Gameday Notebook: Neal Replaces Jenkins

Neal (Benny Sieu - USA Today Sports)

The Packers gambled on Mike Neal in 2011 and finally are cashing in their rewards in 2012. Plus, perspective on Peterson, Rodgers vs. the rush, a big mismatch and 17 other gems in our 21-point, 3,000-word preview that we guarantee is the biggest and best anywhere.

Cullen Jenkins helped the Green Bay Packers win a Super Bowl in 2010.

Jenkins was a free agent following that season. In part because of age, injury history and money — but also because of 2010 second-round pick Mike Neal — the Packers took a calculated gamble and let Jenkins sign with Philadelphia.

The Packers lost that bet. Neal injured a knee during a noncontact drill in training camp and was a nonfactor when he returned for the final seven games of last season. The entire defensive line contributed six sacks and the Packers wound up allowing the most passing yards in NFL history.

As an answer, the Packers used a second-round pick on Jerel Worthy and a fourth-round pick on Mike Daniels in April.

Neal saw the writing on the wall. He had played in nine of a possible 32 regular-season games and was facing a four-game suspension to the start of this season.

"I think that when you see the situation being as it may – two draft picks on the defensive line, then you have B.J. (Raji), C.J. (Wilson) and Pick (Ryan Pickett) out there – I think that there was no pressure on me to perform because it wasn't like they were really looking for me to do anything," Neal said. "They had to get these draft picks in here and get them ready to play, so I think they kind of took a lot of pressure off my shoulders and allowed me to just be able to play the type of game that I play."

In seven seasons in Green Bay, Jenkins had 29 sacks, including a career-high 7.0 in 2010. In 10 games this season, Neal is second on the team with 4.5 sacks. However, it's worth noting that in Jenkins' third year of professional football (he played in NFL Europe in 2003), he had 3.0 sacks in 16 games.

"They're two different players," defensive line coach Mike Trgovac told Packer Report on Friday. "Mike's a much more powerful guy than Cullen and Cullen, where was Cullen after his third year? When we got here with Cullen, Cullen had been in the league for a while. Mike's only been in the league for three years and probably has only played a full year's worth of football. We're hoping for great things from Mike."

Being used mainly as a situational pass rusher, Neal has a total of 18 pressures in 178 pass-rushing snaps. That's the fourth-best rate in the league among 3-4 defensive ends, according to ProFootballFocus.com. Yes, he's a powerful man, but the Packers were attracted to his athleticism as much as anything. With last year's knee injury behind him, that explosiveness has returned.

"A lot of people look at me as, ‘Oh, he's just a one-trick pony. He can only bull rush,' but I dare anybody to look at the tape," Neal said. "I haven't gotten one sack – probably one sack against Arizona – doing a bull rush. I've been able to play a different game with quickness and speed, being able to run in a lot of games and get there how I get there."

Under pressure

Aaron Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks while under pressure, a trait that probably will be a major factor on Sunday against Minnesota.

The Packers have allowed the second-most sacks in the league with 46. The Vikings are sixth in sacks with 39, led by Jared Allen's 10, Brian Robison's 7.5 and Everson Griffen's 5.0. Throw in the noise at the Metrodome and what's at stake, the Vikings' front four will be flying off the ball.

That will make Rodgers' ability to get out of the pocket and make things happen on the move a critical element to the game.

"He has the ability to make plays by scrambling," offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. "A lot of them are big plays, especially down in the red zone. He extends plays and often times it leads to touchdowns."

According to stats by ProFootballFocus.com, Rodgers has completed 55-of-112 passes for 810 yards with seven touchdowns and one interception while under pressure. No quarterback has thrown fewer interceptions and his touchdown-to-interception ratio is the best in the league by a mile (Ben Roethlisberger is second at 9-to-3).

There's a fine line, of course, between buying time while trying to make a play and holding onto the ball and taking a sack. Rodgers is responsible for a league-high nine sacks, according to PFF, but it's a trade-off Rodgers and the coaches are comfortable with because the gain outweighs the pain.

"What you have to be careful of is taking the big plays out of the offense," quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo said. "There are times when you talk about throwing the ball away, more situationally. Sometimes that dictates when to get rid of the ball. We like to be smart about it but, at the same point in time, you don't want to take the big plays out of the offense."

Asked about Rodgers, the first thought from Vikings coach Leslie Frazier was the quarterback's ability to buy his receivers time to get open.

"He does a terrific job. Aaron is an excellent quarterback," Frazier said in a conference call. "The thing that makes it very tough on defenses is, when you have things covered up, like we did in our first game and then he starts moving around, buying time, moving guys out of zones, he creates a lot of stress on your defense. If he were just a pocket guy, you probably could defend him a little bit differently, but he creates a lot of problems, even if you cover the receivers. It's not so much that you can't cover the receivers – they've got excellent receivers, don't get me wrong – but his mobility creates a lot of problems for a defense. A lot of problems."

Peterson perspective

Forgetting about his pursuit of the NFL single-season rushing record for a moment, Adrian Peterson needs 102 yards to rush for 2,000 for the season.

