The road to NFC North supremacy in 2020 goes through Green Bay. But the Vikings quest to dethrone the reigning division champions begins at home. These two teams have won 10 of the last 12 NFC North titles, with the Packers claiming six and the Vikings claiming four.
It’s time to get into the weeds a little bit on the 2020 Green Bay Packers…
Coordinator Mike Pettine’s base is traditionally a 3-4 alignment, with OLBs Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith holding down the edges and veterans Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry helping to control the middle of the field. Clark has become a premier DT and was rewarded as such recently with a new contract.
He’s a terrific run stopper but also leads the club in sacks over the last three seasons with 16.5. Lowry was a nuisance for the Vikings in 2019 with the way he helped defend play action bootlegs.
Green Bay has invested draft picks in their secondary and it’s paying off. Jaire Alexander (1st round in 2018) has a chance to keep ascending into a top-level CB while Josh Jackson (2nd round in 2018) and Kevin King (2nd round in 2017) play significant roles at CB.
Darnell Savage (1st round in 2019) is coming off a quality rookie campaign, too. The Packers seem to be optimistic about Chandon Sullivan, a second-year player they acquired last season after Philadelphia cut him, filling the nickel CB spot.
An area teams may try to exploit in Green Bay’s defense is the ILB position, where Oren Burks and Christian Kirksey don’t cause offensive coordinators to lose sleep.
It’s still all about Aaron Rodgers. He’s been a thorn in the Vikings side since he stepped into the lineup as a starter in 2008 and that doesn’t figure to change in 2020.
As Harrison Smith said earlier this week, Rodgers is exceptional at extending the life of a play and making the defense pay. And when he does that, it’s often receiver Davonte Adams who comes open and is on the receiving end.
The only other skill position player to write home about is running back Aaron Jones, a back who runs with power and speed. He was a problem for the Vikings last season, rushing for 270 yards and 3 TDs on 46 attempts.
The big issue for Green Bay’s offense heading into the season opener is the right side of their offensive line, where RG Lane Taylor is adequate and the RT position is in flux due to injury. Billy Turner is projected to start at that spot, but he’ll likely be on the injury report and his status is a legitimate question for Sunday.
His backup is veteran Rick Wagner, who is also dealing with an injury and could miss the game. Green Bay is solid on the left side with David Bakhtiari at LT and Elgton Jenkins at LG.
Mason Crosby continues to hold down place kicking duties, JK Scott is a quality punter and Tyler Ervin is projected to handle all return duties.
When Green Bay has the ball
Expect Green Bay to use unscouted looks on the first couple series in order to establish tempo and momentum. Obviously, their intent is to put points up but more specifically they want to demonstrate balance.
Quick throws and plenty of Jones runs to test the Vikings run defense seem like plausible events. The Vikings can mitigate this strategy by tackling well.
This will limit explosive plays and make Green Bay labor down the field; the more plays an offense has to run, the more chances a mistake will happen (i.e. sacks, penalties, turnovers).
Once this initial phase of the GB offense vs. MIN defense concludes, Mike Zimmer can start dictating tempo with answers to the unscouted looks and then his own bag of tricks in crucial situations such as 3rd and long, the red zone, backed up and the 2-minute drill.
Late in the game, assuming it’s a close contest, each side will play to its strengths. Rodgers will look for Adams, he’ll buy time if Adams isn’t there and then he’ll improvise on the run. Zimmer will keep using tactics that have worked during the game and he’ll empty the chamber with his pressures and blitzes.
He’s a master at creating free runners to the QB, especially when the opposing blockers feel overwhelmed by his rushers and his second and third level defenders are effectively disguising their intentions.
When Minnesota has the ball
It would make sense for the Vikings offense to have these two goals early in the game:
– Get Dalvin Cook plenty of touches (runs + targets)
– Find out how Green Bay is scheming against Adam Thielen
The first goal makes all the sense in the world and is self-explanatory. The second goal will be a cat and mouse game. Gary Kubiak should want to know what looks/situations (if any) will cause the defense to bracket Thielen, what looks/situations will result in man or zone, what looks/situations will result in single coverage, etc.
Once this is known, Kubiak and the offensive staff can start zeroing in on plays they like that will generate the defensive response they feel favors them.
Once this phase of the game concludes, the Vikings will look to blend Cook rushing attempts with play action passes. Green Bay did a great job defending Kirk Cousins bootlegs last season, so the cat and mouse game in this regard will be interesting on Sunday.
Ultimately, it may benefit the Vikings to be in heavy sets – 22, 12 and 13 personnel – as often as possible because that means less pass pro against Z. Smith and more stress on the defense to keep tackling Cook. It’s hard to tackle Dalvin Cook. So make the defense tackle him 30+ times.
Late in the game, assuming it’s a close contest, the Vikings can keep using Cook and then throw in some CJ Ham and Alexander Mattison to tax and punish the Packers defense. If it’s not close or if the Vikings are trailing and have to throw it to win it, the risk is pass pro against the Packers pass rush. The advantage goes to Green Bay in that scenario.
Players to Watch – Dalvin Cook and Za’Darius Smith
Discounting the QBs, the players each team will have to focus on the most are Cook and Z. Smith. The reasons for this have already been explained.
Essentially, Cook is the straw that stirs the drink when things are going as designed for the Vikings offense. Hand it to him, throw it to him…make the defense tackle him.
Smith ruined the game the last time these two teams met. He had 3.5 sacks. If the Vikings are pass predictable, the chore of blocking Smith for a long enough time for Cousins to get the ball out might be too tall for the Vikings – or anyone’s for that matter – pass pro.
Chess Match to Watch – Coverage on Thielen
With no Stefon Diggs and with no one else yet to establish themselves as a bona fide alternative threat, the Vikings are now in a position where opposing defenses can focus coverage on Thielen. With Diggs and Thielen, it was almost a pick your poison proposition.
For now at least, the Vikings can’t put defenses in that dilemma. Now, the onus is on the Vikings to discern what coverage Thielen will receive based on the situation, and then create the proper situations so Thielen gets the preferred coverage.
Storyline to Watch – Aaron Rodgers’ Comfortability
Both publicly and privately, Rodgers has made no bones about it – he respects Zimmer and relishes the opportunity to challenge him. And the respect is mutual. This is legitimately one of the most entertaining and evenly-matched showdowns the NFL sees every year.
The interesting angle in this particular matchup is that it’s Week 1. A few reasons why that’s interesting are:
– Each side will have unscouted looks – there’s no way the other side can prepare for everything they will see.
– The Vikings won’t have the advantage of a home crowd because the NFL is not permitting fans in buildings yet.
– Rodgers is aggressive and he’s not timid, but he also knows it’s a long season. He has 15 more games to go after this one. If the Vikings are generating pressure early and often, he’ll be more apt to go into preservation mode on individual plays. Again, he’s not going to cower…that’s not the assertion. But he’s also not going to continuously smash his head into the wall. Live to see another day.