Fourteen sacks in six games.
That’s the total Minnesota defensive ends Jared Allen and Brian Robison have compiled this season, the highest of any duo in the league. Their 14 sacks are also all but three of the Vikings’ sacks as a team in 2011.
That makes it easy to pinpoint the key matchups for Sunday’s game when the Packers offense is on the field.
“It’s going to be a big game for our tackles,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “Both of their ends are playing very well.”
Those tackles would be Marshall Newhouse on the left side and Bryan Bulaga on the right side. Newhouse will be charged with blocking Allen, who leads the league with 9.5 sacks, while Bulaga will get Robison, whom the Vikings thought enough of in the offseason that they let starter Ray Edwards leave in free agency.
For Newhouse, this will mark just his second start at left tackle and third game playing there after being forced into action in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome when Chad Clifton went down with a hamstring injury.
His performance thus far, and particularly in the same type of noisy dome he’ll have to deal with on Sunday, has earned him a strong vote of confidence from the guy Newhouse will have to protect.
“I’m not worried about him,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said.
Neither are Newhouse’s line mates.
“I’m very confident in him,” center Scott Wells said. “He’s the type of guy who will do fine in that type of environment. He did well in Atlanta with the noise. He’s improved week in and week out, so I look for him to take another step this week.”
In Rodgers’ mind, Robison can be just as disruptive as Allen if the Packers aren’t careful. Rodgers isn’t surprised at all that, as a full-time starter for the first time, Robison is making an impact.
“I was teasing him last year we’d love to have him,” Rodgers said. “He’s a snap-to-whistle player. He’s going to play every play out and chase stuff down from the backside. He’s a guy we really need to make sure we block every play because he brings it 100 percent.”
So does that Metrodome crowd, which forces the visiting team to employ a silent count, giving the pass-rushers the slightest of head starts at the snap.
It’s no accident that 10 of Allen’s and Robison’s 14 combined sacks this year have come in the Vikings’ three home games.
“When it goes into silent count and it’s loud like that, you just have to be in tune with the communication, and you just have to get off on the snap,” Bulaga said. “There’s no magic to it, there’s no formula.
“If you’re late off the snap, those guys do such a good job getting off the ball and getting upfield, you’ll put yourself in a hole.”
The Packers have had their troubles protecting Rodgers in the Metrodome in the past. In his first start there, in 2008, he was sacked four times and the offense sputtered, producing just 184 yards, the third-lowest single-game total of the McCarthy era.
The following year, the offense was far more productive with 424 total yards, but Rodgers absorbed an embarrassing eight sacks as the offensive line had to shuffle to replace an injured Clifton.
Both of those games were losses. The Packers lowered the sack total to three in the Metrodome last year as Rodgers threw four touchdown passes in a comfortable 31-3 win.
“You have to play a certain way,” McCarthy said. “You really have to tighten up your focus and discipline.”
The other antidote to the Vikings’ pass-rush is a strong running game.
The Packers haven’t rushed for 100 yards as a team in a game at the Metrodome since 2004, in part because Minnesota’s run-defense has consistently ranked among the best in the league. This year the Vikings rank fifth in that category.
“When you’re going against a team that’s got outstanding pass-rushers, it’s that much more important to be two-dimensional and to be able to run the football so they can’t just pin their ears back and pass-rush the whole time,” Wells said. “We definitely want to be able to run our whole offense.”
Injury updates: McCarthy said he’s anticipating an update on Clifton’s status and a potential timeline for his return during the bye week.
Right guard Josh Sitton (knee) did not practice on Wednesday, and McCarthy said he may be held out of practice until Friday. Sitton has not missed a game since becoming a full-time starter at the beginning of 2009.
Cornerback Sam Shields (concussion) is going through the testing protocol and hasn’t been ruled out of this week’s game.
Outside linebacker Frank Zombo (knee) is out this week, just one week after coming back from a broken shoulder blade. Zombo hyperextended his knee in the St. Louis game, but McCarthy said he thought Zombo would be back after the bye.
Outside linebacker Jamari Lattimore (shoulder) did not practice and may be held out all week, McCarthy said. Lattimore has been dealing with the shoulder issue for several weeks but continuing to play, and McCarthy said the wear and tear is starting to take its toll. Additional coverage - Oct. 19