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Looking For Ways to Exploit the Packers

The Daily Norseman dives deep into the numbers to see if the Vikings can find some ways to come out of Lambeau Field with a win.

Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings currently find themselves with a 2-2 record and in a 3-way tie for 2nd place (or 3rd place based on division record tie-breakers) in the NFC North.  So this upcoming road game against the Packers this coming Thursday night will be a critical game to deciding both teams' fates at the end of the season.  Unfortunately for both teams, it comes on a short week and is only 3 days away!  But this got me wondering if there were some ways the Vikings might be able to take advantage of critical trends and match-ups to come away with an improbable win in Lambeau Field.  So, I took to the internet to do some statistical data mining to see what I could uncover, and the results, well, they look a little mixed.

The first thing to consider is how the Packer's offense operates, and what kinds of trends have been working for them.  What kinds of areas are the Packers excelling in and where are they weakest?  Starting with offense, here are some of their overall ranks.

Green Bay Offensive Ranks Overall

28th: Total Yards/Game (306.5)
16th: Points/Game (23)
9th: Third Down Conversion % (48%)
16th: Penalties (25)
15th: Passing Yards/Game (233.5)
3rd: QB Rating (109.1)
2nd: First Down Passing % (42.3)
25th: Sacks Allowed (10)
19th: Passing Attempts/Game (130)
25th: Rushing Yards/Carry (3.5)
28th: Rushing Yards/Game (73)
24th: First Down Rushing % (18.1)
30th: Rushing Attempts/Game (20.8)

Next up, I consulted Pro Football Focus to find out which players are standing out and making an impact so far this season, and which are having a tough start:

PFF Highest Rated "Green" Starters
QB Aaron Rodgers (+10.1)
WR Jordy Nelson (+8.7)
OG Josh Sitton (+8.4)
OT Bryan Bulaga (+1.7)

PFF Lowest Rated "Red" Starters
RB Eddie Lacy (-2.4)
C Corey Linsley (-2.9)
WR Jarrett Boykin (-3.4)
OT T.J. Lang (-3.6)
OG Derek Sherrod (-8.2)

This Packers offense still runs through Aaron Rodgers first.  He's got the 3rd highest passer rating in the league, which continues to speak towards his elite efficiency.  The Packers are a pass-first team as evidenced by their 30th ranking in rushing attempts per game and the percentage of 1st downs they achieve via the air as opposed to the ground (more than double).  All that said, their offensive line is still allowing a lot of pressure to Aaron Rodgers with the 8th most sacks allowed through 4 games (10 on the year).  And three of their five starting offensive lineman have a "red" grade overall, meaning they are not doing well in the trenches.  Their lack of success up front might also be impacting their lowly ranked rushing attack in which they are achieving only 3.5 yards per carry and a paltry 73 rushing yards per game.

If the Vikings defense wants to control this game, they will have to first and foremost: stop the run.  This should be a relatively easy task based on the lack of success the Packers have had thus far in the season.  Once that is taken care of, they would be best served to blanket the Green Bay receivers with man coverage with particular focus on shutting down Jordy Nelson, and rely on their defensive line to apply pressure on Aaron Rodgers.  The Vikings should have no trouble collecting several sacks as the Packers are allowing an average of more than 2 per game.

While at first glance, it would appear that the Vikings defensive line should be able to man-handle the Packers weak offensive line, the match-ups don't really favor the Vikings all that much.  Our best players tend to match-up against their best players, and our worst graded players tend to match-up against their worst players.  That said, there are two match-ups that heavily favors the Vikings in the trenches and in the pass rushing department:

DT Shariff Floyd (+2.1 Overall) vs C Jordan Linsley (-2.9 Overall) and RG T.J. Lang (-3.6 Overall)

LB Chad Greenway (+1.3 Pass Rush) vs C Jordan Linsley (-1.3 Pass Block) and RG T.J. Lang (-0.6 Pass Block)

In the secondary, we should matchup a little better than we have in year's past, at least in terms of containing the big plays.  Our two highest rated players on defense happen to be defensive backs Harrison Smith (+8.1) and Josh Robinson (+5.1) with Robert Blanton getting an honorable mention (+0.9).  Our cornerbacks will need to play better in hopes of containing Jordy Nelson though as that is a matchup I don't even want to highlight...but feel I must:

WR Jordy Nelson (+8.7 Overall) vs CB Xavier Rhodes (-0.5 Overall) and Captain Munnerlyn (-1.1 Overall)

Harrison Smith and Josh Robinson can certainly help in that regard as they have the two highest pass coverage ratings from PFF (+5.6 and +5.0 respectively), but Nelson could feast in short crossing routes, slants and routes all over the middle of the field underneath our safeties, especially in base defense when Robinson is on the sideline.  Even Randall Cobb (+0.9) could take advantage in the same way.  But their ancillary receiving options after those two drops off quickly with #3 WR Jarett Boykin and TE Andrew Quarless grading as average or worse options.  As mentioned above, our defensive attention should be on shutting down Jordy Nelson first and foremost.  This will prove to be a difficult task as all starting linebackers are graded in the red on pass coverage, and Rhodes and Munnerlyn are average or worse in pass coverage too.  Unfortunately, if Aaron Rodgers can find adequate time behind an offensive line whose grades are high overall in pass blocking, he will find Nelson and Cobb eventually and pick apart our defense at will.

While the Packers are only averaging 23 points per game so far, I would expect them to put up at least that many points Thursday night, as our defense is allowing a similar average of 21 points per game.  Due to the way their receivers match-up against our corners and linebackers, and the fact that they have one of the league's most efficient quarterbacks in the league, I would expect at least 21-24 points from this Green Bay offense.

