How to win: Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings, NFL week 1
What each team will attack in their quest to get an early NFC North division lead
What is the best way to stop a potent pass rush? The answer is: Do not throw the ball. Run it. How do we know this? Because we watched the January 19, 2020 NFC Championship game between the Green Bay Packers and the eventual NFC champions, the San Francisco 49ers.
While the Packers earned plaudits for their revitalized pass-rushing duo of the Smith Brothers (Zadarius and Preston) throughout the 2019 season (25.5 sacks, combined), the wily Kyle Shanahan decided to side-step the one strength of the Packers’ defense by almost solely running the ball on every damn down.
To put it mildly, it worked: 42 rushes for 285 yards and four touchdowns. With a halftime score of 27 to zero, the game was effectively over before the second quarter was concluded. Against the Packers’ defense, the 49ers ran at will, nabbing five to eight yards a pop, ultimately achieving an all-universe championship game best 6.8 YPC over the course of the game.
This being the last time the Green Bay Packers have stepped on a football field for a game, it is most instructive to their week one opponents, the Minnesota Vikings.
How the Vikings offense can win against the Packers defense
This could not be more obvious: Run the ball. Then run it some more. Also obvious: Mike Zimmer loves to run the ball. In fact, only two 2019 NFL teams ran the ball with more frequency than Zimmer’s Vikings (Ravens, 49ers). The Vikings concluded the season with the league’s third highest run/pass ratio, averaging 30 runs a game and 29 passes per game (50.5%). No other team had a plus- run/pass ratio.
Week one might as well be a bye week for Kirk Cousins’ arm. If it is not, Vikings fans may be inclined to sue for malpractice. When your opponent’s last game delivered an historically bad ability to defend the run, and your preferred attack is to run the ball, and you have a (presumably) healthy Dalvin Cook, and you shipped out your top receiver in the offseason (Stefon Diggs) the recipe for success could not be more clear.
I should stop here, but I won’t.
Dating back to the NFCC, it’s not as if the Packers did not have an inkling that the 49ers were a run-heavy team. As noted above, they ran the ball with more frequency than the Vikings did throughout the 2019 season. If this weren’t enough, the Packers also knew the 49ers dismantled their NFC Playoff Divisional Round opponent in the previous week (ahem, the Vikings; we’ll get to that in a moment) with a devastating rushing performance: 47 attempts for 186 yards and two touchdowns.
Given this intel, the Packers still managed to act surprised at every running play in the NFCC. The 49ers ran everywhere.
So the Packers must have worked to compensate for this embarrassment throughout the offseason, yes? Surely, having learned the hard way that their run defense was hopelessly outclassed by their last opponent, this would be an organizational focus.
Well, no. Not unless you consider zero new defensive linemen on the new initial 53-man roster for the 2020 Packers some kind of improvement. There is only one new starting linebacker, inside linebacker Christian Kirksey, replacing the departed Blake Martinez. That’s it. There are no other new additions to the Packers’ starting or top-of-the-rotation front seven.
From the Packers’ perspective, the hope is that the more athletic, yet injury-prone Kirksey will be an upgrade over the dependable, available and steady Martinez. The Packers also drafted inside linebacker Kamal Martin in the fifth round of the 2020 draft. Reports were unable to publicly identify him as the other first-string inside linebacker due to new reporting guidelines, but nobody covering the Packers thought he was anything less than a surprise camp standout. Martin was going to win the job. Until he tore his meniscus.
Now out for six weeks or more, the Martin era will have to wait and the Packers will settle for the oft-injured and underwhelming Oren Burks, special teamer-only Ty Summers or the oft-injured safety/linebacker hybrid specialist, Raven Greene. Greene is currently injured again.
The question marks are compounding for the Packers’ run defense. They cannot point to any tangible proof that they’ve gotten better at what they do worst.
To win, the Vikings must run and make the Packers prove they can stop it.
How the Packers offense can win against the Vikings defense
While the Packers defense remained largely unchanged over the offseason, the same cannot be said about the Packers offense. Unfortunately for the Packers, the spots where the Packers were obviously lacking most, right tackle and wide receiver, the Packers chose to not add any new players at these spots via the draft.
The right tackle position could very well prove to be the Packers’ undoing week one against the Vikings. Long-time starter Bryan Bulaga departed via free agency. In came declining journeyman right tackle Rick Wagner, most recently of the Detroit Lions. Wagner, pitched in a battle to earn the starting RT spot with the Packers’ weakest offensive line starter in 2019, Billy Turner, has likely nabbed the role due to a late training camp injury suffered by Turner. Wagner, himself, missed camp time with a left arm injury and is not believed to be back at 100% yet.
The uncertainty is real on the right side. Former starting left guard Lane Taylor has likely earned the starting right guard spot, leaving the Packers to roll with Wagner to start week one at RT, while Turner heals. Turner has bounced back and forth between the guard and tackle positions throughout his career and during training camp.
Given this, the Packers’ plan for success in week one begins with effectively overcoming the expected shortcomings of the right edge in front of Aaron Rodgers.
How will they do it? We don’t know. We do know that they won’t be doing it by the addition of dazzling new offensive playmakers. The Packers did not draft a wide receiver. They did draft a promising running back in the second round, A.J. Dillon, but Dillon will likely be a non-factor in week one, as he waits behind star running back Aaron Jones, the multi-dimensional Jamal Williams, and gadget weapon Tyler “Swerve” Ervin.
