Week 1 of the NFL season can be awkward.
With increased restrictions on practices and teams resting their star players for most or all of the preseason in recent years, it can take a while to knock the rust off. Teams are still getting up to speed and ironing out the wrinkles when the regular season hits. By the time December rolls around, most teams will look very different from the squads they trotted out in September.
The Green Bay Packers won their season opener over the Chicago Bears last Thursday. A road win is always great, especially when it comes against the defending division champions. However, it wasn’t the most aesthetically attractive affair. There were only 467 total yards of offense between the two teams. There were 20 accepted penalties, 17 punts, and only 13 points. Last year’s Super Bowl looked like a crowd-pleasing shootout in comparison. At times, it felt like the Bears and Packers were celebrating the NFL’s 100th season by playing like it was 1920 all over again.
Outside of one scintillating four-play drive that produced the game’s lone touchdown, the Green Bay and Chicago offenses looked as clumsy and uncomfortable as a bad first date. Nobody knew what to do. Elaborate plans went awry. Neither looked nearly as good as their online profile. Most of the viewing public wanted to swipe left on the penalty-ridden punt fest last Thursday.
Three days later, the Vikings had one of the best “first dates” you could imagine. The restaurant (U.S. Bank Stadium) had great ambiance. The food (deep fried Falcon with a side of three turnovers) was delicious. It was all anxiety before the big night, but it turned out much more pleasant and relaxing than anticipated. When we went to bed that night, all we could think about was the next “date” and how great it would be.
Of course, even when first dates go well, we can’t keep up the facade forever. Everyone’s on their best behavior at the beginning of a relationship. Making a good first impression is great, but sooner or later, the other party is going to see your faults. Like how you never put the toilet seat down. Or how you might still be pretty bad at pass protection.
Week 2 is going to be anything but cordial and polite as two longtime rivals get together at Lambeau Field Sunday afternoon. So which team will have a date with first place in the NFC North at the end of the day?*
(*No, I’m not going to entertain the notion of another tie here. So don’t even bring it up.)
If Week 1 is any indication, the 2019 version of both the Vikings and the Packers will look quite different from their most recent meetings. For instance, Aaron Rodgers informed us after the Thursday night game that his team now has a defense. (Turns out getting rid of Dom Capers and Clay Matthews in consecutive offseasons helps. Who knew?) Green Bay’s defense was extremely impressive in their 2019 debut. New free agent signings Za’Darius Smith, Adrian Amos, and Preston Smith all made a big impact in their Packers debut. The Smiths combined for 16 total pressures and two sacks; Za’Darius tied with Danielle Hunter for the most individual pressures in Week 1 with ten. Amos had the game-sealing interception against his old team.
Za’Darius gave the Bears trouble from literally everywhere on the field. He lined up at:
- Left outside linebacker (24 snaps)
- Right outside linebacker (16 snaps)
- Right end (12 snaps)
- Left end (8 snaps)
- Inside linebacker (3 snaps)
- Defensive tackle (2 snaps)
The Packers already know that they need to watch out for #55 on the opposing defense. With the addition of Za’Darius Smith, the Vikings will have to do the same.
Green Bay’s young corners look like they have improved as well. Jaire Alexander and Kevin King combined to allow only five receptions for 51 yards on twelve targets in Chicago. Rookie safety Darnell Savage had a solid debut as well. Going against Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs will be a big step up from the Bears receiving corps, but it will be more difficult to match the receiving numbers Diggs and Thielen put up against the Pack last year. (Partially because those 2018 numbers were so ridiculous: 37 receptions for 461 yards and five touchdowns.)
While the Packers defense looked great in their 2019 season premiere, Mitchell Trubisky definitely played his part in those optics. According to Pro Football Focus, the Packers had a whopping 25 total pressures, which included five sacks in Week 1. However, five of those pressures and three of the sacks were attributed to Trubisky for holding onto the ball too long. There were certainly a handful opportunities that the Chicago quarterback left on the field. On this 3rd & 5 in Green Bay territory, Trubisky had Tarik Cohen open in the flat right away. But he hesitated and delivered the ball late, allowing Alexander to stop Cohen well short of what should have been an easy first down.
Matt Nagy didn’t do his offense many favors either. He had a handful of gimmicky plays that didn’t work. (Cordarrelle Patterson at fullback?) Despite the fact that the game was never more than one score either way, Trubisky dropped back to pass on 53 of 71 offensive snaps in Week 1. Any Vikings fan will tell you that those John DeFilippo-like ratios are likely to get your offense in trouble.
