As the Vikings’ regular season approaches, I thought I’d take a closer look at each of the Vikings’ NFC North rivals, and where things stand with them heading into the regular season.
With the Vikings set to take on the Green Bay Packers to open the season at US Bank stadium, it makes sense to start with them.
What’s Changed from Last Season for the Packers
It was an eventful off-season for the Packers, who went 13-4 last season, won the NFC North, and earned the first seed in the NFC playoff tournament only to go one-and-done in the playoffs, losing at home to the 49ers, 13-10. It was the third season the Packers won 13 games under Matt LaFleur, and their third straight NFC North title since LaFleur took over from Mike McCarthy as head coach.
Rodgers Back for at Least a Couple Years
But despite that regular season success, all was not well in Green Bay when the off-season came around. Going one-and-done at home in the playoffs as a first-seed was a bitter ending, and the speculation about Aaron Rodgers and whether he played his last game for the Packers led the off-season agenda. In March, the Packers decided to back-up the Brinks truck and paid the 38 year-old 4-time MVP (including the last two seasons) a whopping $150.8 million guaranteed, $50 million/year average, 3-year contract extension, which locks him in with Green Bay for at least this year and next.
Wide Receiver Group Takes a Serious Blow
But while the Packers extended Rodgers, they also lost All-Pro wide receiver Davante Adams- the second-best player on the team- to the Raiders. The Packers offered Adams more than the Raiders, but Adams opted to be closer to his family and reunite with his college QB Derek Carr instead. Adams had roughly the same receiving yards as all the rest of the Packers receivers combined, so his loss was a heavy one. The Packers also lost deep threat Marquez Valdes-Scantling to the Chiefs, so that left the Packers’ receivers’ room pretty bare.
Allen Lazard now leads the Packers receiver group with 513 receiving yards last season. Randall Cobb, 31, also returns. The Packers also picked up 29 year-old Sammy Watkins during the off-season, but still had an urgent need to draft a top wide receiver. That led them to overpay the Vikings in a trade up in the second round for Christian Watson from North Dakota State, to add some much needed young talent to their receiver group. Watson had been a bit underwhelming in OTAs, and then decided to get his knee scoped in June and has missed all of training camp, so just how much he’ll be able to contribute early on remains to be seen. He’s had very little time practicing with Rodgers.
Fortunately for the Packers, fourth round pick Romeo Doubs has looked good in training camp and will likely begin ahead of Watson in the rotation with Watkins and Lazard week one against the Vikings, with Randall Cobb in the slot. But Rodgers has been disappointed in his receiver group so far and let that be known last week in what likely part criticism and part motivation for the group was to get their act together before the start of the regular season. Still, whether they’ll be able to do so remains to be seen, and in any case there is no question the talent level isn’t what it was last season, and the rapport Rodgers had with Adams won’t be replicated anytime soon.
Once Solid Offensive Line More of a Question Mark
The other change for the Packers compared to recent years is the strength of their offensive line. As long as Aaron Rodgers has been QB for the Packers, they’ve had a top offensive line when it comes to pass protection. But recent injuries and free agent losses have taken a toll.
The biggest loss- at least for now- along the Packers offensive line is All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari, who tore his ACL in December of 2020, one month after signing a 4-year, $92 million extension, but hasn’t played or practiced since, except for 27 snaps week 18 last year that his knee didn’t respond well to. Apparently Bakhtiari suffered, “a very significant injury – much more than just an ACL” according to Packers’ GM Brian Gutekunst, and has had three surgeries on it, including one this off-season in May. Apparently it is no longer an ACL issue but something else. It was just announced this past weekend that Bakhtiari is off the PUP list, but it would seem doubtful that Bakhtiari, who turns 31 next month, would start against the Vikings week one if he hasn’t practiced or played more than 27 snaps in nearly two years. And he may not be his old self if he does. The Packers are non-committal about whether Bakhtiari will be ready for week one, but taking him off the PUP list allows him to begin practice with some individual drills to see how his knee holds up, and also avoids having him remain on the PUP list for a minimum of six games- which would be the case if he remained on the PUP list at the beginning of the regular season. There is no definitive information on what the issue is with his knee, but there has been some reporting that he continued to have fluid buildup after the ACL surgery, tore his medial meniscus, and perhaps his MCL as well.
