In these unprecedented times...
I swear, if I had a dollar for every time I heard that phrase over the past six months, I could buy Jeff Bezos’ Amazon shares. The year 2020 will certainly go down in infamy as one of the wildest, strangest, and saddest our world has ever experienced. Every single facet of life has been thrown off its axis. Most of us are still struggling to find a modicum of sanity among the never-ending onslaught of craziness.
Even the NFL, a monolithic juggernaut with bottomless resources, has been rocked to its core. The league scrapped all preseason games and greatly scaled back most facets of Training Camp in a concerted effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 throughout its ranks. At first, the task seemed extremely daunting. At one time early in the preseason, as many as eight Vikings players were on the Reserve/COVID list. But as of right now, the test results are surprisingly great and the league is actually starting their regular season on time. It still doesn’t feel completely genuine yet, but there are going to be real NFL games played this weekend.
As to what’s actually going to happen during most of those games, that’s anybody’s guess. The entire league is scrambling to get ready like a college student cramming the night before a final. Most fans haven’t seen their team in action for over eight months. With no fans allowed at camp, reports from closed practices are the only fleeting glimpses into the inner workings of our beloved squads. We have relied on beat writers to tell us every painstaking detail of what happened like teenage boys listening to their first friend of the group that touched a boob.
Thanks to COVID restrictions, I wasn’t able to cover any of Vikings camp and see for myself how the team was coming together for the first time in nine seasons. I live less than a mile from TCO Performance Center, but at times it felt like the team was practicing on a remote island in the Pacific. The lack of access, preparation, and general sense of normalcy in life have combined to make football fans feel like Ruth Langmore from Ozark as we start the season.
Keep this in mind while we preview Sunday’s game between the Packers and Vikings; we’re probably going to be flying blind for a while. There won’t be a lot of film review or statistical analysis early on because there aren’t any film or statistics to review and analyze. Instead, we’ll try to focus on known factors and results from the recent past while acknowledging there is still a great deal that remains unknown. We shouldn’t be surprised if some crazy shit happens, especially during the first month of the season. As 2020 has demonstrated over and over again, literally everything is on the table.
For the Vikings, a lot of things on the table have been updated. Stefon Diggs has taken his talents and cryptic tweets to Buffalo. It looks like Bisi Johnson is holding down the WR2 spot behind Adam Thielen for now, but one would expect first round rookie Justin Jefferson’s role to increase as the season advances. The rest of the specialists remain mostly the same, although it will be interesting to see how much more Irv Smith Jr. is asked to do in his second year.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the Vikings offensive line could be a big concern this year. (I know, right?!) Four of the five members are back, but only three will be at the same position. Riley Reiff took a pay cut to stick around at left tackle, Garrett Bradbury is hoping to improve upon an inconsistent rookie year at center, and Brian O’Neill remains the surest thing on the line at right tackle. Pat Elflein is already on double secret probation when it comes to holding down a spot in the starting lineup; he’s hoping to reverse his fortunes by switching guard positions. (Because, you know, that worked so well for Brandon Fusco five years ago.) Dakota Dozier takes over at left guard, but it remains to be seen whether the career backup can be an improvement over Josh Kline.
With one of the best deep threats in the league gone and a line that might be mediocre at best, we know that the Packers defensive front has to be salivating at this matchup. Dean Lowry and Kenny Clark are back to wreak havoc in the middle while the “Smith brothers” aim to terrorize from every angle just like they did in 2019. Za’Darius Smith spent so much time in the Vikings backfield last year that he had to claim it as his primary residence when he filed his taxes. According to Pro Football Focus, the Packers blitzed Kirk Cousins only twelve times over the course of their two matchups last year. They still generated pressure on 40 of his 71 dropbacks.
One thing the Packers did well in both matchups last year was stop the designed rollouts and force Cousins off script. It’s no secret that the Vikings signal caller struggles mightily when forced to improvise, especially with pressure up the middle. The two Green Bay games were his worst performances of the regular season in quarterback rating, adjusted net yards per attempt, and PFF grade.