That's 125 rushing yards per game.

Yes, it's an apples-to-oranges comparison because of schemes and quarterbacks, but the Packers haven't even had a 100-yard rusher in a regular-season game since Brandon Jackson's 110-yard day at Washington on Oct. 10, 2010. That's a stretch of 42 games. The last time a Packers running back rushed for 125 was Ryan Grant's 137-yard output against Chicago on Dec. 13, 2009. That's a stretch of 50 games.

With 208 yards, Peterson would break Eric Dickerson's 28-year-old record of 2,105 rushing yards. To get there, it would require Peterson to post a pair of 200-yard games against Green Bay's defense. That's something the defenders would rather not talk about.

"Not really," cornerback Tramon Williams said. "You're going to see it on the news but it's understood. Obviously, everyone's aware of where he is, everyone's aware of the type of back he is. Can he get it done? Yeah, he can get it done. Unfortunately, he's going against our defense this week. We don't really want that to happen. Is he deserving of it? Of course he's deserving of it. He's definitely the best back I've seen in my life."

Pondering the pass defense

Last season, the Packers fielded statistically the worst pass defense in NFL history with 299.8 yards allowed per game. This season, Green Bay ranks 12th with 217.7 yards per game allowed through the air. Including last week, the Packers have allowed less than 120 net passing yards a league-best five times.

A big key has been a sharp reduction in explosive gains. This season, Green Bay has allowed 46 completions of 20-plus yards and six of 40-plus. That's down from 71 and 10, respectively, from a year ago.

The pass rush is infinitely better, with 46 sacks this year compared to 29 last year. Maybe a bigger deal is improved communication. According to cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt, his position group hasn't been charged with a missed assignment in "eight or nine games." Whitt went on to compliment inside linebackers Brad Jones and A.J. Hawk, who are responsible for the primary checks at the line of scrimmage.

"If you're going into the record books for the most pass yards in a season, things are going to be addressed. We addressed it," Williams said. "We put a point of emphasis on making sure guys are on the same page, making sure the communication is being directed and relayed back. In past years, it was directed but it wasn't getting back. You may think a guy has the call but he really doesn't have the call, so now you're really not on the same page when you think you are. That was what the problem was, I think, and I think we've got that taken care of a lot better this year."

Green Bay's pass defense has a big edge against Minnesota's last-ranked passing attack. In his last five games, second-year quarterback Christian Ponder has failed to throw for 175 yards or two touchdowns. Not surprisingly, his only legit weapon, do-it-all Percy Harvin, has missed the last six games and is on injured reserve.

Ponder does provide a running threat. He's got six games with at least 22 rushing yards, including a season-high 48 in an upset of Houston last week.

"When you combine the run game and his ability to move and throw the ball on the move, they tie together because they run an awful lot of bootlegs, an awful lot of movement passes, so it makes it harder to defend because you're defending Peterson on that run and all of a sudden he keeps the ball and comes outside," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "You've always got to be concerned about him locking the ball away and running with it because if you show coverage, you better have good rush lanes because he'll pull it down and run. He was very efficient running with the ball against Houston."

History lessons

— During Green Bay's five-game winning streak against Minnesota, Rodgers has completed 73.1 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns, three interceptions and a 122.6 passer rating.

"He's seen all the looks so he knows what he's looking at," Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams told writers in Minnesota this week. "He gets the ball out of his hands and when he doesn't get the ball out of his hands, he has an uncanny ability to move and avoid the rush and keep his eyes down field and find open guys. Then when he doesn't do that, he's athletic enough to beat you with his feet. He's a quadruple threat in terms of what he does when the ball is in his hands."

— Since the NFL went to a divisional format in 1967, no team has swept its division in back-to-back seasons. The Packers went 6-0 against the NFC North last season and are 5-0 this season. By going 6-0 this season, the Packers would clinch the No. 2 seed and keep the Vikings out of the playoffs. If the Vikings win, the teams would meet again next week at Lambeau Field.

"I think it's a big game just because it's a division opponent," defensive tackle B.J. Raji said. "We had experience in 2010 when the Bears could have knocked us out, and then we turn around and play them again. You don't want to see a division team in the playoffs. It's hard enough to beat them in the regular season. You want to win, and you have a chance at back-to-back sweeps in the division. I think it would be the first time in NFL history that would be done. Coach McCarthy had alluded to it earlier in the week, and anytime you're breaking a Packers or NFL record, that means something. When you play for an organization like this, and you're breaking records, that means you're doing something pretty significant."

— Allen has 15 sacks in 10 career games against the Packers , including two against Green Bay earlier this season, and Peterson has rushed for 1,243 yards and eight touchdowns in 11 games, including 210 yards on Dec. 2 and 192 yards on Nov. 9, 2008. The Vikings' passing game without Harvin, however, is a mess. Their leading pass-catcher against Green Bay is Michael Jenkins, with just 12 catches in five games.

— The Packers have closed the regular season with a victory in a league-best nine consecutive seasons and are 17-1 over the last 18 years.

