With the first Border Battle of 2019 set to kick off Sunday at Lambeau Field, there’s a lot at stake. The Vikings and Packers are both 1-0, and first place in the NFC North is on the line.
With both teams undergoing a fair amount of changes and new looks on offense, I exchanged questions with Jason Hirschhorn, one of the editors at Acme Packing Company, the SB Nation Green Bay Packers site. He managed to take the mediocre questions thrown his way and turn them into some pretty solid answers, and some insight to what to expect from the Packers this week, and as the season moves forward. So without any further delay, here’s Jason’s answers.
DN: The Packers have a new head coach in Matt LaFleur and with him a new offensive philosophy. There is continuity on the defensive staff, as Mike Pettine was retained, and it’s year two in his system. The Packers have a bunch of new starters on defense, and of course, future Hall of Famer in QB Aaron Rodgers. After two years of sub .500 football, the first time that’s happened since 1990-91, what is the expectation for this season?
JH: Packers management has signaled throughout the offseason that it won’t accept a third season without the playoffs. While winning the division or earning a wild-card berth doesn’t seem totally unreasonable, I’m not sure either represents a fair expectation for Green Bay in 2019. While the defense does look significantly improved in Week 1 -- the Chicago Bears hadn’t scored fewer points in a game since 2015 -- the offense couldn’t find much rhythm outside of a single touchdown drive in the second quarter. The Bears defense deserves some credit for that offensive futility, but the Packers’ issues go deeper than just their season-opening opponent.
On paper, the combination of Aaron Rodgers and the offense run by Matt LaFleur makes sense. The system shares many traits with those run by Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay, the coaches with which LaFleur worked for much of his career. That scheme should look familiar to Vikings fans as well, as new Minnesota offensive analyst Gary Kubiak comes from the same coaching tree as the aforementioned head coaches. At its core, the offense runs myriad plays out of similar looks to mask intent, heavily uses outside-zone runs to create effective deep shots off play-action, and motions players extensively pre-snap to reveal coverages. All of those features should work well with a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers.
However, the early results suggest that Rodgers might need significant time to grow comfortable in LaFleur’s scheme, and perhaps that shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan ran the system under Kyle Shanahan and struggled for a full season before performing at an MVP level. When Shanahan moved onto the San Francisco 49ers, the offense didn’t start to click until late in his first year. Rodgers has the talents and intelligence to run the offense at the highest level. But like those before him, he might simply need several months of reps before it all clicks.
If that does indeed occur, the Packers will probably have a hard time competing for the NFC North or a wild-card berth late into 2019.
DN: In Thursday’s 10-3 win against the Bears, there was a lot to like in the Packers win. It was the unveiling of a new look offense and a revamped defense that saw four or five new starters. What was the one positive takeaway and the one thing both units need to work on moving forward?
JH: On the positive end, the Packers defense delivered its most dominant road performance in four years. Not only did the team’s big free-agent additions each play a significant role -- pass rushers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith combined for 2.5 sacks and double-digit pressures while safety Adrian Amos intercepted Mitch Trubisky in the end zone to halt the Bears’ final chance to score -- but first-round pick Darnell Savage displayed the smarts and closing speed to make an impact on the game. The Chicago offense shot itself in the foot several times, and that has to factor into any projection for Green Bay. Still, considering where the defense left off in 2018, Week 1 demonstrated remarkable improvement.
Because the game went so well for the defense, not many negatives stick out. The Bears completed a few big plays on second-year cornerback Tony Brown, though he had decent position on at least two of them. Green Bay currently lacks an adequate number of healthy off-ball linebackers, and though that didn’t become an issue last week it could factor into Sunday’s game against the Vikings.
The analysis flips for the offense. The Packers’ one touchdown possession, their fourth drive of the first half, started with a deep shot off play-action to a wide-open Marquez Valdes-Scantling. The offense went up tempo from there, with Rodgers hitting Marcedes Lewis and Davante Adams for easy receptions to move the sticks before Jimmy Graham hauled in the game’s only touchdown to cap off the drive. That series highlighted how effective LaFleur’s scheme can work, even against a great defense.
But outside of that fourth possession, the Packers struggled to get plays set before the play clock became an issue. That has plagued them in recent years and becomes an even bigger concern in an offensive system that uses extensive pre-snap motion. The pass protection didn’t seem significantly different from a year ago, though obviously the Bears defense can make even the best offensive line look leaky. Even so, the unit exited the game with plenty of questions to answer.
DN: I have Aaron Jones as one of the players to look out for in this division in 2019. He was really used sparingly under Mike McCarthy, and the expectation was that the Packers were going to use him a lot more in the offense. Yet against the Bears, he only had 13 carries for 39 yards, and one reception for no yards. Why didn’t we see Jones more running the ball, and do you expect his carries to increase this week?
JH: Unlike the Packers’ other offensive issues in Week 1, I don’t see Aaron Jones’ usage as an indication of how LaFleur will use him in the future. The Bears defense played the run extremely well, and the game situation called for Green Bay go lean on the pass.
Accordingly, look for Jones to see a significant increase in his workload over the coming weeks. His skill set meshes well with the offense’s heavy use of outside-zone runs, and he has become a factor in the passing game. The Packers will motion Jones out of the backfield, something they hinted at during training camp but didn’t fully realize in Chicago.
DN: There are a lot of new faces on the Green Bay defense. The one guy everyone is familiar with is NT Kenny Clark, and for the Vikings to have success Sunday they must find a way to neutralize him to the max extent possible. But who else do the Vikings need to account for, and why?
The two Smiths look like the biggest field-tilters on Green Bay’s defense last week. Beyond the impressive numbers, the duo moved all around the defensive front during the game. On the Bears final offensive play, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine lined up Za’Darius Smith inside with Preston Smith positioned over him. Chicago’s offensive line had no answer, with the two meeting at the quarterback for the game-sealing sack.
Minnesota’s offensive line looks improved from a year ago, but they could still run into trouble handling those overload blitzes and stunts.
DN: Okay, big divisional matchup, at home, and the Packers already got a win against the Bears. How do you see this game unfolding, and what’s your prediction for a final score?
JH: I never predict scores, but I think the Packers prevail Sunday. The Vikings still have one of the NFL’s premier defense and their offense certainly has improved from 2018, but they benefited greatly last week from the Falcons’ multiple turnovers. Rodgers, of course, doesn’t turn over the ball often and does so even less frequently at Lambeau Field. That should give Green Bay enough of an advantage to notch their second win.
A big thanks to Jason and the fine folks over at Acme Packing Company. Here’s to a good game with no serious injuries for either side.