What we don’t know is how new Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak is going to adjust the game plan and try to combat the weaknesses that Green Bay exposed last year. One would expect that it involves getting Dalvin Cook the ball early and often. Cook had 154 yards on the ground despite the Vikings falling behind 21-0 in less than 16 minutes Week 2; he and Alexander Mattison both missed the Week 16 game with injuries. The Packers defense ranked 27th in run defense DVOA and 28th in PFF run defense grade last season; they were last seen giving up roughly three miles worth of yardage to Raheem Mostert in the NFC Championship Game. Green Bay returns most of an improved secondary, but they have some unknowns in the middle. They signed Christian Kirksey from the Browns, who has earned high praise in camp and looks like an upgrade over Blake Martinez. The other inside linebacker could be a weak spot though. Former Gopher Kamal Martin is injured and will miss the chance to start his NFL career in his home state. Oren Burks has played very sparingly in his first two seasons and has been banged up again during camp; he was limited in practice on Wednesday with a groin injury. If Kubiak can devise ways to keep Cousins off his back, attack the middle of the Packers defense, and keep Cook getting touches in space, perhaps the offense won’t have a repeat of their putrid 2019 performances. That’s why he was brought back into the coordinating fold in the first place; Kubiak should be able to get the most out of that side of the ball even if the offense may be a bit less talented on the whole.
On the other side of the ball, the Packers have also done some reshuffling to their offensive line. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga left to the Chargers after a decade with the team, so Billy Turner moved outside to cover the vacancy. Lane Taylor is moving to right guard this season after playing almost exclusively on the left side for the past four years. Turner didn’t practice on Wednesday with a knee injury, so there could be even more shuffling by Sunday. While the OL situation wasn’t nearly as dire in Green Bay last year, it’s hard to see how they’ll be better this time around.
What should be better is the Vikings pass rush. Pairing new addition Yannick Ngakoue with—OH COME ON! With Danielle Hunter’s “tweak” putting him on Injured Reserve for at least the first three games, it appears that Ifeadi Odenigbo will get his chance at starting that was seemingly taken away after the trade for Ngakoue. You won’t find many bigger fans of Odenigbo than me, but losing one of the best edge rushers in football hurts regardless of who is there to take its place. Hunter’s absence might be the most glaring on obvious passing downs. Mike Zimmer loves shifting Odenigbo and other pass rushers inside in certain situations, but that flexibility is now significantly hindered.
We don’t know what the Vikings pass rush will look like on Sunday, but we do know that they can’t let the Packers run game trample them again if they hope to win. Green Bay put the Week 16 game away last year on the ground with Aaron Jones; he could control the day again with some help from Jamaal Williams and rookie AJ Dillon. Despite Vikings coaches and players lauding the works of Shamar Stephen, I remain unconvinced that he and Jaleel Johnson are the ideal pieces in the middle of the line.
Even if the Packers run game is held in check, there’s the small matter of dealing with one Aaron Rodgers. I will gleefully retweet any statistic or metric that even hints at Rodgers’ decline. I will happily point out that Green Bay drafted a quarterback, running back, and tight end with their first three picks this season. Instead of providing Rodgers the immediate offensive help that he needs to salvage whatever prime of his career he has left, all three picks are currently third at their respective positions on the team’s official depth chart. That said, I will not count out the Packers’ signal caller. Rodgers appears to be using all slights—both real and fabricated—to fuel him. If Rodgers gets his old swagger back, that could be frightening for the rest of the NFC North.
Rodgers will be facing a Vikings defense that looks much different than the unit he faced last year, especially in the secondary. And in the long run, that’s probably a good thing. Xavier Rhodes looked like an extra in The Walking Dead for most of 2019. Vikings fans didn’t shed a tear when Cincinnati overpaid Trae Waynes, who seemed to plateau as an average starting corner. Mike Hughes and Holton Hill are a promising duo, but they have a grand total of nine NFL starts between them. Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler are already vying for first team snaps as rookies, but both could get a baptism by fire depending on where Davante Adams lines up on Sunday. Even though I like the potential of the Minnesota secondary and think it could end up as an improved unit this year, there will undoubtedly be some growing pains with all the new pieces. Plus, there is literally no depth at safety. Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris are probably the best safety duo in the league, but they’re the only two safeties on the roster right now. (One would think that the team is waiting sign a free agent safety after Week 1 so their salary isn’t guaranteed at this point, but who knows.)
I absolutely hate picking my favorite team to lose at home to my least favorite team to start the season, but I also have to be objective here. I believe the Vikings will be OK in the long run and will compete for a playoff spot this season. (Being the first ever 7th seed in the NFC almost seems too perfect for the Vikings.) However, with so many new players in crucial roles, there will be some bumps in the road early on. The Packers have more continuity heading into the season and they won’t have to deal with the crowd at U.S. Bank Stadium. The loss of Hunter is huge too. Every time I think I have talked myself into a season-opening win for the Vikings, I find that I just can’t shake how poorly the offense performed in both contests last year. So in true Vikings fan fashion, I’m hoping for the best but bracing for the worst.
