The game started well for the Vikings defense, which created three takeaways in the first half, including a rare Aaron Rodgers interception. But the Vikings offense, and the Vikings offensive line in particular, was out of sync and completely blown away by the Packers defensive front.
The net result was a 23-10 Vikings loss, as the Vikings offense was unable to hold the ball for more than 7 plays at a time the entire game, including seven drives that went either 3 or 4 and out, with the Vikings failing to convert 2 fourth downs. The Vikings offense, despite a 3-1 turnover advantage, held the ball only 22:28 the whole game, compared to the Packers 37:32.
The Vikings defense played well until late in the second half when the Packers were able to wear them down, at which point their run game began to dominate.
Vikings Offensive Line Exposed
One of the things the Packers did on occasion was move Za’Darius Smith inside against Pat Elflein and Garrett Bradbury, and he had his way with them most of the night, racking up 3.5 sacks and a couple more tackles-for-loss. The Vikings offensive line gave up a total of 5 sacks, 2 TFLs, and allowed Kirk Cousins to be under pressure early and often the entire game.
It was the worst offensive line performance since at least week four at Chicago, and probably their worst performance of the season.
In addition to failing to protect Kirk Cousins or open many holes in the running game, the line was also responsible for a holding penalty that negated a long Cousins TD pass that would have put them back in the game.
Kevin Stefanski Not Getting It Done
Beyond, prior to, and a contributing factor to the poor offensive line performance, was the poor play-calling by Kevin Stefanski.
The Packers defense was ranked 24th against the run, and had given up 198 yards against the Vikings week two - despite the Vikings playing from behind the entire game. But Kevin Stefanski chose to run the ball only 16 times the entire game (out of 53 total plays). He also ran only one play-action pass- a staple of the Vikings offense and absolute key to Cousins success this season - the entire first half.
It wasn’t just curious, it was just plain bad.
It’s been a recurring thing with Stefanski - every so often he goes rogue and leaves the Kubiak playbook in the dust, and the Vikings’ offense struggles with the changes. This is not game planning. It’s planning to fail. It’s planning to fail because you abandon what your team does well in favor of what it doesn’t do well.
Calling a 70% passing game, with next to no play-action, is what got John DeFilippo fired last season. And that’s what Stefanski called against the Packers. Against the 24th ranked run defense.
I would be happy to see Stefanski take a back seat to Gary Kubiak when it comes to game planning and play calling at this point. The Vikings can’t afford this incompetence from their offensive coordinator in the playoffs.
Granted the Vikings had backups at running back, but Boone is at least a competent running back and has shown some explosive runs when he’s been given reps. Having him and Ameer Abdullah at RB is no excuse to completely alter the game plan. They could’ve done well enough given the chance, and a balanced attack would have taken pressure off the offensive line and kept the Packers defense off-balance.
But Stefanski decided a drop-back passing attack was the best plan.
What the F&@K was that?!?!— Ben Leber (@nacholeber) December 24, 2019
So when did we decide we are a drop-back, sit in the pocket passing attack??? Baffled. #Vikings
This was a game the Vikings were leading most of the time, and was a one score game into the fourth quarter. There was absolutely no reason to abandon the run game, nor the play-action pass. But that’s what Stefanski did.
One wonders if Stefanski watched the game film of the Packers against the 49ers, where the 49ers balanced, play-action offense lit up the Packers defense for 37 points. The Packers only had one turnover in that game, and the 49ers had the ball for only 24:44, but it was a 37-8 Niners blowout.
Stefanski abandoned that playbook, and the Vikings offense could only manage 10 points despite the Vikings defense producing three takeaways.
Perhaps the Vikings decided this game didn’t matter much - they’re in the playoffs and the Packers were going to win the division most likely either way - and therefore didn’t want to show much on film offensively, but I doubt it.
There’s no reason to make your team look so bad in a big rivalry game on Monday night with a chance to build momentum into the postseason.
Vikings Defense Played Well - Until They Wore Down Late
As bad as the offensive played, the Vikings’ performance on defense was encouraging - particularly the takeaways. The Vikings notched three more takeaways against a Packers team that doesn’t give up many at all. It was only Rodgers’ third interception all season, and the Packers had only 9 turnovers all season before this game, but gave it away three times against the Vikings.
