distractions after last week’s brutal 18-16 loss to Detroit at Lambeau Field, but the narrative was obvious. How are you going to stop Adrian Peterson? If you couldn’t beat the one-win Lions at home, how do you expect to keep pace with the 7-2 Vikings on the road?

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It started with Peterson. The Packers held him to only 45 yards on 13 carries with only one attempt going for longer than 10 yards. It was the fewest rushing yards the six-time all-pro has had since being limited to only 31 against San Francisco in the regular-season opener.

Safety Morgan Burnett sealed the game late when he forced Peterson’s second fumble of the season with 13:31 left in the fourth quarter and the Packers leading 27-13. After averaging 30 carries per game this season, the Vikings ran the ball only 18 times total Sunday.

It was also Peterson’s lowest yardage output against Green Bay since his rookie season when he put up only 45 yards on 11 carries on Nov. 11, 2007.

“We saw it on TV. ‘They’re not going to be able to AP.’ AP this, AP that,” cornerback Casey Hayward said. “AP is a great player. Nobody has stopped him all year. I don’t think you try to stop him. I think you just have to slow him down, contain him. Hopefully, he doesn’t bust out on one of those big runs. I think that’s what we did this week. We contained him.”

In holding the NFL’s top rushing offense to 94 yards, defensive coordinator Dom Capers was able to unleash his pass rush. His front, which hadn’t recorded a sack since before the bye week, poured pressure on Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who was sacked six times and hit on 10 occasions.

Some things were new. Defensive end Datone began standing up as an outside linebacker and had perhaps his best game as a pro with two sacks and four quarterback hits. Others were simply a result of rushers beating a porous Minnesota offensive line, converging on Bridgewater and staying disciplined in their gaps.

The reward was defensive tackle Mike Daniels, inside linebacker Nate Palmer, outside linebacker Julius Peppers and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix each taking a sack back to Wisconsin with them. Green Bay's early lead paired with stout run defense forced Bridgewater to pass 37 passes, his second-most attempts this year.

Bridgewater actually managed to have a better passer rating (100.7) than Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (86.9), but Green Bay's defense made it difficult for the Vikings to sustain drives. Their six sacks resulted in 48 yards. On a few other occasions, Bridgewater simply had to throw the ball away to avoid a sack.

Linebacker Clay Matthews speed inside mixed with physical play from Raji and Daniels helped limit Peterson, while the edge rushers did the rest.

“We have a lot of special guys on our defense who can get after the quarterback,” Jones said. “We have potentially two Hall of Famers in Clay (Matthews) and Julius Peppers on our team. We have to take advantage of rushing the quarterback and getting him down. It’s not right if we’re not getting to the quarterback. We stayed confident, we stayed focused and we got after Bridgewater today.”

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The defense didn’t abandon its game plan when adversity hit and didn’t allow its largest breakdown – a 47-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph in the first quarter – to compound. Green Bay minimized its to stop Rudolph (six catches for 106 yards) with timely stops. On the next series, Jones ran around unsuspecting right tackle T.J. Clemmings to drop Bridgewater for an 18-yard loss.

When Tim Masthay had a punt partially blocked in the second quarter, the defense responded with a quick three-and-out after it tackled Peterson for a 3-yard loss and then Peppers sacked Bridgewater for another minus-2.

The Vikings scored again in the third quarter, but only after the Packers’ offense already staked to a 19-13 lead. In forcing the Vikings to punt on five of their first six possessions, Rodgers and a resurgent Eddie Lacy (22 carries for 100 yards) had more than enough time to get the offense rolling. What the Packers lacked in explosiveness, they made up for in discipline with only four penalties for 19 yards compared to Minnesota's eight for 110.

"I think credit should go to Green Bay," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. "I think they played better than we did tonight. I think we made too many mistakes - penalties, especially in the first half and it came back to bite us a little bit."

Always known for their offensive innovation, Green Bay’s defense has taken a backseat in recent years. When the Packers got off to their 6-0 start, it often was the Packers’ defense that was dictating the tempo of the game. Through the first five games, Green Bay ranked as high as seventh in total defense.

That was until the defense unraveled during three poor performances against San Diego, Denver and Carolina when it allowed a combined 1,475 total yards. The Packers turned things around last week against Detroit, but still gave up a critical touchdown to Golden Tate late that contributed to the third straight loss.

That wasn’t the case Sunday. The Packers got back to doing what they do best — pressuring the quarterback, getting timely stops and forcing the occasional turnover.

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“We capitalized and got sacks and got turnovers,” Hayward said. “That’s what we need as a defense. That’s how we win. That’s how we can be a playoff team and a Super Bowl team – getting turnovers and stopping the run, getting sacks and being really productive on offense and special teams.”

Receiver Randall Cobb said after the game that the Packers’ motto this week was “BTFI,” but wouldn’t go into details of what it meant. What’s certain is Green Bay (7-3) is back in the driver’s seat in the NFC after Sunday’s win, improving to 42-14-1 against the division since 2006 and effectively ending their longest losing streak with Rodgers at quarterback in seven years.

They’re still well behind undefeated Carolina (10-0) in the NFC, but Sunday’s rally proved there’s still plenty of pop in the Packers and their defense.

“I was just happy to win the game, man. It was a big game,” Raji said. “We have a lot of those around here, so we knew how to approach it. We came in as the hunters today. We always used to getting hunted. So we had a different mentality and I think it worked in our favor today.” and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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