The Cheeseheads' Graveyard

Last year, the Vikings' quicker defensive linemen sacked Favre seven times, whipping blockers almost as soon as the ball was snapped. Essentially the same lines square off Monday night.

For Packer fans, the scene from the Metrodome just two years ago has already become legend. After nearly 60 minutes of football, including three lead changes and five Green Bay turnovers, the Packers, with third-string quarterback T. J. Rubley calling the signals in a tie game, were driving toward a winning field goal. Finally, it seemed, the Dome's curse would be put to rest. And then came what Packer fans now simply refer to as The Audible. On third and inches at the Vikings' 38 yard line, Rubley, under orders to run a quarterback sneak, changed the play at the line of scrimmage, despite protests from his own center. He rolled right, then made the unthinkable throw: back toward the middle of the field, into a cluster of players. The ball caromed into the hands of linebacker Jeff Brady, and five plays later, it was the home team that kicked a winning field goal.

"This still is not as bad as the Guliford game," Packers general manager Ron Wolf later said, referring to his team's 1993 meltdown in the Dome. "But I can't believe this. I think we've exhausted ways to lose here."

Ah yes, the Guliford game. That time the Packer goat for all posterity was Terrell Buckley, the undersized, overconfident second-year cornerback who made the boneheaded assumption that Vikings quarterback Jim McMahon was too washed up to throw the ball 45 yards. Buckley therefore left wide receiver Eric Guliford running free down the sideline late in the game, setting up another winning field goal.

And so, based primarily on these two games, the Myth of the Dome took hold for Packer fans (and, to some extent, the team). It goes like this: We take a more-talented, better-coached team into that hellhole, and something always happens. A crazy bounce. A terrible decision by one of our weaker links. An inexplicable turnover. An unfathomable act of God. But next time in, boy, that's when we finally get 'em.

Well forget it, cheeseheads. The reasons coach Mike Holmgren's squads have lost all five games in the Dome have very little to do with bad luck. The Packers, as Wolf matter-of-factly acknowledges, are built for slower, sometimes treacherous grass surfaces. So, position by position, one sees similar traits: Size. Strength. Good balance. Smarts (don't ever minimize it). But, alas, little quickness or flat-out speed. When a soft or slippery field defuses an opponent's explosive first step, the Pack rarely misses those last two attributes. But on turf, amid deafening crowd noise that limits the ability to communicate adjustments, nightmares ensue.

Start with the Packers' offensive line, an overachieving, tenacious outfit whose lack of athleticism is consistently exposed in the Dome. Last year, Minnesota's front four, with only one bona fide star in defensive tackle John Randle, shredded the Pack for seven sacks, the most ever for a Holmgren-coached team. With zero time to throw, quarterback Brett Favre and his offense converted on only one of 11 third downs--an astonishingly bad rate for the World Champions-to-be. In a typical NFL game, a team might give up three sacks, maybe four in a rough outing, and even then one or two often come from a blitzing linebacker or safety. The Vikings doubled the norm, with all the sacks going to down linemen. If a team generates a constant pass rush without having to borrow linebackers and defensive backs, that team will almost always win.

Expect more of the same on Monday night, especially with Vikings right defensive end Derrick Alexander and Randle getting their first crack at Packers rookie Ross Verba on turf. Verba, a junkyard-dog type, took over the left-tackle position when the Vikings played in Green Bay in September and held up well. But he's the prototypical Packer--big, tough, and not especially agile. With time to study his tendencies, and those extra firm steps at the snap of the ball, Alexander and Randle should make Verba's life miserable. Randle will take his typically unpredictable routes to the quarterback, and Verba and left guard Aaron Taylor have proven less adept at picking up stunts and blitzes than the right side of the Packers' line. So the Vikings will probably send most of their tricks in the rookie's direction, which happens to be the right-handed Favre's blind side.

Not that they'll need many tricks. Basic quickness from the front four has always worked just fine for the Vikes, even with Favre taking the more conservative three-step drops. The idea here is that if the quarterback shortens up on the drop-back (seven steps is typical when looking for big downfield pass plays), the offensive line can form a tighter pocket, giving the defense fewer gaps to shoot and less opportunities to simply outrun blockers. Last year in the Dome, the Packers dared try only four seven-step drops, two of which resulted in Favre getting buried. So much for deep pass routes. And the fact that the Vikings' linemen could knock down Favre so many times on short drops means they were whipping the blockers almost as soon as the ball was snapped. Essentially the same lines will square off Monday night.

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