Good Call For Jaren Hall to Start vs. Packers + Keys to a Purple Win
When the Vikings were in the midst of beating the Packers 24-10 in Lambeau back on October 29 for their third straight win to get back to 4-4, who could have seen what was up ahead?
Good Call For Jaren Hall to Start vs. Packers + Keys to a Purple Win
After Kirk Cousins tore his Achilles in the fourth quarter of that Week 8 Packer game, Jaren Hall started the next week in Atlanta, sustained an early concussion, Josh Dobbs mania ensued with two straight wins, and then there have been four losses in the last five weeks with Dobbs and Mullens turning it over 12 times. And now the Vikings — like the inconsistent Packers — face an elimination game on Sunday night at U.S. Bank Stadium with Kevin O’Connell going back to Hall as the starter.
A win coupled with either a Rams loss at the Giants or a Seahawks loss at home against the Steelers will put the Vikings back into a wild card spot headed to Detroit for the season finale (and the Rams have a rough Week 18 game at San Francisco who likely will need the win to wrap up the No. 1 NFC seed). But it’s almost certain that the Vikings must beat the Packers to keep their playoff hopes alive.
I applaud O’Connell’s decision to start Hall since we’ve seen enough of Dobbs and Mullens to realize they can’t get it done consistently. Perhaps the fifth-round rookie can get hot like another late-round draft pick — Brock Purdy — did for the 49ers last season as a rookie. Like Dobbs, Hall does bring a lot more mobility than Mullens, and the Vikings hope he’ll protect the ball better than either Dobbs or Mullens.
The Vikings have been waylaid this season by injuries, with T.J. Hockenson and D.J. Wonnum — two key starters — the latest to hit injured reserve. The Minnesota secondary is hoping for the return of top corner Byron Murphy, who missed the Lions game, and Mekhi Blackmon, who hurt his shoulder last week. Wide receiver Jordan Addison also is battling an ankle injury and is a question mark. The Packers also are banged up with 14 players on the injury list as not practicing or limited on Wednesday.
The Vikings are seeking their first season sweep of the Packers since 2017, when Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone on an Anthony Barr tackle. This is a huge test for Kevin O’Connell and his coaching staff to keep the team thinking positive and focused on getting an essential victory. They can worry about Detroit next week, but for now, beating Green Bay is all that matters.
Here are my keys to a Vikings win over the Packers:
1. A good game by Hall with the team staying even or plus on turnover ratio: it’s well documented that the Vikings have won every game this season when they’ve been even or ahead on turnover differential, and in all eight defeats, they’ve lost the turnover battle. Dobbs and Mullens were turnover machines, and Hall did lose a fumble in the last Packers game when he replaced Cousins, but he did not throw an interception in his limited action in Green Bay and Atlanta.
Hall must protect the ball, the offensive line and other pass protectors (including C.J. Ham and Josh Oliver) must protect Hall, and the running game is crucial to take pressure off Hall and set up play-action passes. The expected return of Pro Bowl right tackle Brian O’Neill is a boost to the offensive line, but he must play at a higher level than he did in several earlier games (such as the Bears’ loss and the win over the Raiders). Left tackle Christian Darrisaw has given up a few sacks lately, and he needs to return to his usual elite level as well.
The Vikings’ tackles (and interior linemen on stunts) have to play well to contain two good edge rushers in Rashan Gary (nine sacks but none last time vs. Minnesota) and Preston Smith (six sacks, two in the last game vs. the Vikings).
Hall also should run when it’s open, as he has the athletic ability to do so (like Dobbs and unlike Mullens).
2. Run it with Ty Chandler like in Cincinnati and not like last week: the Vikings were held to 17 yards rushing by a good Lions run defense, but that’s an unacceptable total regardless of the opponent. Chandler had 132 yards rushing the week before in Cincinnati, and the offensive line and other run blockers must open holes for Chandler and Alexander Mattison against a weak Packers run defense that ranks 30th.
The Vikings had only 62 rushing yards in Green Bay, but Chandler had no carries in that game. Cousins had a good game prior to his injury, with 274 passing yards and two TDs with no turnovers.
3. Heavy targeting of J.J. with Alexander out: the Vikings caught a break (finally) with the news that Packers Pro Bowl corner Jaire Alexander is suspended this week for conduct detrimental to the team. That should create an opportunity for a big game for Jefferson, who is coming off a great game against Detroit with 141 receiving yards and several circus catches. He needs 177 yards for his fourth straight thousand-yard season to start his career, and Addison needs 174 receiving yards to reach 1,000 in his rookie year. Could one of them reach these levels this week?
Jefferson will be doubled on most, if not all, snaps, but he still must be targeted at least a dozen times, even if he appears to be covered. But there also will be opportunities for Addison (if he plays), K.J. Osborn, and Brandon Powell, along with tight ends Johnny Mundt and Oliver (who had a nice 33-yard reception on the first offensive play against Detroit), who must make some plays with Hockenson out.