Let's turn our attention to the Green Bay defense, and see if there are ways our offense can take advantage of some their match-ups.

Green Bay Defensive Ranks Overall

26th: Total Yards Allowed/Game
32nd: 3rd Down % Allowed (53%)
9th: Penalties
31st: Time of Possession
17th: Points Allowed per Game (24)
5h: Passing Yards Allowed per Game (214)
6th: QB Rating Allowed (78.9)
14th: 1st Down % on Passes Allowed (35.7%)
21st: Sacks (6)
23rd: Yards per carry (4.6)
32nd: Rushing Yards per Game (176)
27th: 1st Down % Allowed on Rushes (27.5%)
5th: Takeaway/Giveaway Differential (+4)

PFF Highest Rated "Green" Starters:
LB/DE Julius Peppers (+8.2)
DE Mike Daniels (+7.3)
LB Jamari Lattimore (+2.0)
CB Sam Shields (+1.9)
CB Tramon Williams (+1.4)

PFF Lowest Rated "Red" Players:
LB AJ Hawk (-1.3)
DB Micah Hyde (-1.3)
LB Clay Matthews (-2.5)
LB Mike Neal (-4.9)
NT Letroy Guion (-5.7)

First off, the Packers have a pretty good pass defense.  Three of their five highest rated players from PFF are either pass rushers or defensive backs.  Their top three pass rushers based on PFF pass rush grading are OLB/DE Peppers (+9.9), DE Datone Jones (+3.9) and DE Mike Daniels (+1.9) each with 1 sack on the year.  As a team the Packers allow the 5th fewest passing yards in the NFL, and the 6th worst QB rating, and this is after facing quarterbacks Russell Wilson, Geno Smith, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler, most of whom are pretty efficient quarterbacks by most statistical measures.  In addition, CB Sam Shields and FS Ha Ha Clinton-Dix score the highest pass coverage grades on the team from PFF.  As a disciplined defense with the 9th fewest penalties, they will be able to stick on our receivers without drawing too many flags.  So, the Vikings shouldn't feel the need to lean on their passing game this week as they may find passing yards hard to come by against the Packers in Lambeau.  Overall the Vikings passing game has no real match-up advantages that it could exploit, with only two players graded in the "green" in passing offense: Teddy Bridgewater and Rhett Ellison.  And with Teddy Bridgewater nursing an ankle injury anyway, the Vikings game plan should be: run the ball, and run some more!  To drive this point home even more Matt Kalil and Charlie Johnson on the left side of the formation (our two weakest pass blockers from PFF) will have their hands full with Julius Peppers and Datone Jones, the Packers two best pass rushers on their right side of the defense.  The Vikings would be wise to load up some blocking help via tight ends and running backs on the left side of the offensive formation.

So, if the passing game will find it tough going, then a strong run game should help lead the Vikings to victory, because after four weeks, the Packers have the worst rushing defense in the NFL, allowing 4.6 yards per carry and 176 rushing yards per game.  The Vikings were able to get their run game going against a weak Atlanta defense last week, and I would expect similar results against the Packers.  Besides, the Packers only have two players on defense graded in the "Green" in run defense: DE Mike Daniels (+5.9 run defense), and SS Morgan Burnett (+1.1 run defense).  Both of those players typically line up on the left side of the defensive formation.  Naturally, running up the middle and off the left side of the offensive line more often should give the Vikings favorable match-ups to avoid both of their best run defenders, and instead run right at Letroy Guion, Julius Peppers and Datone Jones who are some of the worst run defenders on their defense (-5.4, -1.5 and -4.5 respectively).  This should also help negate the massive advantage the Packers have in pass rushing on that side of the formation too.   By leaning on the running game, this should also allow the Vikings to take control of the clock (something the Packers defense has struggled with) limiting opportunities for Aaron Rodgers and their prolific offense.  Also to our advantage, the Packers have the worst 3rd down conversion rate in the NFL, so the Vikings should feel ok running the ball even on 3rd down.  Lastly, the Packers have a knack for generating a lot of turnovers (5th best in the NFL so far), so running with good ball security should help limit their chances for interceptions, strip sacks and forced fumbles.

The last element of the game the Vikings need to take advantage of is Special Teams.  The Packers have nothing special (no pun intended) in the return game with DuJuan Harris and Micah Hyde registering generic, or league average, "white" grades.   Mason Crosby has 12 out of 20 touchbacks so far (60%), so Cordarrelle Patterson (with currently the 3rd best return average in the NFL) should have a few opportunities for some returns.  Similarly, punter Tim Mastay (who is punting well with a 43.2 net average) will be punting to Marcus Sherels, graded as the 4th best punt returner in the NFL and tied for 15th best punt return average.  This is an underrated element of the game that could help give the Vikings better field position on Thursday night.

With a Vikings offense that is averaging only 22.8 points per game, they should find the opportunities a little easier on Thursday since the Packers allow an average of 24 points.  If Bridgewater plays, I would expect about 24 points or so from our offense, with the opportunity for a few more if the ground game can get going early.  It's shaping up to be a pretty close and hard-fought game.  If the Vikings can properly take advantage of the few match-ups they have, and neutralize the Packer's advantages, then based on what the tea leaves numbers are reading I could see the final score being something along the lines of:

Packers 23 - Vikings 24

Of course, this is a home game for the Packers and with a scoring prediction that close it could just as easily swing the other way.  A bad bounce here, a missed call there...and it's easily Packers 24 and Vikings 23.  Either way, assuming Bridgewater plays and some of the other members of the team get healthy (looking at you Chad Greenway) this should be a close football game.