GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) -- Minnesota running back Robert Smith has stayed healthy this season -- and that's helped him develop into what many thought he could be -- one of the NFL's premier running backs.
On pace to play 16 games for the first time in his career, Smith is second in the NFL with 1,458 yards rushing and third with 1,787 total yards.
The Green Bay Packers have always respected Smith's athletic ability, but they have even more respect after what he has done in 2000.
When the Packers play at Minnesota Sunday, they know Smith is as dangerous as wide receivers Randy Moss and Cris Carter are.
"I think Robert Smith is one of the top backs, if not the top back, in the National Football League," Packers head coach Mike Sherman said. "I do think he's a tremendous complement to their offense."
In the teams' first meeting at Lambeau Field this season, Smith had a good day, rushing for 122 yards on 24 carries.
Considering it was a rainy night on grass and against a full-strength Green Bay defensive line, there is more concern now about containing Smith because the Packers will be without injured defensive tackles Santana Dotson and Steve Warren.
Green Bay is thinner up front, but last week -- the first game without Dotson and Warren -- against a solid Detroit running game, the Packers limited running back James Stewart to 66 yards on 22 carries.
"We're pleased with what our guys accomplished last week," Packers defensive coordinator Ed Donatell said. "We're very pleased the way it came together. It helps to have that type of game against a very respectable opponent. We hope to be able to build on that.
"We thought they had a good running game ... but this is another week, and we're playing as good a running team as there is in this league."
Packers defensive tackle Cletidus Hunt knows the defensive line's play against Minnesota's normally outstanding offensive line will be a key to containing Smith.
"The pressure's on the defensive line because it's up to us to contain Robert Smith until our linebackers and secondary can fill in the spots," Hunt said.
TAUSCHER, CLIFTON WILL GET EARFUL:
Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton have held their own this season since becoming the Green Bay Packers' bookend starters at right and left tackle, respectively, but Sunday the rookies will face one of their stiffest challenges of the season at Minnesota.
The Vikings don't have two Reggie Whites at defensive end, although John Randle is a load for anybody to block. Of greater concern is the crowd noise.
The Metrodome is known as one of the loudest stadiums, if not the loudest, in the NFL.
So Tauscher and Clifton will have to deal with getting off the ball at the snap, which has been a problem for Packers offensive linemen in the past.
A slow start off the ball last season helped the Vikings sack quarterback Brett Favre four times.
"It's a good challenge for us," said Tauscher, who played at the Metrodome in college.
Favre said he is not worried about the rookies.
"The positions we put those guys in this year, to respond the way they have, there's no concerns here," Favre said. "At their place (the Vikings will) be a much different team than they were here. If we see the pressure's becoming a problem, we'll either keep someone in or shorten the drops."
Tauscher said the noise at Detroit affected his play, and he added he didn't get off the ball quick enough after the snap.
Sherman is aware of his tackles' task, but he said the player they line up against also has to be considered.
"It is a hostile environment," Sherman said. "Fortunately for us, these two young men have played in some college towns that have heard some noise. Neither one of these young men seem to get flustered by anything. We'll have to wait and see how they handle this situation."
PLAYOFF SCENARIOS: With a little help, the Packers (7-7) can qualify for the NFC's third wild-card playoff spot by winning their last two games against Minnesota and Tampa Bay. Then, the Packers need Detroit (8-6) to lose one of its final two games at the New York Jets or against Chicago, and Tampa Bay (9-5) must lose its final two games against St. Louis and at Green Bay. The Packers would then qualify by winning the tiebreaker with a 5-3 NFC Central Division record, compared to 4-4 marks for Tampa Bay and Detroit. Another tiebreaker would favor Green Bay if it tied the Rams (9-5) at 9-7. The Packers would have the advantage in conference record at 8-4, while St. Louis would have a 6-6 mark. The Rams are at Tampa Bay and at New Orleans (9-5) for their final two games.
INJURY REPORT: The Packers listed running back Dorsey Levens (knee), wide receiver Corey Bradford (knee), linebacker Brian Williams (knee) and tackle Earl Dotson (back) out of Sunday's game. Tight end Ryan Wetnight (concussion) is listed as questionable, while fullback Matt Snider (hip) and cornerback Tyrone Williams (neck) are listed as probable.
PEAKING IN THE FOURTH: It could be said Packers running back Ahman Green saves his best for last. In the fourth quarter this season, Green averages 5.2 yards per carry on 48 carries, while in the first three quarters he averages 4.2 yards per carry.
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