GREEN BAY – In preparation for their third and most important game of the season against the Minnesota Vikings, the members of the Green Bay Packers defense were forced to watch film of Vikings’ running back Adrian Peterson running all over them – to the tune of 409 yards. And they didn’t like it.
Worse yet: Watching themselves in a seemingly constant loop of Peterson highlights on TV.
“Guys were embarrassed about last week, and then you had to hear about the Vikings all week and hear about Adrian all week,” said Packers veteran safety Charles Woodson said, referring to Peterson’s 199-yard effort last Sunday at the Metrodome. “Guys were pretty upset about that, because when you turn on your television, all of the highlights are Green Bay Packers highlights, and that ain’t a fun feeling.”
But for their third meeting, the Packers’ defensive gameplan was to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. How? By not overpursuing Peterson, for one. And it worked: Peterson finished with 22 carries for 99 yards in the Packers’ 24-10 NFC Wild Card victory over the Vikings Saturday night at Lambeau Field.
“I thought our guys really did a nice job of learning from our game up there, the last game we played them,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Sunday afternoon. “We felt we played extremely hard and aggressive (last time), and sometimes the aggressiveness hurt us as much as it helped us.
“When you're playing against a back like Peterson, he's got the rare ability to move into the pocket and, if the point of attack is clogged up, he'll hesitate. Guys have a tendency to want to get to the ball, and that's when he makes his yardage, spilling the ball outside if you don't set the edge. I thought we did a much better job of that last night.”
Packers coach Mike McCarthy went so far as to say the Packers ”owned the line of scrimmage” against the Vikings, and Peterson certainly noticed that discipline the Green Bay defense played with.
“They played some good defense,” Peterson said. “They played more patient defense. They stayed on the backside to take away the cutback and they played slower instead of being really aggressive and over pursuing plays. With that, they were able to bottle up the run game.”
That discipline was important in making sure Peterson couldn’t get outside the tackles. Packers’ cornerback Tramon Williams said the way for the defense to achieve that was to slow themselves down with Peterson. In the first two games the Packers and Vikings played, Green Bay’s defense allowed Peterson to run for an average of 102.5 yards per game outside the tackles, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Saturday, they were able to limit him to only 20 yards.
“A lot of guys try to get to the ball so fast,” Williams explained. “This guy has so great a vision, he can make cuts, he can make it to the outside before you look at him. A lot of guys kept their gap control today, and I think that was the difference. We kept him bottled up and made him run inside the tackles and not let him just get outside like he’d been getting.”
As well as keeping Peterson between the tackles, the Packers’ plan on defense was to bring either Woodson or Burnett down into the box to slow down the running back.
In the first two match-ups of the season, Peterson had 45 yards per game when the Packers had eight or more defenders in the box. In Saturday’s game, they were able to hold Peterson to only 23 yards in such situations.
Similarly, after allowing Peterson to gain 6.9 yards per rush during the two regular-season games, the defense cut that number in half by allowing only 3.3 yards in the playoff game. Woodson said that the strategy had nothing to do with the quarterback, and everything to do with stopping Peterson.
“No disrespect to Ponder, but bringing a guy in the box is not about Christian Ponder, it’s about one guy, and that’s Adrian Peterson,” Woodson said. “Our main focus, we knew whether it was Ponder or (Joe) Webb, was to keep 28 from getting off. And we were going to keep him from getting off, put the ball in the quarterback’s hands, whatever quarterback it was, we felt good about what was going to happen.”
That is the reason that even a late change in quarterback for the Vikings – Williams said he found out Ponder was inactive on television right before he went out on the field for warm-ups – didn’t really faze the Green Bay players.
“Adrian Peterson is the man … God,” Williams said. “Joe Webb and Ponder are pretty much the same kind of quarterback. Both can run and get out of the pocket-type-deal, so we just went at it. We didn’t really care about the change.”
It’s unlikely that there will be any surprise last-minute changes next week against the San Francisco 49ers, who boast another talented running back in Frank Gore, and another mobile quarterback in Colin Kaepernick. Woodson called the 49ers a “tougher opponent” and noted that since San Francisco has more offensive weapons, the Packers will have more to focus on than just a running game.
“There can’t be any letup,” Woodson said. “Frank Gore can hurt you as well and we don’t want to go out there and allow him to run wild so we’ll have to do a lot of the same things against a guy that is very capable of having a big game. We look forward to it. We’ll be up for the challenge. They have a lot of other weapons as well so we have to make sure we’re on our job.”
Sarah Barshop covers the Packers for ESPNWisconsin.com. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/sarahbarshop.