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Vikings vs. Packers: Game Notes & Insights

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings suffered a resounding defeat at the hands of the Green Bay Packers, 43-34, at an empty US Bank stadium to start the season. By the end of the first half, the Packers were up 22-10. The Vikings offense did a good job to keep it within two scores the rest of the way, matching touchdowns with the Packers in the second half.

At the end of the game, the Vikings gave up the most points since Mike Zimmer took over as head coach in 2014, and the most ever in a home opener in franchise history. They also allowed their opponent to possess the ball longer than any defense since time of possession became an official statistic back in 1977. That performance ranks Mike Zimmer’s defense last in the league going into Monday night’s games.

Here are some notes and insights from the game:

Defense Isn’t There

Coming into the season, there were questions about how the Vikings’ new starting cornerbacks would do in their new jobs, and also their interior defensive line. As it turned out, it was the pass defense as a whole that was simply not competitive, and run defense wasn’t much better. There was an across-the-board nature of the Vikings poor play on defense, although the worst came from the younger players.

It was apparent from the Packers’ first drive that the Vikings defense wasn’t pressuring the Packers’ offense in any aspect of the game. The only success for the Vikings’ defense the entire game was a couple early stops in the red zone, including a goal line stand, but apart from that they allowed Aaron Rodgers and company to drive the field all afternoon- and with little difficulty.

From beginning to end, the Vikings cornerbacks were passive in their coverage, generally giving cushions to Packers’ receivers, and being content to allow receivers to make catches in front of them. In the first half, that led to a steady diet of short completions to consistently move the sticks. And beginning in the second quarter, Aaron Rodgers took advantage of the absence of any pressure from the Vikings pass rush to take some deeper shots down the field, which were successful as well, despite some decent coverage on a couple of them. There seemed to be a gun-shy mentality amongst the new starting corners, perhaps lacking confidence their first time out as starters. The lack of preseason may also have been a culprit in the generally poor play from the Vikings defense across-the-board.

But if the new starting corners had a passive beginning to their season, the Vikings’ pass rush was passive to the point of irrelevance. For sixty minutes, the Vikings were unable to pressure Aaron Rodgers in any meaningful way. Time and again, Aaron Rodgers had all the time he needed, free to complete passes at will in a clean pocket. It was only with blitzes that the Vikings were able to generate any pressure, and even then it was largely ineffective.

Clearly the Vikings missed Danielle Hunter, but the fact that none of the front four could generate any pressure, including Yannick Ngakoue, against a depleted Packers offensive line, has to be concerning. Ngakoue played just over half of the defensive snaps.

Offense Got It Together Behind Cousins, But Too Late

The Vikings offense started off the game well, driving 75 yards in 8 plays for a touchdown to open the season. But then had their next two drives ended with sacks- one for a safety - and then an interception as Cousins threw it a bit behind Thielen, which was enough for Jaire Alexander to make a one handed interception. They finished the half with a 14 second, 58 yard drive for a field goal. But it was 22-10 by that time, as the Vikings defense was unable to stop the Packers, apart from a goal line stand.

The Vikings offense stalled on the first drive of the second half, then again on a 4th and 3 in which Gary Kubiak opted to be aggressive and take a deep shot down the field that was unsuccessful. The final three drives ended with touchdowns and two-point conversions, largely on the right arm of Kirk Cousins, who finished the game with a 118.6 passer rating, going 19/25 for 259 yards, 2 TDs, an INT, and 34 yards rushing.

The Vikings offense also averaged 6.1 yards per rush, with 134 yards rushing on the day.

Overall, the Vikings offense leads the league in explosive play rate (10+ yard runs, and 15+ yard passes) after week one.

Had you told me ahead of time the Vikings would score 34 points, rush for 134 yards, hold the Packers to 50% in the red zone, and Cousins had a 118.6 passer rating, with only one turnover, I would’ve predicted a Vikings win. Maybe even a comfortable win.

