Before their Week 1 matchup, fans of both the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings were hopeful that their team could set the tone for supremacy in the 2020 NFC North race.
And that’s exactly what happened.
The Packers controlled every facet of the opening game, cruising to a 43-34 victory that wasn’t really as close as the final score might indicate. The game signaled a sign of things to come in the seven weeks since. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers have enjoyed an offensive resurgence en route to a 5-1 record atop the division. Meanwhile, the once-mighty Vikings defense continues to allow points and yards and bunches. Kirk Cousins’ inconsistent play and yet another year of offensive line woes have also pitched in for Minnesota’s disappointing 1-5 record.
So do the Vikings stand any chance of pulling off the upset in Lambeau on Sunday? Jon Meerdink of Acme Packing Company was kind enough to provide some insight about Minnesota’s rival heading into the game. You can check out Part 1 of his questions for me about the Vikings over at APC here; look for Part 2 to post on Friday.
Daily Norseman: After a really rough game in Tampa Bay, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense bounced back for an easy win over the Texans last week. Was the Week 6 loss simply a fluke of a game that got away from them, or are there some lingering concerns when Green Bay faces better defenses down the stretch and in the postseason? (NOTE: I am not claiming that the Vikings are one of those better defenses. But the Saints are the only team that the Packers have beaten that isn’t in the bottom half of the league in yards per play allowed.)
Jon Meerdink: It’s a bit of both, as far as I’m concerned. The Packers have done a much better job this year of hammering teams they’re supposed to hammer. They were big favorites over the Lions, Falcons, and Texans and they did a good job of showing why. That’s something they struggled to do in the late stages of the McCarthy era and something they didn’t regularly accomplish last year under LaFleur, save for one big explosion against the Raiders. So in that respect, it’s been great to see.
But as you rightly point out, the only defenses they’ve played with any real teeth are the Saints and the Buccaneers, and while they handled the Saints okay, they fell directly on their faces against the Buccaneers, and there were enough red flags there for me to have some lingering concern going forward. Rodgers faced some real pressure from a pass rush for the first time this season and turned into a pumpkin, LaFleur played right into Todd Bowles’ hands by trying to run wide again and again against the Buccaneers’ speedy linebackers, and no offensive playmakers other than Davante Adams really showed up. Those are some big red flags, and until the Packers play against and beat a defense of the same caliber, I don’t know if I’ll really feel good about the offense as a whole.
DN: Outside of the blip against the Bucs, the Packers offense has been great this season. Green Bay is currently fourth in offensive DVOA, second in PFF offensive grade, third in yards per play, and first in points per drive with mostly the same offensive cast as last year. In your opinion, what are a couple of the biggest reasons for the increase in offensive efficiency? Is it simply Rodgers returning to form or are there other key factors involved?
JM: Rodgers has done a much better job of playing within himself this year, rather than trying to do everything as he’s done in the past. He’s not bailing on the pocket, he’s not needlessly extending plays, and he’s (generally) not locking on Davante Adams alone. Those may seem like small things, but those small things really held the Packers’ offense back in the past.
But on top of that, I think having everyone in year two of LaFleur’s offense has been a big help. Normally I’m skeptical of that kind of claim — does experience really make that big of a difference? But so many different players have spoken about how much it’s meant to them to have that added familiarity, that I think there might be something to the idea.
DN: Minnesota Golden Gophers fans didn’t get to see rookie linebacker and Burnsville native Kamal Martin in Week 1, but he made his NFL debut last week and got mostly rave reviews. How big of a role do you see Martin playing on Sunday, and how much of a difference can he make in the middle of Green Bay’s defense going forward?
JM: The Packers have invested so little at their inside linebacker position that it’s something of a running joke among Packers writers. They did sign Christian Kirksey this offseason, but true to form, he’s been hurt. With Kirksey and Martin out, the Packers have played Krys Barnes and Ty Summers, a 2020 undrafted free agent and 2019 seventh-round pick, respectively. Martin’s return this week gave the Packers some unexpected juice there, even if he was merely a slight improvement over what they’d had before. If he can take their ILB corps from a D- to a C, it’ll be a marked improvement. That might sound like a crazy low bar, but that’s where things are at in Green Bay as far as linebackers go.
DN: We know Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams are probably going to light up Minnesota’s depleted and inexperienced secondary. We know Za’Darius Smith and Kenny Clark are going to give the Vikings offense line all sorts of problems. Name one player on offense and one player on defense that might not get many headlines, but could have a big impact on the outcome of Sunday’s game.
JM: On offense, I’d direct your attention to tight end Robert Tonyan. He’s hands-down biggest breakout player on offense this year. His journey has been remarkable — high school quarterback to college tight end to undrafted free agent to a bit player on the Packers offense. Now, he’s the most dangerous pass catcher the Packers have at tight end, and he’s well on his way to having the most productive season the Packers have seen from a tight end in some time.
On defense, slot corner Chandon Sullivan is the man to watch. He didn’t play much in 2019, but when he did he was lights out, holding opposing passers to a passer rating of 34.6 when they targeted him. Understandably, people were skeptical about the small sample size, but he’s proven to be reliable with increased playing time this season.
DN: The 5-1 Packers are pretty big favorites over the 1-5 Vikings, as they should be. It’s hard to imagine how Green Bay could lose this game, but I’m asking you to do it anyway. What would have to go wrong for the Packers (or right for the Vikings) in order for Minnesota to pull off the improbable road upset?
JM: If you could find some way to eliminate Davante Adams, you’d have a good shot. Rodgers has been reluctant to go elsewhere since Adams returned from injury, and the Packers are still without number two receiver Allen Lazard. Putting a crimp in the Packers passing game would get the Vikings a step closer to a win, and with Aaron Jones on shaky ground as far as playing this week, the offense as a whole may be vulnerable. That’s much easier said than done, obviously, but if you could somehow put, say, five to eight defenders on Adams and dare LaFleur to beat you on the ground with Jamaal Williams, that might not be the worst idea in the world.
Thanks again to Jon for the information and taking the time to provide his insight. (Although I’m still not sure five to eight of the currently available Vikings defenders will be enough on Adams.)