The Vikings defense also did well near and in the red zone, forcing the Packers into field goals rather than touchdowns. They also forced five punts. Rodgers had only a 68.3 passer rating, going 26/40 for 216 yards, an INT, no TDs, and 3 sacks.
The downside of that was that in playing a lot of off-coverage, as they did against the Bears week four, they gave up a lot of dink-and-dunk outside screen passes, and also outside runs, as the Vikings’ corners played 10 yards off the ball. That allowed the Packers to extend drives on multiple occasions.
And that in turn allowed the Packers running game got going late, as the Vikings defense wore down because the Packers dominated time of possession, and yielded a total of 184 yards.
Had the Vikings offense held up their end of the bargain, I doubt the Packers would have had that type of success running the ball late, but such was not the case.
Vikings Playoff Picture Becomes Clearer, Doubts Remain
The loss to the Packers was the last opportunity for the Vikings to beat a playoff team during the regular season. Next Sunday’s game against the Bears is completely meaningless now for the Vikings, as they will be the 6th seed regardless of the outcome.
Given that, better for the Vikings to rest starters rather than risk injury against the Bears, and focus on preparing for the postseason rather than a meaningless game.
That postseason will most likely start with a trip to either New Orleans or Seattle, assuming the Packers beat the Lions.
If the 49ers beat Seattle, they will be the #1 seed, the Packers the #2 seed, and the Vikings will travel to New Orleans. If Seattle beats the 49ers, the Packers become the #1 seed, New Orleans #2, and the Vikings will travel to play the #3 seed Seahawks.
The loser of the 49ers-Seahawks game will travel to play the winner of the NFC East - Dallas or Philadelphia.
The only way the Vikings would play the Packers in the wild card round is if they lose to Detroit and the Saints beat the Panthers. There is no way the Vikings will play the NFC East winner or the 49ers in the wild card round.
Given all that, and current favorites in those key games, the Vikings would most likely travel to New Orleans. The Vikings have always played the Saints tough in the Mike Zimmer era, winning 2 of the last 3 match-ups. All three were played at US Bank stadium, however.
The Saints will enter the postseason without two of their best defensive linemen - Marcus Davenport and Sheldon Rankins, who both recently have been placed on Injured Reserve.
It’s not a terrible match-up to be honest, but playing on the road will be difficult.
The other most likely possibility is the Seahawks, who will have Marshawn Lynch returning at RB. Lynch hasn’t played since October of 2018, having retired at the end of last season. How well he plays remains to be seen, especially given he hasn’t practiced in over a year either.
The Seahawks have lost both running backs that started against the Vikings week 13, and have a number of players battling injury, including DE Jadeveon Clowney who played against the Vikings week 13 as well. The Vikings were without Adam Thielen in that game, and Dalvin Cook left after only 9 carries.
Playing against a depleted Seahawks team also isn’t a terrible match-up for the Vikings.
But regardless of the opponent, doubts intensify about the Vikings ability to win a game against a playoff team. Failing to put forward a competent performance offensively against the Packers defense, which isn’t a top unit, at home, raises serious concerns going forward.
Can They Step Up ?
Certainly the Vikings offense would be helped by having a better game plan and play calling. Kevin Stefanski let his team down with his preparation and performance against the Packers, and Mike Zimmer would do well to tap Gary Kubiak for a greater role going forward.
Next week shouldn’t be the week to show anything, however, as it is a meaningless game for the Vikings. Better to rest starters and begin preparations for the Saints and Seahawks rather than spend much time with the Bears.
Getting a healthy Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison back for the playoffs will be helpful, and really Adam Thielen too - who hasn’t looked himself since coming back. Hopefully Eric Kendricks will be ready to go in two weeks, along with Anthony Barr and others nursing minor injuries.
But as much as anything, this is a coaching challenge for the Vikings.
Getting the right game plan, putting players in position to play their best, handling the playoff atmosphere, and winning the in-game chess match.
We’ll see what happens.