The Cheeseheads' Graveyard

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.  

Can the Packers run their way to victory? For most of the post-Lombardi years, that would've been a laughable thought. But tailback Dorsey Levens, on his way to about a 1,400-yard season, picks the right holes, breaks tackles, and is fast enough to take advantage of turf. He won't get much help from his blockers, however. On a softer surface, linemen and fullbacks, who of course have the advantage of knowing which way the play is designed to go, can usually sustain their blocks half a second longer as defenders try to make their cuts to the running back. Turf reduces that advantage, and it's no accident that smallish, fast linebackers, such as the Vikings' Jeff Brady and Dixon Edwards, who tend to get overpowered on grass, come to life in the Dome. Ed McDaniel, another relative linebacking smurf at 5-11, 230 pounds, has the instincts and tackling skill to play well on any surface, period; witness his seven unassisted takedowns in Green Bay's Lambeau Field two months ago. And strong safety Robert Griffith also pitches in good run support.

That is, if he's not too busy getting toasted in pass coverage. For the one matchup that does look good for the Pack is their wideouts versus the Vikings' defensive backs. Second-year player Derrick Mayes, the Packers' third receiver, has managed to keep himself somewhat out of the mix due to injuries and slow absorption of the playbook. But this fearless Sterling Sharpe clone has the best hands on the team and is a monster game waiting to happen. If Favre gets any time to throw--a big if--maybe that monster game will be against the Vikings' enigmatic secondary.

There's no shortage of highlight-reel material with this turnover-minded foursome, but they continue to show an amazing lack of coverage chemistry: Cornerbacks Corey Fuller and Dewayne Washington look for safety help that never arrives, while safeties Griffith and Orlando Thomas bank on the big hit at the line of scrimmage that the corners don't deliver. Hence all those opposing receivers running wide open in zone coverage. And since not every Vikings game can be against the Packers in the Dome, and opponents often double- and triple-team Randle with impunity, the pass rush has been sporadic, leaving the Vikings second to last in NFC passing defense and last in total defense. How has this team won eight games?

With offense, strangely enough, and even with their recent lapses the Vikings should have plenty to go around on Monday. No matter where he lines up, end Cris Carter will probably face Doug Evans, a tall, sturdy cornerback who can be tentative on turf. The best the Packers can hope for there is a draw. Meanwhile, at the other end, Jake Reed should have his way all night with first-year starter Tyrone Williams, who matches up in speed but not in strength and height (5-11 against 6-3). On deep patterns, Williams can stay with receivers, but also has the maddening knack of never knowing where the ball is until it whistles safely by him into the opponent's hands. Safeties LeRoy Butler and Eugene Robinson will need to shadow the corners all over the field, taking the edge off their run support and blitzing.

This doesn't even begin to address the Packers' biggest defensive problem: Their two best linemen, left end Reggie White and behemoth nose tackle Gilbert Brown, continue to miss too many downs. When these two sit, the entire 11-man unit becomes below average to just plain bad, something the 0-10 Colts found out when they took on the Packers in the RCA Dome two weeks ago. With White and Brown out for most of the game, Indianapolis racked up 467 yards in total offense on the way to victory number one.

White is a mortal lock for the Hall of Fame and can still single-handedly wreck an offense, but a lingering back injury increasingly forces him to the sideline. The 345-pound Brown is simply freakish in both size and what he's able to do with it (a sensitive subject for Vikings coaches, who cut him in '93). In addition to his league-best ability to stuff the run, he's now picked up a pass rush, despite double-team blocks. But Brown has always gone down easily, a fact that hasn't escaped opponents, who dive at his oversized drumsticks ever more frequently. Colts offensive lineman Doug Widell did so on the first set of downs. Brown left with a sprained ankle (which still bothers him), and the eventual result was the most shocking upset of this NFL season. Are the Vikes willing to engage in similarly nasty tactics? You betcha. Then Robert Smith is off to the races. Against a Brown-less Packers in September, Smith rambled for 132 yards. Don't expect the faster track to hurt his numbers one bit. And when Reggie sits, watch Smith run right behind 353-pound Korey Stringer as he demolishes White's do-nothing replacement, Darius Holland. Packer fans will see few uglier sights all year.  

Thus the Pack should worsen an already startling statistic: During the Holmgren/Wolf era, even with all of its success, the team is 8-23 on artificial surfaces. There aren't enough Rubleys, Buckleys, and bad breaks in the world to chalk that up to luck. Vikings 27, Packers 16, and at least five inane comments by Dan Dierdorf. But don't get too sassy, Vikings fans. Should your team end up in Lambeau come playoff time, Randle and Company will look just as helpless as the Packers do in the Dome, and that final score will flip-flop faster than you can say "frozen tundra."

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