Thankfully, the JDF days in Minnesota seem like they’re long gone under the new “Stefubiak” offense. Kirk Cousins dropped back 14 times and threw only ten passes, due in large part to the Vikings protecting a big lead for most of the game. The 3-to-1 run/pass ratio obviously isn’t sustainable, but there should be much more balance than 2018. (The Vikings dropped back to pass 68.5% of the time against Green Bay last season.) The revamped zone blocking run game got off to a great start against the Falcons, quite literally taking a page out of Kubiak’s old Broncos playbooks. Nick Olson at Vikings Territory had an excellent breakdown of how the offense implemented several different facets of the zone blocking scheme, comparing plays to the mid-2000’s Denver offense.
The Vikings showed a lot of variety in their types of run blocking; they also mixed it up when it came to who was doing that blocking. Daniel House of Vikings Corner illustrated how the Vikings ran evenly from five different personnel packages against Atlanta. They enjoyed the most success out of two-back sets, running 13 times for 97 yards and a score. This long run by Alexander Mattison at the end of the first quarter was a great example. Brian O’Neill, Josh Kline, and C.J. Ham did an excellent job of clearing out the right side of the defense. Mattison burst through the hole and added a nifty move to tack on extra yards at the end of the play.
Dalvin Cook broke the century mark rushing for the third time in his young career behind similar run blocking. But just like Trubisky making the Packers defense look better, the Falcons defense may have had something to do with Minnesota’s huge day on the ground. This quote from Atlanta’s linebackers coach was pretty telling:
Interesting quote from Falcons LB coach Jeff Ulbrich on Minnesota’s ability to hit on the outside runs. pic.twitter.com/M19YfOFE9k— Jason Butt (@JasonHButt) September 11, 2019
Assuming the Packers are more stout against the run, how will the Vikings passing attack fare? It all depends on protection. Even with the small sample size, early returns weren’t great for Garrett Bradbury and Pat Elflein. Most Vikings fans couldn’t understand why Bradbury got an extremely low 35.1 grade—including a Blutarsky in pass blocking—from PFF Sunday. After watching the film, I’m beginning to understand. The rookie center had a pretty rough NFL debut.
We know Grady Jarrett will make a lot of interior offensive linemen look bad, but this whiff was against Tyeler Davison. The Week 2 assignment doesn’t get any easier; Kenny Clark is still a nightmare matchup and we already touched on the Smiths lining up all over the place. Worse yet, Elflein is at risk to miss the game with a knee injury. Dakota Dozier took first-team snaps in his stead on Wednesday. If Elflein can’t go, Dozier or the newly re-signed Brett Jones will have their work cut out for them.
While the Packers look much more formidable on defense, their offense wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders last week. Danny Kelly of The Ringer had a good summary of the mostly forgettable debut of the Matt LaFleur offense in Green Bay. The Packers used a lot of motion, not much play action, and still have plenty of kinks to work out going forward. Outside of the touchdown drive that started with an amazing 47-yard play action pass to Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Rodgers looked a little skittish and surprisingly inaccurate at times against Chicago. It’s jarring to see an all-world quarterback miss simple throws, especially when it dates back to the end of last season.
The Vikings defense will have to make sure to contain Rodgers and not over-pursue. As we have learned over the years, the Packers can kill you with screens and improvisational big plays if you’re too aggressive. Mike Zimmer said as much in his press conference on Wednesday:
You have to be careful the way you rush [Rodgers] because he has the mobility to get out. When he gets out, a lot of bad things can happen. We have to be guarded in our rush. We have to understand the rush plan, how we’re going to do it and what we’re going to do. It’s not just lay your ears back and go with him because he’s too dangerous when he gets out of the pocket. We have to maintain our lanes and then we have to be tight on coverage.
Minnesota won’t be the only team showing off different personnel packages on Sunday. Green Bay ran a lot more big sets in Week 1 as well. Last year, the Vikings ran 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) on 68.2% of their snaps; the Packers ran it 76.8% of the time. In Week 1, those numbers were 20.8% and 49.1% respectively.
That said, this is where the whole “first date” analogy comes back into play. I don’t think either team really showed their true selves last week. Even if they did, they wouldn’t want to get too tied into the tendencies they have already put on film. After all, success in today’s NFL is predicated on being unpredictable on both sides of the ball. The Vikings will obviously pass more if they don’t have the luxury of sitting on a three score lead for the entire second half. I would assume that the Packers use more 3 WR sets in hopes that Davante Adams can create mismatches in the slot against Jayron Kearse. Kearse will likely be filling in for the injured Mackensie Alexander if Mike Hughes isn’t ready yet.
