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Extra Points: As Packers worry about Peterson, Winfield remains key

11:34 AM, Jan 4, 2013   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It wasn't exactly Joe Namath guaranteeing a Super Bowl victory but Clay Matthews offered up his own, albeit, underwhelming pledge earlier this week.

"We aren't giving up 200 again," the Packers' star linebacker said Wednesday.

That, of course, was in reference to Minnesota Vikings superstar Adrian Peterson, who has rushed for a total of 409 yards in two games against the Packers this season.

Matthews' vow hardly smacks of the swagger which has defined him as a player since he arrived in the Badger State in 2009 as a first round pick out of Southern Cal.

It's also rather meaningless boast since technically Peterson didn't even get 200 last Sunday when he put the Vikings on his back and lifted them into the postseason for the first time in three years during a thrilling 37-34 Minnesota win over the Packers.

Exactly one year to the day of his surgery to repair a potentially career- threatening knee injury "All Day" came a yard short of 200 and just 27 feet of breaking Eric Dickerson's NFL record for most rushing yards in a season, ringing up 199 on a career-best 34 carries while scoring two touchdowns against the Packers.

Peterson finished his remarkable 2012 campaign with 2,097 rushing yards to become the seventh player in league history to surpass the 2,000-yard barrier.

His task this week and is to do it again in historic Lambeau Field.

As good as Peterson is, however, amassing 200 on any day is a lot to ask for.

That said, anyone think "AP2K" isn't going for 150 or at least 130?

Here's the thing though, Peterson might not be Minnesota's most important player on Saturday night.

After all, the MVP candidate is a constant and it's not the number that matters, it's the effort a Green Bay team which typically struggles defending the run will have to put into stopping Peterson.

Eight- and nine-man fronts and all-out run blitzes may stop Peterson behind the line of scrimmage every now and again but undisciplined gap control can quickly turn a 1-yard loss into an 80-yard TD for Peterson. Meanwhile, all the extra attention A.P. faces leaves any defense susceptible to play-action, turning a still-limited Christian Ponder into a threat and a raw but speedy receiver like rookie Jarius Wright into a home run-hitter.

That kind of stuff isn't changing no matter what Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers dials up.

It's more likely Saturday night's contest will be won or lost by the Minnesota defense and its ability to at least slow down the best quarterback in football, Aaron Rodgers.

The Vikings were actually dominating the Packers in Week 17 until veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield tapped out to the pain and swelling of a broken right hand.

Winfield, a 35-year-old, three-time Pro Bowl selection, is not only an elite slot defender in the passing game, he's also been the NFL's best corner in run support for over a decade.

One of the few form tacklers in an era defined by shoddy fundamentals, Winfield recorded 26 stops (tackles for an offensive failure) in the run game this season, 10 more than any other corner in the league and 11 more than the entire Packers group of corners, according to the analytics website ProFootballFocus.com.

Winfield typically starts on the left side of the defense for Minnesota and moves to the slot in the nickel defense, an important role against Green Bay since the Packers have no consistent running game to speak of and sport a plethora of big-play receivers on the outside.

Last Sunday the Vikings played with an extra defensive back during 53 of 64 defensive snaps but Winfield, who originally suffered the injury late in Minnesota's Week 16 win at Houston, was only able to handle 18 repetitions while wearing a wrap and protective pad on the injured hand.

His absence created a domino effect for Alan Williams and the Vikings' defense. Lightly-regarded Packers' running back DuJuan Harris started seeing daylight and the pass defense crumbled against the heady Rodgers.

Winfield's replacement in the slot, the undersized and little-used Marcus Sherels, a player who typically makes his living as a punt returner and had just 43 defensive snaps under his belt all season before being forced into action against A-Rod, was torched for 123 yards on six completions, including a 73-yarder to Jordy Nelson.

A.J. Jefferson, meanwhile, moved into the base defense and allowed six completions for 67 yards and a touchdown in seven targets, taking a 16-yard pass interference penalty against Nelson on the other.

Speedy rookie Josh Robinson has far more talent and big play ability than either Jefferson or Sherels and could be an option this week but the third round pick out of Central Florida seems to have lost some confidence as the season progressed.

"We've worked Josh very limited reps inside but there are some things that we will have to look at for this ball game that we might do a little bit different," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said before adding: "it goes back to who is an inside corner and who is an outside corner."

That Vikings did work on a contingency, giving Jefferson as well as little- used second-year corner Brandon Burton reps on the inside with the intent on getting Robinson back on the field.

"Between Sherels, Jefferson and Robinson, we'd try to come up with the right configuration to get us what we need to try to match up with their receivers," Frazier said. "That's what we worked on throughout this week, what's the best way to approach it if something were to happen with Antoine."

Winfield, though, plans to try again this week with a sturdier soft cast, something that has Frazier and the Vikings optimistic about its chances for a second straight upset.

"I feel better," Frazier said after the Vikings' Thursday practice. "Just to see (Winfield) move around with that cast, he was actually over there hitting the dummies and doing some things to jar it just to see how it would feel. He said it felt great. So that was encouraging, very encouraging."

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