There wasn't much question going into this season that the NFC North title was going to be a battle between the Packers and Vikings, and when the schedule came out with the Vikings hosting the Packers to debut US Bank stadium in prime time, you knew that was going to be a big game to decide which team can gain the early advantage.
And so it is.
What We Learned from Week One
I did an NFC North preview last week, which summarizes the outlook for the Packers going into the season, and an analysis of the Vikings roster and outlook heading into week one, and some notes from the Vikings win over the Titans, outlining the good and bad in that game.
So let's move on to the Packers game vs. the Jaguars.
Watching the game, it reminded me a lot of the Packers games last year. Offensively the Packers did best when the play broke down, with Rodgers scrambling and making plays. Pass protection was good, including new LG Lane Taylor, albeit against a less than stellar Jaguar defensive front. The Jaguars secondary isn't much better, but the Packers had to work for what they got in the passing game. Overall, Rodgers finished 20/34 for 199 yards and 2 TDs - he rushed for a third. Jordy Nelson was not 100%, and it showed. He had 6 receptions for 32 yards- basically of the short possession-type variety, and wasn't a deep threat. Davonte Adams seems to have won the #3 receiver spot, along with Nelson and Randall Cobb. Overall, Rodgers averaged just 5.7 net yards per attempt (NY/A), and didn't have any sack yardage to lower the gross number, so basically was forced to check down most of the game. Again, all but one of Rodgers deeper throws downfield that I saw came after he scrambled to extend the play.
Defensively the Packers were inconsistent, primarily due to the disparity in player performance. Damarious Randall played very well at CB. Sam Shields and Quinton Rollins (who was benched) didn't. The Packers safeties Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton Dix were very solid. The LBs were a mixed bag. Jake Ryan and Joe Thomas did well, Blake Martinez did not. Up front, Nick Perry and Datone Jones did well, Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers did not.
Overall, Blake Bortles ended the game 24/39 for 320 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT, but the Packers defense was able to hold with seconds left and the Jaguars deep in the red zone to get the win. It wasn't a dominant performance by any means- offensively or defensively- but just enough to get the win. The Jaguars starting RB Chris Ivory was a last minute scratch, which hurt, but the Jaguars passing game looked pretty solid, all things considered. I don't think the Jaguars defense is all that strong, but they did make the Packers work for what they got.
What that means for Sunday night
First, Shaun Hill probably did well enough where it isn't imperative that Sam Bradford start against the Packers. Having said that, I suspect they're going to do everything they can to prepare him this week, and start him if he appears ready.
But skipping that for a moment, let's look at the marquee match-up between the Packers offense and the Vikings defense.
The Packers new LG Lane Taylor held up well against the Jaguars, so perhaps won't be such a big drop-off from Josh Sitton- we'll see. But as good and deep as the Vikings defensive line is, the Packers have shown to be very effective especially in pass protection, so I have to give them the advantage here in base units. My hope is that Sharrif Floyd will do more to expose Lane Taylor, but that remains to be seen. I also hope Mike Zimmer plays Danielle Hunter more. He is better against the run than Brian Robison, and athletically is much more of a mismatch against Bryan Bulaga. But I have other ideas about that too below.
The big thing for the Vikings defensive front is to maintain containment of Aaron Rodgers, pass rush discipline, and not give him extra time for late play heroics, which remains key for the Packers offensive productivity. Forcing the Packers to execute early, or not at all, works to the Vikings advantage.
Receivers vs. Secondary
As it stands now, with Xavier Rhodes status in doubt, it looks like the match-ups will most often be Jordy Nelson vs. Terence Newman, Davante Adams vs. Trae Waynes, and Randall Cobb vs. Captain Munnerlyn. Cobb may line-up against an outside CB as well- most likely Waynes- or in the backfield- which the Packers did a few plays against Jacksonville. For whichever CB lines up against Cobb, taking the inside away is key in press-man as he doesn't have the height/speed outside to give Rodgers a good window to throw to.
Overall, the Vikings match-up well against the Packers receivers, and Barr covering Rogers or Cook is fine too. If Nelson were 100% that may be more of a problem, but as is it's not a clear advantage. In any case, I don't see Rodgers having a mismatch to exploit anytime he sees it in his pre-snap read. That goes a long way toward limiting his effectiveness early in the play. Effective press-man then forces him to hold the ball longer- which often happens.
Rodgers is well known for holding the ball longer than most QBs. For example, last year despite one of the best pass protecting lines in the league (80+ PFF grades across the board in pass pro), Rodgers was sacked 48 times- one more than Teddy Bridgewater. The unusual thing about Rodgers in his time to throw is that typically he either gets rid of it right away (around 2 seconds or less), or holds it longer- over 3.5 seconds- but not so much in the middle time frames. That tells you either he goes with his pre-snap read- usually a precision timing route- or has that disrupted and is forced to hold it as long as possible to allow receivers time to gain separation, which often leads to sacks and throw-aways - and the occasional big play.
So, eliminating that pre-snap read with effective press-man coverage- which is what teams did against the Packers last year from the Broncos game onward- forces Rodgers to hold the ball. If the defensive front can do its job and get to Rodgers in 3 seconds or less, that should then be a positive play for the defense- either an incompletion/throwaway or a sack or turnover.
Of course football is a constant chess match, and if the Packers don't have success against press-man, they may look for other ways to beat it. Those ways include motion, stacked/bunch formations, picks (effectively), or having receivers line-up in the backfield. All these have downsides and defensive counters, and the Vikings are well-coached and trained to implement them.
But overall, the Vikings don't present any easy mismatches or opportunities for the Packers to exploit. The Vikings don't need exotic blitz packages to get the job done- these are usually counter-productive against Rodgers anyway. Instead, they need to just be disciplined and limit mistakes. If they do that, Rodgers' success will be limited, and allow the Vikings a chance to win.
Not that coach Zimmer needs any advice from me (or anyone else) on how to run his defense, but here is one thing I'd like to see against the Packers' offense:
Go with a 5-2 front most of the time, with Robison sliding in to the outside shoulder of TJ Lang, and having Danielle Hunter face off against Bryan Bulaga.
To me, that looks like an effective match-up to a) be more effective in eliminating interior running lanes for Eddie Lacy, who isn't as effective when he's forced to bounce outside; and b) give Aaron Rodgers less room to maneuver when the pocket breaks down, allow for more effective contain, and provide another set of hands to block and screen passes. Forcing JC Tretter and Lane Taylor to block Linval Joseph and Sharrif Floyd alone seems like a good deal for the Vikings too.
That would also keep at least one of the linebackers- Barr or Kendricks- clean to roam and occupy passing lanes. The CBs would play press-man with the safeties over the top. In 3 WR sets, I'd take out Sendejo in favor of Munnerlyn, have Kendricks key on the RB, Barr cover the TE, and Harrison Smith patrol the back end.
You'd expect that would disrupt most of the quick-hit precision timing passes, and not allow much time for longer routes to develop, which is not the strong suit of the Packers' passing game these days.
Of course mixing in the 4-man front with threat of the LB A-gap blitz on occasion will help keep the Packers O-line guessing- create more potential for a break-down- and more pressure on Rodgers.
Overall, that set-up could help keep the Vikings best players on the field more, create more pressure on Rodgers and the Packers offense to execute early which hasn't been their strong suit, and curtail the late play theatrics by Rodgers that often end in big plays.
Vikings Offense vs. Packers Defense
Defensively, I expect the Packers to utilize the stop AP/make Hill/Bradford beat us game plan, which will include stacking the box just like the Titans did. However, the Packers do have some holes along the defensive front against the run, so I expect a little more success running the ball against the Packers than was the case against the Titans. It will also be interesting to see if Hill/Bradford check out of runs more often if they see 8+ in the box in their pre-snap read. Hill did it a couple times, but not much. My guess is that's not his thing, and he probably wasn't encouraged to audible much either. Zimmer was asked about it today in his press conference, and said yes, sometimes we can check out of a run, but most times you have to man up- it's not like they don't expect that after all these years with AP. I wouldn't be surprised if the Packers use safety Morgan Burnett to help stop/contain AP.
In any case, the Vikings are going to need to pass effectively to score points. I'd be a little surprised if AP has over 100 yards rushing. He may not need to for the Vikings to be effective offensively, but if he can average 4 yards a carry, that should be enough to help sustain long drives and give the Vikings red-zone opportunities.
The other aspect of the Packers defensive game plan is probably to give Stefon Diggs more attention. Obviously Diggs has become the go-to receiver for the Vikings, as was the case in Tennessee, and holding his production down would go a long way toward preventing the Vikings from passing effectively and sustaining drives. I believe Shaun Hill's passer rating was something like 118 when targeting Diggs against the Titans, so that should tell you something. I'm not sure who will match-up against Diggs- it will probably vary, especially if he plays in the slot, but I wouldn't be surprised if Clinton-Dix tends to focus a little more on him at safety.
As it stands currently, it's unclear who will be starting at CB for the Packers, other than Demarious Randall. Sam Shields suffered a concussion late against the Jaguars- which is his fourth. Shields missed four games late last year with a concussion he said was the worst injury he's ever had. He's going through the concussion protocol, but his history makes me think it more likely than not he doesn't play against the Vikings on Sunday.
If Shields can't go, then the Packers would be forced to start Rollins, who was benched last week, and LaDarius Gunter, a UDFA in 2015. Micah Hyde, who was moved to safety, could also possibly play CB for the Packers.
In any case, if the Packers focus more on Diggs, the Vikings will need to get more production from receivers like Charles Johnson, Adam Thielen, and Kyle Rudolph. It would also be nice to see Jerick McKinnon and Laquon Treadwell on the field as receivers too.
Charles Johnson had a disappointing game against the Titans. He was targeted 6 times, but had only 1 reception for 5 yards. That's not getting it done, however you want to slice it. Adam Thielen had 4 receptions on 5 targets for 54 yards, despite playing in 9 fewer passing plays. CJ needs to step it up or lose his starting job. I'd like to see Laquon Treadwell get some playing time, especially in the red zone, but based on Zimmer's comments today, it seems like he's still got some development before he sees the field. Zimmer mentioned that Diggs was sidelined for 3 games last year, so maybe that's how things could work with Treadwell. Diggs was impressive in training camp last year, however, while Treadwell wasn't so much.
In any case, Rudolph had a good game in Tennessee, and the Vikings will need him to keep it up against the Packers. One play, which has been a mainstay in Norv's Air Coryell offense for a long time, and could work well if the Packers safeties cheat a little more toward Diggs. is called (or was called) the 288.
This play is great against man coverage, where the CBs run with the WRs. The play can be run from play-action, holding the LBs and SS for a second, and hopefully allowing Kyle Rudolph to get past them and break across the field. For the QB, the first read is to the WRs running the post routes, which is also meant to hold the free safety there as well. If the free safety cheats toward the WRs (including Diggs) then it should leave Rudolph open over the middle for the big gain if he's able to get past the LB coverage.
The Vikings used this play (or very similar version) a couple times late in the season last year with success. Once with Mycole Pruitt at Arizona last year, and again with Kyle Rudolph in the home game against the Packers last year, only with the other TE (Pruitt) running a drag route that time and only one WR on the left side- but same concept. Run from mid-field or just inside Packers territory, it has TD potential as the FS has a lot of ground to make up if he misses the TE crossing underneath.
Of course we don't know who will be the quarterback for the Vikings against the Packers- which I'm guessing won't be announced until game time, but I expect both Hill and Bradford can run this play and make the throw. Encouragingly, the Vikings pass protection against the Titans was good enough to allow the QB enough time for this play to develop, which was a problem frequently last year.
Of course if the Vikings are feeling a little better about their pass protection, the Vikings could mix in a four verticals route, such as this one:
This play starts with a 2 WR, double TE set, with Jerick McKinnon at tailback, going in motion to the outside, and is meant for man coverage. McKinnon going in motion will draw either the SS or a LB to cover him, leaving Rudolph against whomever does not cover McKinnon. Either way, there is a potential mismatch on the right side.
For the QB, his first read is still the WRs on the left, which may draw the FS. If not, one of the WRs may gain separation and draw the throw. If so, either Rudolph (82) or McKinnon (31) should have a mismatch to exploit. If neither the WRs or TE/RB get open, TE Ellison (85) should be there for the checkdown with some room to run.
Lastly, a red zone play that can work either against man coverage, or four quarters, which is a type of zone coverage used in red zone situations where each safety takes an inside quarter of the field to defend, and each CB takes an outside quarter. Sometimes this is disguised as man, then they move off into zone coverage at the snap.
In this play, the QB progression is key to the route timing (as is often the case). The first look is to Diggs (14) on the quick slant. If he beats the CB inside, it may draw the SS up, but could still be a TD pass. If not, the next progression is to Charles Johnson (12), if the SS is up, then Rudolph (82), depending also on what the CB does. If he follows Johnson, then Rudolph could have a mismatch against a LB on a corner route. If he stays in his zone and the SS is up to cover Diggs, Johnson could be open at the back of the end zone. If none of that looks good, then look to Treadwell running a slant-corner route, then lastly McKinnon as the checkdown in the flat.
This is a good example of a red zone play and why good QBs can be so effective, while mediocre ones can have a tough time getting through their progressions in time. Part of what makes good QBs effective here is their pre-snap read. Where all the DBs are playing can give the QB clues to who is more likely to be open. For example, are the safeties playing up, middle or back of the end zone? Is the LB lined up inside or outside on on top of the TE? How are the CBs lined up? A quick pump fake to Diggs could draw/hold everybody in and leave Rudolph open in the corner. If all that fails, quickly looking left for Treadwell or McKinnon. Knowing how your receivers like to run these routes is important too. It's a lot to do in a few seconds, let alone deliver a precision throw on time.
Arm-chair play-calling aside, I believe this game will come down to a few key factors.
1. Turnovers. Committing fewer turnovers than the other guys.
2. Vikings offense TD/red zone production. The Vikings need to score at least 2 TDs and/or be over 40% in the red zone.
3. Packers ability to convert on 3rd down. Vikings Defense needs to hold them under 40%.
Whichever team wins at least two of those three factors will likely win the game. I give the Vikings the advantage on #1 and #3, but I expect it to be a close game. Early line has Green Bay as 3 point favorites.
Hopefully the 12th Man at US Bank stadium will be a big factor in this game, and for decades to come.