It’s Déjà vu all over again for the Minnesota Vikings, who for the second time this season, will look to defeat the Green Bay Packers in their most important game of the year. The last time these two teams met, the Vikings were riding a five-game win streak, while the Packers were trudging through a three-game slide. It seemed, at last, that the Vikings were primed to dethrone the Packers from the top of the NFC North! Right? Wrong.
Minnesota lost that Week 11 game, falling 30-13 at home to their biggest rival. Since that eye-opening defeat, they’ve fallen behind the Packers in the division. But, next Sunday night, they’ll have a chance to knock Green Bay out of the top spot and secure the NFC’s third playoff seed. Whether they win or lose on Sunday Night Football, the Vikings are guaranteed a playoff spot; their victory over the New York Giants secured a postseason berth for the first time since 2012. But knowing Zimmer’s win-first mentality and steadfast approach to his franchise, the Vikings want and need to claim the division to be satisfied.
How can they do that? It starts by “righting the wrongs” from the team’s first meeting. Most notably, pressuring Aaron Rodgers and winning the turnover battle — a strategy they failed to execute in November. Yesterday, the Arizona Cardinals did just that to Rodgers and the Packers offense, sacking the quarterback nine times and creating four turnovers. The Vikings experienced similar defensive success against the Giants last night, and it’s a formula that can assuredly bring Minnesota their first NFC North title since 2009:[quote_box_center]”When you create turnovers and you put pressure on the quarterback, good things typically happen. I thought we put good pressure on the quarterback tonight. I thought we got him to make some bad throws and we took advantage of it. The three interceptions we had were all huge.” — Mike Zimmer[/quote_box_center]
On a national stage, one they’ve historically failed on, the Vikings dominated with defense. Helped by the return of three defensive starters — free safety Harrison Smith, linebacker Anthony Barr, and nose tackle Linval Joseph — they sacked Eli Manning four times, forced two fumbles, and picked off the Giants quarterback three times. Of the trio of players making their long-awaited return to the field, none was more impactful than Harrison Smith, who extended the Vikings’ lead to 13 in the second quarter with a 35-yard pick-six.
When asked what’s helped the Vikings become so efficient, from the front-seven to the secondary, Smith pointed to Zimmer’s guidance at the helm of the defense: “I think we have a good idea of who we are now,” he told USA Today’s Tom Pelissero after the game. “We’re a tough team, and we know our identity, whereas – I’ve only been here four years – but I feel like before, we were just kind of playing.” In just two years, Zimmer’s turned the defense completely around; before he arrived, the Vikings allowed a league-worst 480 points and 6,362 yards in 2013. Through 15 games this season, they’ve significantly improved, having allowed just 289 points and 5,157 yards. And that’s with one game remaining against a struggling Green Bay offense.
This year, the Packers have the 13th-highest scoring offense in the league, yet rank 24th in total yards. They’re running the ball effectively as of late, eclipsing 100 yards in five of their past six games. But the passing game has been limited by injuries and archaic play-calling from head coach Mike McCarthy. As Sports Illustrated’s Andy Benoit wrote in November, the Packers rely heavily on isolation routes and one-on-one matchups for their wide receivers. That’s fine with players like Jordy Nelson, who can dominate in those situations, but not for the current group of pass catchers. Benoit, on the subject:
“It’s up to Rodgers to drop back, identify the defense, analyze the action and decipher which of these individual routes is best to target,” he wrote. “This approach is fine … as long as your receivers win one-on-one.” The receivers aren’t winning, and Aaron Rodgers is holding the ball far too long in the pocket. Against a defense like the Cardinals, who love to blitz and pressure the quarterback, that’s a problem. The Vikings can take a page from Arizona’s playbook and blitz far more than they did in Week 11. As Pat Thurman tweeted last night, Rodgers has struggled far more against extra rushers this year than he has over the course of his career:
Aaron Rodgers vs blitz: ‘07-14
64% comp (52%)
8.8 YPA (6.4)
7.5% sack rate (11.2%)
+101.5 PFF grade (-9.2)
111.6 QB Rating (81.7)
— Pat Thorman (@Pat_Thorman) December 28, 2015
With the Vikings getting “hot” at the right time of the year, their sights are set on the NFC North title and beyond. Though the offense is scoring at maddening rate in recent weeks — 87 combined points in the past two games — it’s the defense that has them in prime position to compete well into January and February. But ask anyone in the locker room, and they’ll echo what Zimmer has been preaching all year long; the Vikings are pleased, but not satisfied.
“By us coming in here tonight and getting a win, we do not have to rely on other people to get into the playoffs,” defensive end Brian Robison said, per Craig Peters of Vikings.com. “We’ve been in situations before where we’ve had to rely on people and it’s not a fun deal. You want to be able to do what we did tonight: win and in. Now we’ve got to try to move forward and get a division championship next week.”