Beyond Bakhtiari, the Packers lost his able replacement Elgton Jenkins to an ACL injury against the Vikings at US Bank stadium last season, but he has just cleared the PUP list after missing the off-season and most of training camp, but he seems more likely to start against the Vikings week one if things go well in his return. But beyond Jenkins, who is practicing at right tackle after coming off the PUP list, the Packers look to be starting Yosh Nijman at left tackle, Jon Runyan at left guard, Josh Myers at center, and Royce Newman at right guard. These guys ranged from the mid-50s to mid-60s in overall PFF grades last season, so the Packers offensive line may not be as solid as it has been in the past.
Packers Offense May Decline this Season
While the offense is still led by the two-time reigning NFL MVP, the losses in the offensive supporting cast will be difficult for Rodgers to overcome, particularly Davante Adams. The Packers have a top, versatile running back in Aaron Jones, backed up by a big power back in AJ Dillon, and capable tight ends in Robert Tonyan and Marcedes Lewis, so it could be that the Packers look to these players to contribute more to make up for losses in the receiver group. Tonyan missed most of last season with an injury with an ACL tear. Still, the Packers losing Adams is akin to the Vikings losing Justin Jefferson- you just don’t make up for that easily. The Packers’ offense came in at 10th overall last season, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see that ranking fall this year.
Packers Defense May Be the Strength of the Team
While the Packers’ offense may not be quite as fearsome as it was in the past, their defense looks to be every bit as good as their 13th ranked unit last year and could well improve on that ranking this season.
The key for the Packers defense improving is they get top cornerback Jaire Alexander back from injury after missing all but 4 games last year. That, combined with the emergence of Eric Stokes and Rasul Douglas as capable corners, and the steady play of Adrian Amos at safety, give the Packers a solid defensive secondary.
Defensive Secondary Good- But Some Weaknesses Too
Alexander was the top cornerback in the league two seasons ago. But Douglas had plenty of struggles in three seasons with the Eagles, and another with Carolina, before the Packers picked him up in the middle of last season. He was able to put things together in Green Bay last season, however, and the Packers rewarded him with a 3-year, $21 million extension during the off-season. The Packers are moving him to slot corner, replacing Chandon Sullivan after the Vikings signed him. Douglas has never played slot corner, so it's unclear how well that transition will go. Douglas is a big slot corner (6’2”, 210 lbs.) and an above average athlete for the position (6.94 RAS), but with a 4.6” 40 time coming out, a bit slow for a cornerback.
Eric Stokes had a solid year for a rookie last season, and has emerged as the CB2 for the Packers. He ended the season with a 66.3 overall grade from PFF, including a 67.6 coverage grade, so capable but not elite. Safety Adrian Amos has been a top corner for years, but Darnell Savage at the other safety spot has been more of a liability than a strength, as is reflected in his 58.5 overall PFF grade last season, and 62.1 grade in coverage.
Defensive Front Seven Very Good Throughout
But while the Packers secondary looks very good, even with a couple chinks in the armor, the Packers front seven looks even better- and not many weaknesses either.
The Packers lost their top edge rusher in Za’Darius Smith for nearly the entire season last year, but former first-round pick Rashan Gary was able to step-up in his stead and has become the Packers top edge rusher. Opposite him is Preston Smith who is also good. The two combined for 19 sacks last season, and 143 QB pressures.