The Packers’ other high(ish) draft pick was third-round selection, Josiah Deguara, a tight end in name, but an H-back in practice. Fourth in the pecking order, he will be a minor role player at least at the outset of the season.
Instead, the Packers are banking on gains made by the offense’s increased comfort and effectiveness in year two of Matt LaFleur’s offensive scheme. This is actually not a bad bet.
The Packers have top-line talent at quarterback, running back, and the №1 wide receiver, Davante Adams. The Packers’ offensive line is still regarded as one of the top units in the league, even given the uncertainty on the right side. There are enviable pieces already in place, and a comfort level that should pay dividends all season.
While Packers fans and observers were dumbfounded at Green Bay’s decision to not add a wide receiver from a deep pool of draftable wide receivers, General Manager Brian Gutekunst’s reasoning was simple: The Packers did not feel that a new, rookie wide receiver would be able to deliver as much impact as the expected gains they anticipate from breakout occasional star wideout Allen Lazard, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equinimeous St. Brown.
A new, other-worldly talent at wide receiver is always welcome, but there were no Julio Joneses or Calvin Johnsons in this draft. The Packers will likely get better production from their top four returning receivers, if only because Rodgers will trust them more than he would a rookie. Rodgers notoriously does not play nicely with rookie receivers.
Against the Vikings, one of the Packers’ wideouts other than Davante Adams may need to shine at times, but the real onus for success will fall on the shoulders of Rodgers, Adams, Jones and the schemes of Matt LaFleur and Offensive Coordinator Nathaniel Hackett.
The Packers expect to be multiple. They expect to be able to bring in personnel groups and do many different things from those groups and alignments. The Packers’ path to success is to fool the Vikings defense.
Will Green Bay ride a hot hand, if, for instance, Aaron Jones breaks out early or Davante Adams proves to be too much for the newly assembled defensive backfield of the Vikings? Count on it. Before that happens, however, the Packers will show a lot of different looks among a variety of personnel groupings. After workshopping new wrinkles in the offense all offseason and not having to show any of it in preseason games, LaFleur will relish the role of mad scientist.
Assuming the Packers can shore up the right side of the offensive line, probably by providing some help to Wagner against sack machine defensive end Danielle Hunter, the Packers offense will win with favorable matchups created by scheme.
Count on Davante Adams being targeted any time he is singled up opposite young corners Holton Hill and Mike Hughes, or rookies Jeff Gladney or Cameron Dantzler. The Packers have legitimate hope for occasional wins against this group from their WR2, WR3 or WR4.
Given the revamp of the Packers’ tight end group and the veteran savvy patrolling the Vikings defense from the inside linebackers and safeties, I will be shocked if Green Bay finds repeat success in the middle of the field.
About that run defense. As bad as Green Bay proved to be in the NFCC, the Vikings were almost as bad in the NFC Divisional round. Green Bay must take advantage of the cracks the Vikings revealed in that season-ending loss.
Like almost every coach, LaFleur said he wants to run more. Week one would be a good week to back that claim up, if they intend to win.
How the Vikings defense can win against the Packers offense
Ovewhelm the right side of the Packers still-under-construction right side of their offensive line. There is no greater positional weakness. The only question is how.
Danielle Hunter can probably expect to earn a better than average win rate against Rick Wagner. He’s a better player. Green Bay will try to minimize his effectiveness. Historically, they don’t chip as much as some other teams. Bulaga proved mostly capable. Wagner will likely need help from a Packers tight end.
When the Vikings get tired of just winning on talent, there exists a strong opportunity to run stunts against the right side of the Packers line. Lane Taylor is said to be looking good at his new position. But it’s still a new position and his ability to coordinate with steady Corey Linsley at center and the iffy Wagner will present opportunities to deceive.
The Vikings cannot count on fooling Aaron Rodgers. However, they can ruin his day by blowing up the offense before it gets a chance to get going.
How the Packers defense can win against the Vikings offense
The Packers need to do whatever it was the 49ers did when they ended the Vikings’ season in January, which began with throttling Dalvin Cook. Cook’s stat line of 9 rushes for 18 yards told the entire story of the Vikings offense.
Holding Cook to 18 yards won’t happen, but if Green Bay can hold him to four times that amount or less, they will likely win. Green Bay needs to go out of character and sell out against the run.
Green Bay plays less “base” defense than most teams, preferring to go nickel and also substituting a safety into one of the inside linebacker spots to prioritize stopping passing attacks. It’s a sound strategy, but one that may have to take a backseat in week one.
The Packers have the thoroughbreds at corner and safety to match up with the Vikings’ pass weapons. Kirk Cousins is better at delivering in the passing game than he is generally given credit for, but the Packers have to live with a few pass plays and wait for mistakes, rather than get eaten alive on the ground like they were in the NFCC.
Adam Thielen is a stud. Tight ends Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith, Jr. can also expect to see success. But the rest of the Vikings pass catchers are at least as suspect as Green Bay’s if not more so. The Packers have a personnel advantage here and need to focus their efforts on stopping the Vikings rushing attack.
Call it mostly even. Give Green Bay a slight edge at kicker, give Minnesota a slight edge at punter. Any big special teams play could be the deciding difference in this match up between two pretty evenly matched teams. Roll the dice and let’s see.
Green Bay at Minnesota Vikings kicks off at 10 a.m. Pacific / 1 p.m. Eastern on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020. Broadcaster: FOX.
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