With so many questions yet to be answered on Sunday, I think the biggest one might be a classic football cliché: who can win the battle in the trenches? Or perhaps more accurately: who can lose less with fewer negative plays and penalties? Flags played a big part in both Week 1 games for the Vikings and Packers; the teams racked up 21 combined penalties for 171 yards. While the most of the officiating discussion in the preseason revolved around the introduction of reviewing pass interference calls, the biggest impact last week was the huge uptick in holding. Even David Bakhtiari, one of the best left tackles in the game for the past several years, was called twice for holding against the Bears. Sunday’s game could come down to which offense suffers the fewest self-inflicted setbacks.
When the game kicks off on Sunday, it will have been 996 days since the Packers last defeated the Vikings. I think Green Bay is going to pose an extremely tough challenge, especially at home off three extra days rest. We’ll have to see all of Minnesota’s offense operating at a high level to score enough points on a much-improved defense.
I sure would like to see that number get over 1,000 though. So I’m swiping right on the good guys in hopes that the 2019 season turns into a healthy long-term relationship.
Vikings 20, Packers 17
And now for the rest of my Week 2 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
PANTHERS over Buccaneers
My thoughts on Jameis Winston can be summed up in a single tweet, after watching him throw his second pick-six of the game last Sunday:
Jameis! omg wtf wyd lmfao— Eric Thompson (@eric_j_thompson) September 8, 2019
Bills over GIANTS
The only two things I care about regarding this game:
- Will Daniel Jones get more playing time this week?
- Will the broadcast mention Scott Norwood at all? Because after FOX brought in Michael Vick during the broadcast last week, anything is on the table apparently.
BENGALS over 49ers
Cincinnati looked surprisingly decent in their Week 1 loss and San Francisco looked surprisingly meh in their Week 1 win. I’ll start believing in the Niners when they actually show me something.
Cowboys over REDSKINS
Adrian Peterson is slated to get the start on Sunday with Derrius Guice out. After the game, maybe AP can give some advice to Dak Prescott about what not to do with the money from the giant contract he’s about to get.
Chargers over LIONS
I fully expect the Chargers to win this game and then immediately announce that four starters are out for the year with injuries.
Colts over TITANS
Patriots over DOLPHINS
Going out on a limb and making this my survivor pool pick of the week, which is 1-0 after the Seahawks snuck by the Bengals in Week 1. Although there’s always a chance that Antonio Brown can come in and ruin everything. He’s getting pretty good at that.
RAVENS over Cardinals
Lamar Jackson vs. Kyler Murray. Every single young/hip football writer you follow on Twitter is going to be salivating over this game for three and a half hours. I fully expect my timeline to be filled with gifs of long bombs sarcastically captioned with “LaMaR jAcKsOn CaN’t ThRoW” or “KyLeR mUrRaY iS tOo ShOrT.”
STEELERS over Seahawks
I picked both of these teams to make the playoffs. Neither one made a great case for themselves in Week 1. Pittsburgh can’t be as bad as New England made them look, can they?
TEXANS over Jaguars
Deshaun Watson almost pulled off the Deshaun Phenomenon (or maybe the Watson Wonder?) against the Saints on Monday night. He also almost got killed in the process, which is sure to be an ongoing theme of the season. Gardner Minshew can definitely pull off that mustache, but I don’t think he’ll be able to pull off the win in Houston.
Chiefs over RAIDERS
Sammy Watkins had an amazing week on everyone’s fantasy bench last week. Meanwhile, Oakland looked surprisingly feisty in their win over Denver. But that late Week 1 Monday night game is always wonky. Remember that 2015 game in San Francisco? (No, you blocked that out of your memory until I had the audacity to remind you? Sorry.)
Bears over BRONCOS
The Vic Fangio Revenge Game! Don’t ask me why, but I’m willingly picking Trubisky on the road against the guy that saw him in practice every day for the past two seasons.
Saints over RAMS
A great matchup between two NFC contenders. I’ll take New Orleans in a toss-up because I picked them to get a better seed in the playoffs and this will help for tiebreakers. #Analysis!
Eagles over FALCONS
The good news for Falcons fans: I’m pretty sure they will play better than they did against the Vikings. The bad news for Falcons fans: I’m pretty sure they still won’t beat the Eagles.
Browns over JETS
Like I said earlier, I think the Browns beat the Browns last week. They’re too talented to keep playing like that. But if they do? I’ll be pretty excited for the resulting headlines.
Last week: 11-4-1
Season so far: 11-4-1