Vikings Defense Nothing More Than a Speed Bump

But the Vikings defense was simply unable to stop the Packers offense, functioning more as a speed bump than anything else, as the Packers held the ball for an amazing 41 minutes, sixteen seconds - the highest time of possession since it became an official stat in 1977. The Packers had one punt the entire game, and no turnovers. The punt came after Marquez Valdes-Scantling dropped a perfect pass while wide open over the middle. The only other stop was at the Vikings’ one yard line - a goal line stand after allowing a 74 yard drive.

The Vikings aren’t going to win many games when it’s defense gives up 43 points, and even less when they give up 43 points and allow the opposing team to possess the ball for over 40 minutes. So, the blame for this Vikings’ loss falls squarely on the defense. Allowing the Packers to mount a two-score lead before halftime took the Vikings out of their offensive game-plan, while allowing 43 points and 41+ minutes of opponent possession created a huge hole for the offense to attempt to climb out of.

One area that was suspect going into the game was the Vikings’ defensive tackles. And while there were a couple runs inside the tackles for decent gains, this wasn’t the weak area in the Vikings run defense. Most of the big runs for the Packers were outside the tackles.

Packers Directional Rushing Success, Wk1

In fact, most of the Packers success offensively- run or pass - came on outside runs and passes. Aaron Rodgers focused primarily on outside routes and avoiding the middle of the field, where Eric Kendricks, Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith are patrolling. In the run game, Matt LaFleur called a number of outside runs and wide receiver sweeps or pitches (a couple were technically passes), which led to bigger gains.

Overall, the Packers focused on the outside game, which put more pressure on the Vikings’ new corners, along with linebackers, to defend both run and pass. The success they enjoyed with that game plan allowed them to move the chains easily, with manageable third downs all afternoon, if they faced them at all.

Mike Zimmer talked about a couple penalties on third down costing them, but the truth is Aaron Rodgers wasn’t challenged the whole game, and his converting a third and 5 amounted to a simple pitch and catch all day. He wasn’t pressured, and coverage on short passes like that were hardly contested all afternoon. That had to be one of the easiest games he’s ever played in his sixteen seasons. His only concern may have been Cousins keeping it to a two score game, forcing him to throw the ball more than he might have preferred, rather than just running the clock out on the ground.

Defensive Social Distancing

Whether it was the Vikings’ pass rush and Aaron Rodgers, or the Vikings’ defensive backs and the Packers receivers, somebody forgot to tell the Vikings’ defenders to stop social distancing when on the field.

On nearly every one of Rodgers’ dropbacks, the Vikings’ defensive front couldn’t get within six feet of Rodgers before the ball was out. And the same was true with the Vikings cornerbacks and Packers’ receivers. The entire game the Vikings cornerbacks seemed content to cede a 10 yard out route, so long as they didn’t get beat deep. Mike Hughes and Holton Hill seemed especially guilty of this, particularly on third downs, leading to easy conversions.

Offensive Line Showing Promise

While the Vikings’ offensive line pass protection struggled early on, giving up a couple drive-ending sacks, along with some other pressures, they improved some over the course of the game. The first sack was on a CB blitz off the edge, which couldn’t really be blamed on them, and the second sack appeared to be a miscommunication between Brian O’Neill and Pat Elflein. Overall, there were 7 allowed pressures by the offensive line, according to PFF, five of them allowed by Elflein. PFF didn’t assign blame for the safety-sack.

So, apart from Elflein, the Vikings offensive line had a good day in pass protection, and run blocking also looked very good. Even against Kenny Clark, one of the best run defenders, Garrett Bradbury had some excellent blocks. Both Dakota Dozier and Pat Elflein also had some good blocks that opened holes in the run game. The Vikings’ OL was really doing well in that regard, but were largely forced out of that role as the Packers mounted a double-digit lead. Nevertheless, it’s an auspicious beginning in that regard, and something the Vikings offense can hopefully expand on if the Vikings’ defense can tighten things up down the road. Garrett Bradbury in particular looks much, much better than last season.

