With the game on the line, the Green Bay Packers did the unthinkable - run the ball all over the vaunted Minnesota Vikings defence.
Vikings run out of steam
For years the Minnesota Vikings defencemen have prided themselves on one basic and unyielding tenet - smash the run game. You will not run on us, they said.
And opponents did not.
But what has been one of the best run defences in league history is showing more and more cracks at the worst possible times, with the latest coming in a 33-27 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.
Needing a stop to get the ball back to their offence in the final two-and-half minutes of the game, the Vikings gave up 55 yards rushing to James Starks to allow the Packers to run out the clock.
Any loss, especially a home defeat to their NFC North rivals, is a tough one to swallow. But to watch the Packers' mediocre running game gouge the proud Vikings front seven at the most critical point of the game only magnified the sting.
"It's hard to see that happen when you know how well we played run defence here for a number of years," Leslie Frazier, the coach, said.
Running the ball against the Vikings, especially when playing in the Metrodome, simply has not been an option for opposing offences for most of the last decade. In fact, it was common to see opponents completely abandon the running game rather than slam their heads into the middle of that defensive front.
But one half of their tackle tandem - Pat Williams - was not brought back this season, and the unit that led the league in fewest yards rushing allowed from 2006 to 2008, and finished second in 2009, has not played up to its lofty standards.
Reputation, perhaps more than reality, led Frazier to make the key decision at the end of the game with his team down six points.
The Vikings had a fourth-and-10 from their own 36.
With all three of their timeouts and the two-minute warning, Frazier decided to punt the ball, hoping his defence could stop the pedestrian Packers running game and get the ball back to Christian Ponder and the offence for one last shot.
But Starks ripped runs of 15, 20 and 14 yards among his six carries to run out the clock and seal a victory for the Packers.
"It's definitely frustrating," said EJ Henderson, the middle linebacker. "That's our motto and that's our mantra - smash the run. To come out at the end of the game with [2min, 30secs] left and be able to close the deal, that is tough for us."
Injuries have certainly contributed to the slide. Kevin Williams, the former All-Pro, is playing with a painful case of plantar fasciitis in his left foot and has not been the same force that he was for his first seven years in the league.
Henderson is dealing with pain in his swollen left knee that has zapped some of his aggressiveness in tracking down runners from sideline to sideline; Jamarca Sanford, the safety, was out with a concussion; and the safeties Husain Abdullah and Tyrell Johnson have yet to show they are capable of being factors against the run.
"One of the things we talked about prior to the game was, every guy just doing his job on every single play as a team," Frazier said. "Well in that last drive we had a couple guys who tried to make some plays that weren't necessarily their plays to make."
Brian Robison, the defensive end, said the breakdowns were a microcosm of this 1-6 season.
"We've got to make sure that no matter what, we make those corrections and make sure they don't happen again," Robinson said. "Unfortunately they are. They're happening over and over."
* Associated Press
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