The interior line features Pro-Bowler Kenny Clark at nose tackle. On either side, however, is where there is some potential weakness. Jarran Reed and Dean Lowry are the starters at the DE spots in the Packers 3-4 scheme, with Reed coming from the Seahawks this off-season. Reed, 29, has declined from a 60s overall PFF grade to mid-40s last season with the Chiefs. The Packers drafted Georgia DT Devonte Wyatt with one of their first round picks (the other being fellow Georgia Bulldog LB Quay Walker), and while Wyatt has not earned a starting job yet, he may do so over the course of the season and play in rotation as well. Dean Lowry improved last season over his previous two, and while an overall solid performer, he can be more of an up and down performer as well.
At linebacker, former Gopher De’Vondre Campbell has proven to be a stellar pickup for the Packers last season. Campbell was a mediocre performer for his first five seasons in the league at Atlanta and Arizona, but suddenly emerged as a near-elite linebacker last season with the Packers. He had always been a good tackler, but both his run defense and coverage grades practically doubled last season in Green Bay.
The Packers look to be starting rookie first-round pick Quay Walker at the other linebacker spot. Walker is an athletic, more traditional sized linebacker (241 lbs.) who will likely come off the field in nickel situations.
Packers Defense has the Makings of a Top Ten Unit
Overall, the Packers defense has the makings of a top ten unit. There are weaknesses in a few positions, but not glaring ones. And there are Pro-Bowl caliber players in their prime at edge rusher, nose tackle, linebacker, cornerback, and safety. That makes for a very tough unit to exploit if they stay healthy.
The Matchup with the Vikings
One thing that should be pointed out in outlining this matchup this season is that both the Vikings and Packers operate the same scheme, or variations of the same scheme, on both sides of the ball. So both teams will have practiced against those schemes and have familiarity with them.
Packers head coach Matt LaFleur was an offensive coordinator under Sean McVay with the Rams, just like Kevin O’Connell, and brought McVay’s scheme with him to Green Bay, although modified for Aaron Rodgers.
Defensively, Packers’ defensive coordinator Joe Barry also came from the Rams under McVay, who implemented Vic Fangio’s scheme in Barry’s last season there as linebackers coach and asst. head coach, under defensive coordinator Brandon Staley.
Additionally, the Vikings have Packers’ former defensive coordinator and outside linebacker coaches Mike Pettine and Mike Smith on their staff, not to mention both Za’Darius Smith and Chandon Sullivan, while the Packers have former Vikings’ defensive backs coach Jerry Gray on theirs.
So there’s even more familiarity than you would expect among division rivals, as both teams are practicing against the same (or very similar) scheme every day. There is also more familiarity with personnel. Ultimately that makes it more difficult for both teams to execute against each other, as both sides have practiced extensively against the same scheme.
Vikings Offense vs. Packers Defense
This may turn out to be the strength vs. strength matchup, and should be a good test across the board, at every position group, for both sides. The Vikings may have a bit of an advantage as there is nothing on film for the Packers to study. Packers head coach Matt LaFleur is fluent in the Vikings’ scheme, and what the Rams did under O’Connell, and so they can prepare that way, but O’Connell will likely have the advantage of surprise.
Personnel-wise, there are a lot of strength-on-strength matchups. The Packers edge rushers vs. the Vikings’ tackles. The Vikings receiver corps vs. the Packers secondary. In week 11 last season vs. the Packers at home with Kirk Cousins, the Vikings had 341 receiving yards against the Jaire Alexander-less Packers secondary, and a 140.2 passer rating. Replacing Kevin King (who gave up 77 yards) with Jaire Alexander will presumably help, but every Packers’ DB except Adrian Amos (who wasn’t targeted) gave up a 100+ passer rating when targeted, so Alexander’s return isn’t likely to be the answer by himself.
I would expect the Vikings tackles to hold up well against the Packers edge rushers, and even the interior line to fare reasonably well- not worse than last year. But the main concern on offense is the run game. The Vikings averaged a meager 3.1 yards per attempt week 11 last season, and there isn’t any clear rationale why that will improve this season. The Vikings’ new mid-zone scheme could potentially help, but I expect the Packers front seven to be pretty stout against the run.