No matter how Sunday’s game and the 2020 season unfolds, I hope we can all be thankful to have NFL football back in our lives. This year has been so awful on so many levels for so many people. We’ll be feeling the ramifications of COVID-19 well into 2021 and beyond. By the time the pandemic started this year, my youngest daughter was already down a kidney after a cancer scare. (I’m elated to report that she’s doing great and beyond excited to start preschool in just over a week.)
So go ahead and roast me in the comments for not believing in my team. Or maybe you think the Vikings have too many holes and are doomed to have another haphazard “even year under Zimmer” season. Either way, I hope you can appreciate that we’re yelling at each other about football again. It’s a hell of a lot better than yelling at each other about masks, schools, businesses opening and closing, working from home, politicians, and everything else that has gone on over the past six months.
If anything positive has come out of this hellscape of a calendar year, hopefully it has taught us to cherish the things that we used to take for granted. Sure, there won’t be any tailgating on Sunday. There won’t be any Skol chants echoing throughout the stadium before kickoff. There won’t be the deafening noise after a touchdown or the collective groan after a turnover. But we’ll get those back eventually. For now, let’s be thankful that we have a sliver of normalcy returning to our lives in the form of NFL football on a September Sunday.
FOOTBALL IS BACK, BABY! I am ready to be hurt again.
Packers 26, Vikings 17
And now for the rest of my Week 1 NFL picks (home teams in ALL CAPS):
Continuity will be king early this season, and the defending Super Bowl champs got nearly the whole gang back together to start another run at the title. Is this the year that Bill O’Brien the GM gets Bill O’Brien the Head Coach fired?
Seahawks over FALCONS
Pete Carroll better let Russ cook right out of the gate this season, because the NFC West is going to be tough. I think Atlanta will be better, but they’re still a couple pieces away in their own tough division.
My first survivor pool pick of 2020. Because putting your faith in Josh Allen is always a great idea!
LIONS over Bears
A lot of NFL analysts have been jumping on the “the Lions might be better than you think!” bandwagon over the past few weeks. Despite decades upon decades of evidence to the contrary, I’m...kind of agreeing with them. At the very least, they should be able to take care of a Bears team that’s still searching for their identity and still starting Mitch Trubisky.
Welcome, Kevin Stefanski! Here’s a whole bunch of Lamar Jackson. What a crappy way to start your head coaching career. (Settle down, Odell. Not that kind of crap.)
I’m not completely sold that Philip Rivers will find new life with Indianapolis, but I’m guessing that the Jaguars hope that some Jacksonville real estate will be sold to Trevor Lawrence within the next year.
PANTHERS over Raiders
Of course I’m going to let my irrational love for Teddy Bridgewater cloud my judgement. You should know this about me by now.
Patriots fans if their team wins at home as 6.5-point favorites in Week 1: “NOBODY BELIEVED IN US JUST BECAUSE TOMMY IS GONE! BELICHICK IS STILL THE FACKIN’ GOAT! WE’LL SHOW ALL THE HATEAHS THAT THE DYNASTY AIN’T DEAD!”
Eagles over FOOTBALL TEAM
Personally, I’m in favor of Washington keeping their generic name. It makes them sound like a quaint European soccer club and not an abject disaster of a football franchise.
I think Joe Burrow is going to be a very good NFL quarterback. But I don’t think going against Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram with a shaky offensive line is a very good way to start your NFL career.
SAINTS over Buccaneers
What a great matchup to start the Tompa Bay era. I picked the Bucs to make the playoffs, but I think New Orleans still has one last run with their own geriatric quarterback.
49ERS over Cardinals
Arizona has a bunch of fun new pieces and they’re a popular dark horse pick this season. But again, continuity is king. The defending conference champs are a more complete team.
Cowboys over RAMS
I think Dallas is going to be pretty damn good this year, and I know I’m going to hate every damn second of it.
Steelers over GIANTS
Even if Ben Roethlisberger plays just decent, it’s a massive upgrade for a Pittsburgh team that went 8-8 with a rotating assortment of trash at quarterback last year. If he stays healthy, I think the Steelers could be good this year.
Hunter going on IR to start the season wasn’t the worst news for an elite NFL pass rusher this week. Hopefully Von Miller will come back strong, because he’s an incredibly fun player to watch.
Season so far: 0-0
Last year: 162-93-1