We’re just under 48 hours away from the first of two blood feud Border Battles between the Vikings and Packers. The Packers are currently cruising along at 8-2, three games clear of the second place Vikings. So what’s the latest with this Packers team? Is Rodgers good to go? Is the defense as good as it looks? Which Packers players might have a big impact on the game? I chatted with Jon Meerdink of Acme Packing Company to gather some intel on the Vikings rivals before kickoff. Our Q&A is below.
1. So, it has been quite an adventure with quarterback Aaron Rodgers this season. Is all the COVID “immunization” stuff water under the bridge now that he has returned to the team, or is that still rubbing some Packers fans the wrong way? Is there any concern about how he might play with the toe injury that has kept him out of practice this week?
I think it’s a mixed bag. Some people are definitely out on him, but an equally big (probably bigger) group just wants to see him play well on the field, which he didn’t really do in his first game back last week. But as long as he returns to form, a lot of people won’t be too bothered by anything else.
As to his toe, I don’t think there’s any doubt about his status for Sunday. He says he’s going to play and was back to practice today, so that should probably put to bed any doubts about whether he’ll go. But I think there’s still reason to keep an eye on his performance; this was the first time he’s been on the practice field in weeks, so there could be an element of rust at play.
2. Since treating the season opener against New Orleans like the final preseason game, the Packers defense has been greatly improved this year. They’re 3rd in points allowed and yards allowed per play, 6th in Pro Football Focus grade, and 11th in defensive DVOA. Is first-year Defensive Coordinator Joe Barry the biggest reason for Green Bay’s defensive improvement? Which players have impressed you most on that side of the ball this season? Can this defense get even better as the season goes on and key players get healthier?
I think Joe Barry is a big reason they’re playing better, if only because he’s displaying startling levels of competence not seen in Green Bay in decades. The Packers don’t really do a ton of wildly innovative things on defense; to date, they’ve largely gotten by on boring things like “being in the right position” and “tackling the ball carrier when he’s nearby.” If it sounds like I’m not giving Barry enough credit, don’t misunderstand. Mike Pettine had years to work with the Packers and he couldn’t get them lined up for the snap of the ball. That Barry has people ready to go every week (other than Week 1) is a huge accomplishment!
But they’ve also gotten some really excellent seasons from some core contributors. With injuries on the edge and at corner, you almost have to look at the Packers like a baseball team: they’re getting by with their strength up the middle. Kenny Clark is having one of his best seasons, De’Vondre Campbell has gone from journeyman to stat stuffer, and Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage are about as good of a safety duo as you’ll find anywhere. Those four alone have buoyed the Packers defense, while a big leap from Rashan Gary has helped them take another step.
3. Aaron Jones will miss Sunday’s game with a knee injury. But the cupboard isn’t exactly bare with big, bruising AJ Dillon ready to get the majority of touches out of the backfield on Sunday. Do you think the Packers’ offensive approach will change much if at all with Dillon?
I don’t, really, because in a lot of ways Dillon has been a more well-rounded back than Jones. In terms of sheer volume, he hasn’t gotten the same reps as Jones in the passing game, but he’s equally capable, and on the ground, he’s more viable than Jones right now because he can bring his own juice in the inside power game. Jones has struggled there this year some because of injuries and inconsistent performance at both guard spots and center, but Dillon’s been able to overcome that some just due to his size.
I do wonder how Dillon will handle a starter’s workload since we’ve only really seen that once so far in his career, but other than that I have no real concerns with him. He’s been fun to watch this year.
4. Give us one player that might surprise most Vikings fans with how much they affect the final outcome on Sunday.
On offense, Allen Lazard is typically my go-to, since he’s probably their most versatile player, but he’s got a bum shoulder and seems unlikely to play. With him out of the picture, I’d direct your attention toward Randall Cobb. Aaron Rodgers wanted him back this summer and the Packers quickly paid up the sixth-round pick needed to extract him from the Texans’ roster. He’s not putting up big volume numbers, but he’s been playing a bigger and bigger role on offense and has been deadly on third downs this year. Rodgers looks his way when he’s got to have a key catch just about as often as he looks for Davante Adams.
5. Prediction time! This one’s a two-parter. How do you see Sunday’s game playing out? And looking forward, which seed do you think is most likely for the Packers to land in the currently wide-open NFC playoffs?
This is a bigger if than I’d like to admit, but if Rodgers plays to form, the Packers should win. But if they can’t protect him or he just has one of his oddball games (or still can’t throw the deep ball, a weird quirk of his in 2021) I think the Vikings will very much be in this game. As it stands, they’ll still probably keep it close given that the Packers want to play slow against just about everyone, and that dovetails with the Vikings strengths pretty well.
As to the playoff seeding, I’d like to say they’ll keep the pedal to the metal and secure the top spot, but a stumble at some point seems inevitable. These next two games (first against the Vikings and then against the Rams next week) will tell us a lot about whether or not the Packers can sustain their lead — and how real they are as Super Bowl contenders.
Thanks again to Jon for his insight. Stay tuned for much more as we get closer to kickoff.