Key numbers

— The Vikings' defense has allowed 45 plays of 20-plus yards, the sixth-fewest in the league. The Packers' offense leads the NFL with 17 touchdowns of 20-plus yards.

— Since Week 9, Green Bay's rushing attack ranks seventh in the league with 129.9 yards per game. That includes a 152-yard output against the Vikings on Dec. 2. Minnesota annually boasts one of the best run defenses and this season is no exception. The Vikings are sixth with 3.9 yards allowed per attempt.

— Thanks to six touchdowns in seven red-zone possessions last week, Green Bay is back to third in inside-the-20 efficiency with 65.1 percent touchdowns. Red-zone defense has been a weakness for Minnesota, with 57.4 percent touchdowns allowed.

— If games are won in the trenches, it's no wonder the Vikings are in playoff contention. Their starting offensive line hasn't missed a single game this season and their starting defensive front seven has missed just four games. For the Packers, only Marshall Newhouse and Josh Sitton have started every game for the offensive line and only Ryan Pickett and A.J. Hawk have opened every game for the defensive front seven.

The other sideline

— You know Peterson needs 208 yards to break Dickerson's single-season rushing record. Do you also know: Peterson, with seven runs of 50-plus yards, has tied Barry Sanders' record set in 1997. ... With 8,650 rushing yards over the last six seasons, he's ahead of Steven Jackson (6,836) by 1,814 yards. ... Among running backs with at least 750 career carries, Peterson ranks third in history with a 5.0-yard average (Jim Brown, 5.2; Mercury Morris, 5.1). ... Peterson's 6.0-yard average this season is the fourth-best in history (Brown's 6.4 in 1963 is the record).

— Here's why Peterson should win league MVP: The Vikings have a chance for the playoffs despite ranking 22nd in third-down offense (36.4 percent), 18th in red-zone offense (52.2 percent), 26th in third-down offense (41.0 percent), 26th in red-zone defense (57.4 percent) and 22nd in turnovers (minus-2).

— Pro Bowl kicker Blair Walsh has had a remarkable rookie season. He's set an NFL record with nine field goals from 50-plus yards. He's gone 9-for-9 from that distance en route to a 32-for-35 season. He tied a league record by hitting three from 50-plus against St. Louis two weeks ago.

— With Harvin on injured reserve, Kyle Rudolph is practically a one-man receiving corps. Not only do his nine touchdowns rank second in the league among tight ends, but he's got most of the team total of 15. In fact, take Harvin out of the equation, and the rest of the team has just three touchdown catches (one apiece by Jenkins, Jarius Wright and Stephen Burton).

Four-point stance

— The Vikings have opened their last three games with touchdown drives of 80, 45 and 78 yards. Green Bay's defense ranks fourth with 14 points allowed on opening drives and second with 43 points allowed in the first quarter.

"I think we're coming out with a sense of urgency that we know we want to start fast, especially in those road games, and we have to treat it the same way this week," Ponder told Vikings beat reporters on Wednesday. "It is important for us to start fast and set the tone for the rest of the game. When you start with a three-and-out or only so many plays and you don't put any points on the board, it's tough to start that way. As an offense, we want to score on every possession beginning with the first one."

— The first round of the draft gets all the hype, and the Vikings are have eight former top picks in the starting lineup: Antoine Winfield (by Buffalo), Kevin Williams, Jenkins, Chad Greenway, Peterson, Ponder, Matt Kalil and Harrison Smith. The Packers have four first-rounders in the starting lineup: Rodgers, Hawk, Raji and Clay Matthews. Charles Woodson is injured and the last three top picks (Bryan Bulaga, Derek Sherrod and Nick Perry) are on injured reserve.

— According to STATS, Rodgers needs 70 passing yards for a second straight season with 4,000-plus yards and at least 35 touchdowns through the air. Drew Brees (2011 and 2012) is the only quarterback in NFL history to accomplish that feat, though Tom Brady could join the group with three touchdown passes.

\— Under McCarthy, the Packers never have finished outside the top 10 in the league in offense. That probably will end this season. Green Bay enters Sunday ranked 13th with 5,346 yards. Tampa Bay is 10th with 5,454 yards.

Quote of the week

Or, the best thing that was said that we couldn't work into a story ...

Rodgers, on locker room talk of Peterson's pursuit of the rushing record: "Most of us are fans first. When I was growing up, I believe it was around circa ‘98 when Barry Sanders went over 2,000 yards. It's fun to watch. Only a few guys have done that. At that point, I believe it had just been (O.J.) Simpson and Dickerson. Barry was the third guy. That's quite a record. To average 125 yards a game is tough to do, with the ups and downs of the season. Adrian has had an incredible year. It's fun to watch; it is, from afar. You don't want him to break the record this week, because if he does, it probably means they're playing the way they want to and they're ahead in the game. He's a big-time player. Gotta be mentioned in the Comeback Player of the Year and MVP categories this year. It's fun to see a guy like that, who I think carries himself the right way, playing at a high level."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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