Image courtesy of vikings.com

At the end of a long holiday weekend lies presumably the most anticipated games of the 2015 season. After entering the season with plenty of optimism focused around a lot of rather unknowns, the Vikings have an opportunity to dethrone the Green Bay Packers atop the NFC North.

There is plenty of reason to believe the Vikings have their best chance to do so in long, long time, but after taking a 30-13 lopsided loss in week 11 you have to give pause to consider how the Packers have flat out dominated the series in the last decade.

Many will assume that stopping Aaron Rodgers on defense is priority number one. However, if you look into how the Packers have won this season, you’ll realize finding balance on offense is their key to success.

Believe or not, without stopping the run, the Vikings defense doesn’t stand a chance stopping Rodgers.

It is no secret that Mike Zimmer’s defense is the most frustrating to opposing offenses in 3rd & long situations where Zimmer can use unique sub-packages to bring differing blitzes.

This year, we’ve seen too many examples of this to count. Over the last handful of weeks, however, we’ve seen Harrison Smith blitz from the edge, Danielle Hunter stand off the edge as if he’s a 3-4 linebacker and Everson Griffen drop back into coverage from the defensive end position while the linebackers get after the quarterback.

Griffen has done this in the past, maybe most notably in week 1 last year when he picked off Ram’s quarterback Austin Davis for a pick six. The wrinkle isn’t new, but the fact Zimmer essentially waited until week 15 to show it on tape is what makes this defense so difficult for offense’s to game plan against.

So are the Vikings going to pressure Rodgers? It really depends on the down and distance. Zimmer can’t risk pressure on 3rd & 2 or similar down and distances. The famous Zimmer double A gap pressures are dialed up in much more difficult situations. If Packer running backs can eat up 6-7 yards on 1st and 2nd down, the Vikings defense is forced to be much more vanilla.

In years past, Eddie Lacy has hurt the Vikings on early downs, but don’t assume he’ll be the guy to attempt to do so on Sunday. The Packers have used James Starks, John Kuhn and in 2012 during the Vikings wild card playoff showdown at Lambeau Field it was DuJuan Harris who was a relative journey man.

This year, the Packers are 8-2 when they rush for more than 100 yards and I expect there will be another new wrinkle added to the Packer running game strategy that will keep the Vikings defense on their toes Sunday. Adding to that focus, Lacy has had three 100 yard games in the past month and will look to rumble towards another in what will surely be a colder game in Green Bay.

For those who watched last week’s Packers vs. Cardinals game in Arizona, you are thinking that there is no way the Vikings cannot get to Rodgers with the current state of the Packer offensive line. That’s a valid argument and I think the Vikings will have an opportunity to fluster Rodgers. That said, I think this too is dependent on the down and distance.

Arizona was able to bring extra pressure as they have all season in a variety of ways. The Vikings will look to do so as well, but if asked to get to Rodgers with their four defensive lineman, I fear Rodgers will be given the opportunity to hurt the Vikings by flushing outside of the pocket and extending plays. Rodgers is tremendously dangerous when doing so and his two touchdowns in week 11 came on plays outside of the pocket.

To stop the run game, two things need to happen from the get go and they are not new talking points. Zimmer has talked at length about tackling well and understanding each role of the defense. If the Vikings fail to tackle well, those run plays pick up 6 yards in a hurry. If the defense fails to secure their gaps, they go for much longer. A perfect example of this took place just last week against the Giants.

In the below play, it looks like Sharrif Floyd jumps out of his gap, allowing the Giants offensive lineman to get to the second level and corral Eric Kendricks, who had responsibility to the outside. These plays happen, but must be minimized at all costs against the Packers.

 

Although the above play is to the outside, I do worry about Linval Joseph’s absence might have on the interior of the run defense. You’d suspect that bruiser Eddie Lacy would look to run between the tackles vs the perimeter.

Do I like the Vikings chances Sunday? Absolutely. In order to bring home the division, however, the defense must do what Zimmer has been preaching since taking over the team. Stop the run, tackle well and play team defense.