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Preview: Packers look to make a statement in 2019 Lambeau opener

The Green Bay Packers (1-0) return home after last week’s season-opening win, hosting the Minnesota Vikings (1-0) in an NFC North clash at Lambeau Field in Green Bay. Kickoff is slated for 12 p.m. CDT.

Some notes on the matchup:

  • FOX Sports will televise the game, with Chris Myers, Daryl Johnston and Laura Okmin handling the broadcast duties.
  • Wayne Larrivee, Larry McCarren and John Kuhn can be heard calling the action across the 50-station Packers Radio Network, originating from flagship AM 620 WTMJ. Nationally, ESPN Radio will broadcast the game on radio, with Mark Kestecher and Jack Del Rio on the call.
  • Sunday marks the 118th meeting (including playoffs) between the two teams. The Packers lead the all-time series 60-54-3.
  • Green Bay has scored 23-plus points in 11 of the last 13 home games against the Vikings.
  • 22 of the last 33 regular season meetings have been decided by seven points or less.
  • Aaron Rodgers in 21 starts against the Vikings: 449-660 (68%), 5,307 yards, 42 touchdowns, six interceptions, 109.7 passer rating.

Injury Report

Despite a double-digit count on their injury report for the second straight week, the Packers enter the contest in relatively good health. Linebacker Oren Burks (chest) and wideout Darrius Shepherd (hamstring) have been declared OUT, while cornerback Ka’dar Hollman (neck) and offensive tackle David Bakhtiari (back) are both listed as QUESTIONABLE.

Minnesota declared cornerback Mackensie Alexander (elbow) OUT for week two, with another corner, Mike Hughes (knee) listed as DOUBTFUL. Two players are QUESTIONABLE for Sunday’s contest: offensive lineman Pat Elflein (knee) and linebacker Ben Gedeon (groin).

The keys for Green Bay on offense…

In a strange way, a lot of what happens offensively for the Packers on Sunday could come down to injuries. David Bakhtiari was hampered by a back issue all week, putting his status for the game in doubt. If he’s not able to go, disaster could very well be on the horizon in the form of a ferocious Minnesota defensive front, namely Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter. With the offense already going through some growing pains, Green Bay surely doesn’t want to trot out a shuffled offensive line with rookie Elgton Jenkins, regardless of how good he looked in the preseason, stepping in at guard while a backup (likely Alex Light or Billy Turner) protects Aaron Rodgers’ blindside. Even if they determine Bakhtiari is healthy enough to play, it will be worth monitoring whether or not they try to help him out in certain situations.

On the flip side, the Vikings are dealing with a rash of injuries at cornerback with Mackensie Alexander declared out and Mike Hughes doubtful for Sunday. That leaves them with Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes as their starters, with seventh-round rookie Kris Boyd and undrafted free agent Nate Meadors the only others on the active roster. Rhodes and Waynes are battle-tested enough, but it will be extremely interesting to see how Vikings’ coach Mike Zimmer chooses to deploy his sub packages. Safety Jayron Kearse has operated serviceably as Zimmer’s “big nickel,” but with limited depth, I’d expect Green Bay head coach Matt LaFleur to test Kearse often. Should Minnesota need to put their dime package on the field, LaFleur and Aaron Rodgers should have plenty of favorable options to work with.

Getting back to the Vikings’ defensive front, it will be crucial for the Packers to keep them off balance. The best way to do that will be to win on first and second down. In the season opener against Chicago, Green Bay was just 2-12 on third down, with 11 of those plays being called passes. One huge reason for that? The average yards-to-go on those plays was 9.25, with six being 10-plus yards. Like the Bears, Minnesota’s defensive line loves to pin their ears back on obvious passing downs, and they’re extremely skilled at jumping the snap. The Packers will need to make hay on first and second down to make sure they have the flexibility to run or pass when the third downs do come, or converting those plays will be a house of horrors for the second straight week.

