Since Mike Zimmer’s arrival in Minnesota, the Vikings haven’t unlocked the door to beating Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. The door slammed in their faces last October, when Christian Ponder and Mike Zimmer’s young team lost 42-10 to the Packers in embarrassing fashion at Lambeau Field. It creaked open later in the year, when Teddy Bridgewater returned to the lineup and nearly beat Green Bay at home, 21-24.
Now, the key is in the Vikings’ hands, and they’re standing at the door ready to turn the handle. Sitting alone in first place and a game ahead of Green Bay, Sunday’s Week 11 matchup could be Minnesota’s greatest opportunity to win the NFC North since their historic 2009 season. To do that, though, they must stop Aaron Rodgers.
Linval Joseph spoke to reporters on Tuesday and expressed confidence as the team prepares for their toughest test yet. “He’s a very good quarterback, elite quarterback and in this league, you want to play against the best,” he said. On Sunday, Joseph will have the chance to sack Rodgers and lead the Vikings to a win. But against a quarterback like No. 12, it’ll take more than just sacks to pull out a victory. They’ll need Mike Zimmer’s best blitz packages, solid play from every cornerback, and a disciplined, yet aggressive pass rush for their eighth win of the season.
In what was Week 10’s most surprising result, the Detroit Lions went into Lambeau Field and beat the Packers 18-16, the first time they’d won in Green Bay since 1991. Their strategy on defense — blitzing Aaron Rodgers 23 times — worked wonders, as he completed just nine of 21 passes against the blitz, his worst performance ever in such situations, per ESPN Stats and Info. The constant pressure flustered Rodgers, who finished the day with 331 yards on a career-high 61 attempts; a recipe for disaster against the Vikings.
They’re allowing just 228 passing yards per game, and that’s thank in large part to Mike Zimmer’s blitzing tendencies. Quarterbacks can’t react in time to the double A-gap looks he’s made so popular around the league, and they’re often forced to release the ball sooner than they’d like. It’s happened to some of the game’s best, including Peyton Manning, Derek Carr, and Jay Cutler — all of whom failed to eclipse 300 yards against the Vikings. In just two years, a unit that allowed a league-high 480 points in 2013 is now the league’s second-best scoring defense, giving up just 17.1 points per game.
If the Lions were able to attack Rodgers, then the Vikings should have no problem racking up the sacks. A healthy Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr make up two of the best inside linebackers in the league, and they’ve quickly become forces when blitzing between the center and the guards.
Press the Wide Receivers
Without Jordy Nelson, the Packers lack a true number one receiver. Randall Cobb is talented, but he doesn’t have the size or the length to compete with corners like Xavier Rhodes on the outside. Davante Adams, James Jones, and a crop of lesser-known receivers round out the unit, and they’ve struggled this year separating in man coverage. The Lions picked up on their deficiencies, often lining up in press-man coverage across the board. Couple with the aggressive blitzes, their blanketing coverage left Rodgers with no choice but to throw the ball away or force an inaccurate pass into tight windows.
For Zimmer, the Lions may have provided the blueprint for success. Though he likes to mix in zone coverages and disguised blitzes, Zimmer also has the corners to play press-man. Xavier Rhodes entered the league as the draft’s top man corner in 2013, and he’s still the team’s most important boundary defender (despite what’s been a relatively up-and-down season). Captain Munnnerlyn is thriving in the slot, most recently with a season-high eight tackles against the Raiders on Sunday. And opposite Rhodes, Terence Newman is enjoying a renaissance season — he was far and away Vikings Territory’s pick for Player of the Game.
Overall, the Vikings have a better secondary than the Lions and are well-suited to shut down the struggling Packers offense. They rarely miss tackles, and they’ve allowed the third-fewest explosive plays in the league. Save for two long passes over Andrew Sendejo last week, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr took few chances down the field.
Stuff the Run
Even with Eddie Lacy in the lineup, the Packers have struggled to run the football this season. And on Sunday, with James Starks getting the nod over Lacy, Green Bay gained just 47 yards on the ground. Starks carried the ball 15 times, averaging a paltry 2.8 yards per carry. Their rushing attack as a whole is ranked 16th in the league and they’ve scored just four touchdowns on the ground. Their struggles couldn’t come at a worse time, as the Vikings haven’t allowed a 100-yard rusher since their Week 1 debacle against Carlos Hyde and the San Francisco 49ers.
By stopping the run, the Vikings can put Aaron Rodgers in difficult situations, much like the ones he faced against the Lions last week. If he’s forced to throw the football 61 times against the Vikings, he may not finish the game. “Aaron’s been hit way too much three weeks in a row,” McCarthy said following Sunday’s game. “I don’t feel good about it. No one feels good about it. I’m sure he doesn’t feel very good.”
Heading into Week 11, the Vikings have an 83 percent chance to make the playoffs and a 47 percent chance to win the division, per FiveThirtyEight. Stopping Aaron Rodgers and beating the Green Bay Packers will only tilt the odds in their favor. Which key will unlock the door to the playoffs?