Kirk Cousins Had a Very Good Season Debut

The Vikings’ defense may have brought back nightmares from his years in Washington, but Kirk Cousins played a heck of a lot better than he did in D.C. under similar circumstances. Part of the reason the Vikings had such a low time of possession was because Cousins was going through the Packers’ defense like a hot knife through butter. His last three touchdown drives- averaging over 70 yards a piece- took less than five and a half minutes combined. All four Vikings touchdown drives took less time than the Packers time of possession in the first quarter alone.

Cousins’ only real mistake was a throw a bit behind Adam Thielen, which Jaire Alexander managed to haul in with one hand for the interception. But apart from that, Cousins averaged over 10 yards an attempt, and 8.5 yards per rush attempt, 2 TDs, and a 118.6 passer rating. He showed some of that scrambling/play-making ability he reportedly has been working on, as in addition to the rushing yards, he was also able to scramble out of the pocket on the Vikings’ first possession as the pocket collapsed early, and hit Adam Thielen for a key 25 yard completion to extend the drive.

He also engineered 24 points in the 4th quarter which, had the Vikings defense been able to stop the Packers on occasion, would have led to a different game outcome. In any case, Cousins was forced to carry the team with his right arm early on, and managed 34 points in the process - enough to win most games with an average defensive performance.

Individual Good and Bad Performances

While this was probably the worst performance by a Mike Zimmer defense since he came to Minnesota, the offense generally performed very well, with only a few errors in the season debut. Here are some under-the-radar, but noteworthy performances:

C Garrett Bradbury

Bradbury had an outstanding, potentially breakout game. It’s only one game, but Bradbury looks much, much better than he did last season. All-Pro caliber. Whether it was Kenny Clark early in the game, or other DTs later in the game, Bradbury was excellent in both pass protection and run blocking. He didn’t give up a pressure all day, and opened some nice holes in the run game- putting on a clinic out there at times with some of his blocks.

CB Mike Hughes

This is Hughes’ 3rd season, although both his first two were shortened due to injury. But for a first round pick entering his 3rd season to give up a perfect 158.3 passer rating when targeted, allowing all six targets to be caught, and really not doing a good job to contest them either, casts some doubt on how high Hughes’ upside is at this point.

LB Eric Wilson

Wilson was terrible in defending outside runs all afternoon, and allowed all three receptions targeting him in coverage to be caught. Whether a missed tackle, or simply being out of position, Wilson was a liability defending outside runs on several plays over the course of the game. Vikings have Troy Dye and Ryan Connelly behind him, so he needs to perform or face a demotion.

S Anthony Harris

Harris, the highest graded safety in the league last season, did not play well at all against the Packers. He gave up the TD pass to Devante Adams, blew his assignment on the late near-TD pass to Allen Lazard, and would’ve given up a third TD reception had Marquez Valdes-Scantling been able to catch a ball that hit him in the hands in stride.

Official Game Summary

Here is the official game summary of the Vikings-Packers game week one.

Bottom Line

The Vikings presented a sharp contrast in performance between offense and defense week one against the Packers. The offense was generally good, and showed a lot of promise for the season ahead at every position group - including offensive line.

But the Vikings defense was nothing short of horrible. Largely passive and ineffective, there is a lot for Mike Zimmer and company to put right moving forward. Perhaps the across-the-board nature of the Vikings bad performance was a result of the lack of preseason. Perhaps it was also partly Mike Zimmer’s game plan - trying to protect his young corners from getting burned their first time out as starters - which allowed for a lot of easy underneath completions. Whatever the case, the Vikings defense was uncharacteristically bad in pretty much every aspect - run defense, pass defense, and tackling.

As Mike Zimmer said in his post-game press conference, they’ll need to get better quickly.