The aforementioned offensive growing pains resulted in negative yardage in the first quarter for the Packers in Chicago, yet they were fortunate enough to overcome that and do just enough to scrape out a win. They can ill-afford to start that way against a Vikings defense that recorded a sack, blocked a punt and recorded an interception within its first seven defensive and special teams snaps of the season last week. Minnesota had a 14-0 lead less than seven minutes into the game and never looked back. The Packers have the benefit of playing at home, but moving the ball and avoiding negative momentum plays will be key.

The keys for Green Bay on defense…

The immediate payoff of Brian Gutekunst’s free agency pickups last week was a sight for sore eyes, and the team will be counting on the trio of Smith, Smith and Amos to have a similar impact in their first official home game as Packers. For Za’Darius and Preston Smith, that will likely include setting a solid edge against a Vikings’ rushing attack that amassed 172 yards on 38 carries a week ago.

Against Atlanta, running back Dalvin Cook made Minnesota’s zone running scheme look flawless, rushing 21 times for 111 yards and two scores. Much of their success can be attributed to the Falcons failing to secure the edges defensively, allowing Cook to get outside rather than forcing him back into the teeth of the defense. That, combined with an insurmountable lead, allowed Minnesota the luxury of throwing the ball just 10 times in the game while paving the Falcons’ defense into the ground. The Smiths’ pass-rushing ability grabbed the headlines all offseason, and we saw why last week. Against the Vikings, however, the pass rush opportunities will be much more plentiful if they can stymie the running attack first.

Vikings’ quarterback Kirk Cousins completed eight of ten passes for 98 yards and a touchdown against the Falcons, while basically existing in the two seconds between the snap and handing Dalvin Cook the football the rest of the time. Unless he’s undergone a complete stylistic overhaul since last season, however, the book on him likely reads the same: get him off rhythm and force him to move from the pocket. Cousins does not throw well on the move and still tends to panic from time to time under pressure. This is where stopping the run and putting the Vikings in obvious passing situations can pay off.

All that being said, Minnesota still boasts maybe the best wide receiver duo in the league with Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. They led the team in targets last season with 153 and 149, respectively, and combined for half the team’s receptions in week one. In ten career games against the Packers, Thielen has hauled in 52 passes for 692 yards and three scores, while Diggs has 42 receptions for 550 yards and six touchdowns in seven games. You could interpret those numbers two ways: Vikings’ quarterbacks have had nowhere else to throw the ball, or the Packers have had an extremely difficult time containing them.

My opinion? It’s a little of option one and a lot of option two. Thielen and Diggs have killed the Packers over the course of recent history, save for the time Jaire Alexander took them both out at once:

That play not withstanding, Green Bay’s secondary will have its hands full on Sunday.

One thing to watch will be how the Packers line up personnel-wise against heavy formations. Minnesota used two tight ends on 16 snaps last week, and even went to a three tight end look on four occasions. Of those 20 plays, exactly three were passes. Obviously, the big lead factored in to how the Vikings called their offense, but the point remains. Green Bay’s depth in the secondary is an asset, and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine pretty much lives in sub packages, but he may be forced to put heavier bodies on the field more often than he’d like.

Prediction

It’s true what they say–a win is a win, no matter how ugly. The season-opening win in Chicago was proof of that, but the test gets tougher this week against a team with a legitimate rushing threat and a quarterback who is, if nothing else, seasoned. One prevailing thought surrounding the Packers at the moment seems to be that if the defense can build upon last week’s performance, they’ll be just fine. It’s hard to dispute that, and I tend to agree. The other strong sentiment, however, is that the offense will begin to jell and function like a well-oiled machine…eventually. Maybe some of it was rust, but they’ve got leaps and bounds to go if last week is any indication. Matt LaFleur surely has a few things up his sleeve–after all, he watched his buddy Sean McVay and the Rams eviscerate Mike Zimmer’s defense to the tune of 550 yards and 38 points last year–but I’ll give experience the nod in this one. Vikings 20, Packers 13.

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