MINNEAPOLIS — Bruised, battered and humbled, members of the Green Bay Packers defense left the Metrodome Sunday with the number “28” singed on their frontal lobes.
They won’t soon forget the 409 yards Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson plastered on them in two games, the last 199 as painful a delivery for all 18 members of the defense who played at least a snap that they may ever experience.
If they didn’t have visions of Peterson’s number dancing in front of their eyes as they boarded the buses after the game, it was only because it was behind them for a spell, much the way it was throughout the day.
But rest assured the vision reappeared in front of them where it’s likely to stay at least through Saturday, which happens to be the next time the Packers will face the great running back after blowing a shot at a first-round bye with a 37-34 defeat.
“It’s absolutely frustrating,” Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said. “We were definitely playing for something. It’s disappointing in that regard. They played well today. We had a lot of missed opportunities.
“I think when you go through something like this it’s a real wake-up call, especially going into the playoffs.”
If Peterson had been the only one to do damage to the Packers’ defense, they probably would have the week off instead of facing a short turnaround for a wild-card playoff game against the Vikings at 7 p.m. CST Saturday at Lambeau Field.
But they also allowed quarterback Christian Ponder to post his best single-game passer rating of the season and tie his career high with three touchdown passes. All Ponder did after single-handedly losing the first meeting between these two teams when Peterson had 210 yards, was complete 16 of 28 passes for 234 yards with no interception.
It would be one thing if he had only the 65-yard bomb to receiver Jarius Wright over cornerback Sam Shields, but he completed a number of critical third-down passes, none more important than a 25-yarder to Michael Jenkins on the game-winning drive. Unlike the last time when he threw two costly interceptions, he didn’t throw a single one Sunday.
“He learned,” Packers rookie defensive end Mike Daniels said. “That is what you grow to respect, when a guy learns from his mistakes. That makes you want to step your game up to the next level.”
The Packers thought they had risen to a level that would allow them to keep Peterson — on a mission to make the playoffs and break Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing mark of 2,105 yards — from dominating the game. They emphasized tackling all week and talked about not trying to arm-tackle Peterson.
So much for that preparation.
The Packers needed to either score a lot early to force the Vikings to go away from Peterson or prevent him from wearing out the defense. Neither happened as Peterson led the Vikings on two drives totaling 17 plays, 101 yards and 10 points.
By the time the first quarter was over, Peterson had 13 carries for 68 yards and a touchdown. The Packers had allowed him to sprint out of the gate, which is about the worst thing you can do.
“I don’t think anybody has figured out how to stop him,” nose tackle B.J. Raji said after Peterson’s 34 carries netted 9 yards fewer than he needed to break Dickerson’s nearly three decade-old record. “He’s a great player. He deserves all the accolades.”
At times the Packers were able to bottle up Peterson at the line of scrimmage, but he continually bounced plays to the outside or into a developing hole, punishing the Packers for even considering tackling him. Players took their shots at bringing him down behind the line of scrimmage, but that almost made things worse
If someone missed — and many did — it just left him a hole through which he could bust.
“I think that’s our defense, stopping him at the point, but the problem is, he’s such an explosive athlete that he can make plays outside,” Matthews said. “That really comes down to us. That’s why we have to stay in our gaps.
“He has that big-play making ability where against other backs you might be able to cheat a little bit within the scheme. But with him you have to stay where you’re at because he can make you play. That’s clearly the case and has been the case against him.”
There were enough breakdowns trying to get Peterson on the ground, but when members of the secondary kept making things worse, it was too much for even Aaron Rodgers and a surging offense to overcome.
There was Shields’ egregious, Cover-3 rule-breaking offense of allowing receiver Jarius Wright to run behind him for a 65-yard gain that allowed the Vikings to score a touchdown soon after the Packers had tied the game at 27-27. There was cornerback Tramon Williams’ illegal-use-of-hands penalty he got getting into a shoving match with Jenkins that kept alive that same touchdown drive after the Packers had stopped it short on third down.
There was safety M.D. Jennings diving for an interception instead of knocking the ball down on Jenkins’ touchdown on that same series. And there was rookie cornerback Casey Hayward not getting deep enough on the 25-yarder to Jenkins.
“Anytime a team does that to you, you want to find a way to fix that,” Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk said. “You need to win every time you step on the field and we are looking forward to it (a rematch).”
Before they take the field, the Packers are going to have to figure out some way to slow down Peterson. The intensity of the home crowd helped keep Peterson emotionally charged, but he gained more yards four weeks ago at Lambeau Field.
Matthews said the Packers don’t have to change the scheme they’re using, they just need to adhere to the rules better. They have six days to prepare for one of the best running backs ever to carry a football.
“We just have to do it better,” Matthews said. “Bottom line is we know he’s a special athlete. We have the right calls. He’s going to get his. But we want to make them one-dimensional. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to do that the last two times.”