O’Connell must not go overly conservative with his late-game play calling because Hall is a rookie if the Vikings have a fourth-quarter lead.
4. Stop Aaron Jones again: Jones comes off a big game with 127 rushing yards against a decent Carolina defense. The Vikings held him to 29 yards in the last meeting (and stopped A.J. Dillon—11 yards). The Vikings are ranked 9th in run defense, but they are coming off a down game as they allowed 143 rushing yards with three TDs on the ground against Detroit.
Jones and Dillon also are targeted a lot by Jordan Love out of the backfield, so Ivan Pace and Jordan Hicks, along with the safeties, must do a good job against them in both run and pass defense.
5. Pressure Love, corners play better & big game needed from Hunter…the Vikings did a good job against Love last time, holding him to 229 passing yards and one TD with a big interception and 43-yard return by Josh Metellus to set up a Cousins to Addison TD pass. The Vikings must have an effective pass rush with their usual blitzing to help their suspect corners, especially if Murphy and Blackmon are out, which brings Andrew Booth into action and last week Jaylin Williams in his NFL debut.
The Packers will likely use a lot of the quick passing game as Jared Goff did last week. Akayleb Evans must play better than he has in recent weeks when he was often beaten by Tee Higgins of the Bengals and Amon-Ra St. Brown of the Lions (and Evans was pulled late in the game last week). The Vikings will hope Christian Watson’s hamstring injury keeps him out (he has five TD receptions), but Romeo Doubs is a fine second-year receiver (56 catches, 646 yards, 8 TDs), and rookie Jayden Reed also is a threat (54 catches, 592 yards, 6 TDs). The safeties must be ready to help the corners against the Packers’ good receiving corps.
Hunter (15.5 sacks, 3rd in the league), as always, is the key to the Vikings’ defense and pass rush. He was held sackless last week and must step up even more without Wonnum (two sacks last time against the Pack) and with Marcus Davenport still out of the lineup. Hunter did have a key late-game sack on Love in the October victory. Pat Jones will take Wonnum’s edge/OLB spot. He is coming off his best game as a Viking and must be impactful against the Packers.
6. Win on special teams: Packers kicker Anders Carlson has missed five field goals and four PATs, so the Vikings may have an edge with Greg Joseph kicking well lately and being at home. Joseph needs to boot his kickoffs deep to keep an excellent returner in Keisean Nixon (26.4-yard average) from getting opportunities. A big return by Kene Nwangwu (on kickoffs if he gets a chance) or Powell on punts also would help the cause.
7. Crowd noise important: the New Year’s Eve crowd can help the Vikings in Love’s first U.S. Bank Stadium start and give the edge rushers an advantage, plus force a few false starts.
Every Vikings game this season has been a one-score finish except the Vikings’ 24-10 win in Green Bay. But I expect a one-score game this week.
It should be a wild atmosphere on New Year’s Eve in this prime time matchup and Vikings fans will get behind Hall in his home debut. The Vikings are a dismal 2-5 at home this season and with so much on the line, the team will give a great effort in support of Hall as they try to stay in the playoff chase.
Love has been playing well lately (100 plus rating in five of his last six games and 14th ranked in passer rating at 91. 8), which is concerning as he goes against the Vikings’ shaky corners. Brian Flores must get Love rattled with blitzes and fake blitzes so he doesn’t know what’s coming.
I actually feel better about the Vikings’ chances with Hall instead of the erratic Mullens. But the Vikings are so injury-riddled that it’s hard to pick them, even though the Packers’ defense is struggling. I’ve got Green Bay winning 24-23.
Around the NFL Observations:
1. As much as the Vikings and their fans would love to see the Rams fall at the Giants (who knocked off the Packers in their last home game) and/or the Seahawks to get beat by the Steelers, I expect both teams to win this Sunday afternoon. The Vikings will know if either got beat and if they can reclaim a playoff spot going into the final week when they take the field on Sunday night.
2. Other big games this weekend: Detroit at Dallas on Saturday night (I like the Cowboys, who are 7-0 at home, and I think the Lions may have a slight letdown after winning the NFC North last week); Miami at Baltimore with the AFC No. 1 seed on the line (give me the hot Ravens off their impressive performance in San Fran and it’s strange scheduling that this is a noon game on Sunday); Cincinnati tries to stay alive at Kansas City against the struggling Chiefs who have lost four of their last six with the offense not performing well, but I’m picking Mahomes and K.C. this week after the Bengals looked bad in getting trounced last week in Pittsburgh.
The Buccaneers have won four straight behind QB Baker Mayfield’s excellent recent play, and they can clinch the NFC South with a home win over New Orleans if the Bears beat the Falcons in Chicago, which I expect to happen as the Bears are playing well down the stretch with three wins in their last four games.
Justin Jefferson Believes in the New Guy
Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl