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Previewing Vikings at Packers

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NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

After a nice opening week win over the 49ers to start the season, the Vikings move on to their annual visit to Lambeau Field, where they will try to make it four-in-a-row in the win column against their top division rival.

RODGERS’ HEALTH STILL AN ISSUE

Just like the last two games against the Packers, the health of the Packers’ franchise Aaron Rodgers remains an issue. I wouldn’t bet against him playing, and go with the assumption he will play until I hear otherwise, which I’m sure the Packers will keep under wraps as long as possible.

The exact nature of the knee injury Rodgers suffered Sunday night against the Bears still isn’t known, but apparently there is pain and swelling, consistent with a mild MCL sprain, which could limit his mobility for at least a couple weeks, according to doctors who know this stuff. Dr. David Chao, a sports medicine physician often consulted on football injuries, seems to think he may have a mild grade 1 or 2 MCL sprain, which would limit his mobility for up to a month, but not prevent him from playing. If that is an accurate assessment, and given that the Packers have yet to acquire a decent backup QB to Rodgers, and it being a home game against their chief rival to the division crown, I’d be surprised if Rodgers didn’t play.

There is a chance, if the diagnosis is a little more complicated- like if he tore his meniscus as well- that McCarthy may choose to start DeShone Kizer and effectively punt on this game, give Rodgers another week of rest and hope he can stay upright against a string of less daunting opponents until the Packers bye week. But I wouldn’t count on that.

In any case his ability to be as deadly outside the pocket may be curtailed quite a bit if he starts on Sunday.

THE VIKINGS OFFENSE MATCHES-UP WELL AGAINST THE PACKERS DEFENSE

When I first saw this road game on the schedule week two, I thought the timing was an advantage for the Vikings for a couple reasons. First, weather would not be an issue in Green Bay in September; and second, the Packers have a lot of new faces in their defensive secondary, and with only one real game under their belts, they may still experience some growing pains against the best WR duo in the league, and with a QB that knows how to throw the deep ball well. I still like the WR-DB matchup for the Vikings WRs against the Packers young DBs.

Beyond that, still looking at the Vikings offense, the offensive line may be helped by a lack of a Packers outside pass rush. Both Clay Matthews and Nick Perry were ineffective against the Bears on Sunday, and struggled much of the season last year generating an effective pass rush. DE Mike Daniels is a stud, but beyond him Dean Lowry and Frank Clark haven’t been that effective as pass rushers. Even Daniels wasn’t as good a pass rusher against the Bears as he was stout against the run.

Looking at the second and third level run defense for the Packers - and even some guys up front - they haven’t done that well. That could lead to some big runs for the Vikings on Sunday.

VIKINGS DEFENSIVE LINE VS. PACKERS OFFENSIVE LINE

One thing that doesn’t get a lot of attention in evaluating the Green Bay Packers is their offensive line, which has been declining over the years. Once upon a time, the Packers had the best guard duo in the league with Josh Sitton and TJ Lang. They are both long gone, replaced now by Lane Taylor, who has been average, and Justin McCray, who has been less so. Meanwhile two other linemen- center Corey Linsley and right-tackle Bryan Bulaga - are coming off down years and struggled against the Bears Sunday night. Only David Bakhtiari continues to play at a high level - one of the best left tackles in the league.

But overall, the Packers have seen a steady degradation in their offensive line talent over the years - and that showed up Sunday night against the Bears. It wasn’t just Khalil Mack against Bryan Bulaga. It was Akiem Hicks and others against the Packers interior line.

Meanwhile, the Vikings added Sheldon Richardson at DT, who led the league in pass rush productivity week one, and Danielle Hunter has emerged as a force at defensive end. And Linval Joseph and Everson Griffen are still pretty good too.

All that translates into an advantage in the trenches the Vikings defensive line did not in past years. And with Aaron Rodgers mobility a question mark, that advantage could have more of an impact on Sunday in Green Bay.

I would expect the Packers to run a lot of up-tempo - like they did in the second half against the Bears - to try to neutralize the Vikings pass rush. We’ll see how well that works. It can be difficult to execute against a top defense with a lot of continuity.

PACKERS RECEIVERS VS VIKINGS DEFENSIVE BACKS

Jordy Nelson has been a thorn in the Vikings side against the Packers for several years. The last five games with both Nelson and Rodgers healthy and playing, Nelson averaged over 16 yards a reception, with 30 receptions for 484 yards. Rodgers’ average passer rating when targeting Nelson over those five games was 123.5. Now he’s gone.

Davante Adams, the new Packers #1 receiver, has averaged 40 receiving yards a game over his last four against the Vikings with Aaron Rodgers at QB. Xavier Rhodes has been able to shut him down pretty well when he’s shadowed him in coverage.

Randall Cobb has averaged just over 30 receiving yards a game over his last three against the Vikings with Aaron Rodgers at the helm.

Geronimo Allison is now the Packers’ #3 receiver, but hasn’t really played much against the Vikings at this point. He had just two receptions for 16 yards on five targets last year, The previous year he had a 66-yard receiving game against the Vikings, with four receptions on six targets.

And then there is 6’ 7” Jimmy Graham, whom the Packers picked up during the off-season. He is meant to be Jordy Nelson’s replacement in the red zone. He’s been an All-Pro tight end back with the Saints, but his production has declined as he’s entered his 30s and suffered some injuries. It remains to be seen how productive he’ll be in Green Bay. He had two receptions on four targets for eight yards in his debut against the Bears. It may take some time for Rodgers and Graham to develop the type of chemistry that Rodgers had with Nelson, which is what made them such a deadly combination over the years.

Opposite this group of Packers receivers will be Xavier Rhodes, most likely covering Davante Adams; most likely Mike Hughes covering Randall Cobb most of the time, and if healthy Trae Waynes on Geronimo Allison. It’s unclear if MacKensie Alexander will take over in the slot or not when he’s healthy. In any case, there are no real matchup advantages there for the Packers anymore - as shown by their recent production vs. the Vikings.

That leaves Jimmy Graham against Barr or Kendricks or Harrison Smith. Against the 49ers Kendricks and Smith had some blown coverage against 49ers’ TE Kittle, so that will need to be cleaned up. But it may be that the Vikings choose a different approach to covering Graham, using 6’5” Anthony Barr or 6’4” George Iloka - we’ll have to see.

But I could see the Vikings playing more man coverage, single-high safety (Sendejo) with Harrison Smith floating and working to disrupt the shorter passing game the Packers may employ if Rodgers isn’t as mobile and becomes a pocket passer.

OVERALL

Lost in the one-legged Rodgers hype Sunday night was the fact that the Packers didn’t play very well. They made some adjustments at halftime to help them win while the Bears made some adjustments to help them lose. But Rodgers aside, it was not a good performance by the Packers out of the gate, and reveals some issues they will have to work out over the course of the season. If Rodgers plays but isn’t very mobile, that will make things more difficult for the Packers on Sunday.

On the other hand the Vikings were solid, if not outstanding, on their win over the 49ers. I think takeaways has been something of a point of emphasis for Zimmer and last year’s #1 defense, but they also need to get past some of the preseason mistakes they made in coverage against the 49ers. I’m confident they will.

Offensively the Vikings have something to build on in their week one performance, and I think Green Bay’s defense will give them that opportunity. There are a lot of new faces in the Green Bay secondary, and a new scheme, so I would expect some hiccups that the Vikings can take advantage of. Particularly with skilled route runners like Diggs and Thielen. I would not be surprised if Dalvin Cook and others benefit from some poor tackling and run defense as well, which will help make Kirk Cousins’ job a little easier.

I expected a closer game before Rodgers was injured, but if he is not able to extend plays as well now, I’ll go with the Vikings winning a little more comfortably. 27-17.