Packers Offense vs. Vikings Defense
While the Vikings will be adjusting to a new scheme, and there could be some growing pains, the Packers will be adjusting to having two new starting wide receivers, and the missing ones accounted for about two-thirds of their passing yards at US Bank stadium last year. Davante Adams had a perfect 158.3 passer rating when targeted. MVS 135.4. The other thing is that the Vikings were without both Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith in that week 11 game last season. Everson Griffen and DJ Wonnum accounted for four QB hurries and 1 QB hit in that game. I would expect more from Hunter and Smith. Overall the Vikings had just 15 pressures in 41 pass attempts- and 10 of the pressures were hurries and only 2 sacks in that game, which I expect the Vikings will improve upon week one.
But I also expect Aaron Rodgers to have to work harder not just against a better pass rush, but also because he’s working with new and/or less talented receivers. The rapport and timing Rodgers had with Adams and to a lesser extent with Marquez Valdes-Scantling is gone. He’s played long enough with Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb to have some rapport with them, but Lazard had a lower yards/route run last season (1.19) than KJ Osborn (1.30), and Cobb at 1.49 was about the same as MVS at 1.43, and nearly half that of Adams. Expecting Romeo Doubs or Sammy Watkins to replace Davante Adams production is unrealistic anytime soon, if ever, and top WR draft pick Christian Watson is unlikely to start- although potentially could get some reps in rotation. But he’s missed most of training camp and has a steep learning curve as he’s effectively moving up two levels of competition from North Dakota.
So, with all that, it’s reasonable to expect the Packers pass offense to not be as effective as it was last season against the Vikings.
However, the Packers will have Aaron Jones back, who missed week 11 last season, and I expect they may lean on him more in both the run and pass game to make up production lost at wide receiver. But it remains to be seen how effective the Vikings run defense will be this season- they gave up 5.6 yards per carry to the Packers week 11 last year. That’s not good. AJ Dillon had most of the carries, but I expect Jones to get the majority week one. Jones can be trouble on screens and outlet passes too, and it remains to be seen how well the Vikings new defense will respond to those plays.
Overall, I expect things won’t be as easy for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense this season, including against the Vikings, both moving the ball and in the red zone. Apart from Rodgers, there are no bona fide playmakers on the Packers offense, and Rodgers needs at least one other to be as effective as he’s been throughout his career, whether it was Davante Adams, Jordy Nelson, or even Greg Jennings.
Special teams was the Packers Achilles heel last season, and they paid to bring in former Raiders special teams and interim head coach Rich Bisaccia to help cure those problems. After two preseason games, the Packers rank 29th on special teams, so it looks like there is more work to do.
Apart from the special teams units, Packers’ kicker Mason Crosby, 37, has missed training camp with a knee injury and has yet to come off the PUP list. Crosby saw his field goal percentage drop to 73.5% in 2021 from a career average of 81.1%. His touchback rate on kickoffs fell to 45.7%. The Packers brought in Gabe Brkic, whom the Vikings cut prior to training camp, but released him shortly thereafter. Matt LaFleur has said he expects Crosby to be ready for the Vikings’ game week one, but the Packers are now working out five different kickers after starting two different kickers in each pre-season game, so that suggests Crosby may not be ready week one.
Just how a recovering 37 year-old Mason Crosby or a new kicker might impact the Vikings’ game week one remains to be seen, but missed field goals and/or returnable kickoffs for Kene Nwangwu, who led the league in kickoff return TDs last season, won’t improve Packers’ prospects.
The Packers remain the oddsmakers favorite to win the NFC North this season, at -165. That translates into a 62.3% chance oddsmakers give the Packers to win the division. The Vikings have the second-best odds at +220, which translates into a 31.3% chance of winning the division. Which team wins the week one matchup will obviously have a big impact on those odds. The Packers are currently a 1.5-point favorite on the road at US Bank stadium.
If you had to bet, how much would you wager on the Vikings beating the Packers at US Bank stadium week one?
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