As Vikes prep for Rodgers, Packers ‘D poses tough test, too
Published 7:58 pm Thursday, November 18, 2021
MINNEAPOLIS — In his eighth season directing the Minnesota Vikings, Mike Zimmer has become well-accustomed to the twice-annual headaches of trying to prepare for and play against Aaron Rodgers.
The angst has hardly been misplaced.
In 13 games against the Vikings since Zimmer was hired in 2014, the three-time NFL MVP has 24 touchdown passes and just three interceptions. The four wins Minnesota has under Zimmer against Green Bay in full games Rodgers has played are nowhere near enough for one of the league’s most renowned defensive strategists to feel some relief.
This year, Green Bay’s defense might actually be a bigger source of stress for the Vikings.
They’ll be up against a group Sunday that has not allowed an opponent to score for six straight quarters. That’s the longest such streak for the Packers since their Super Bowl championship season in 2010.
“I’ve been knowing it since training camp. I knew this was a good defense because, just seeing the leadership and seeing how different people think and all that stuff,” said rookie cornerback Eric Stokes, the first-round draft pick from Georgia who has helped the Packers withstand a slew of injuries and to rank third in the NFL in both yards (309.9) and points (18.0) allowed per game.
Despite the absence of 2020 Pro Bowl picks cornerback Jaire Alexander and outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith to long-term injuries, the Packers over their last three games surrendered only one touchdown pass and a total of 34 points with four interceptions against the following opposing quarterbacks: Kyler Murray, Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson. That’s quite a list.
Kirk Cousins, who has the best interception percentage (0.6) in the league and is sixth in passer rating (104.0), has his hands full this week.
“It’s really a great team defense. When you look at some of the players I have a lot of respect for who aren’t playing and then the production they have, it says a lot about their unit,” Cousins said.
Cousins is coming off a strong performance in a 27-20 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers in which he more consistently looked to star wide receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen after a lull in the passing attack the previous two weeks.
“I do think that sometimes he needs to be aggressive with the football,” Zimmer said. “He’s got to trust everybody, and if he has to hum a couple in there and they get tipped or something, so be it. That’s why we’re a team.”
Zimmer has long been applauded by Rodgers for his schematic acumen, which was again on full display last week against the Chargers while missing five starters with a combined 19 selections for the Pro Bowl between them.
“Mike Zimmer, shoot, I think he’s one of the best in the game,” LaFleur said.
The Packers (8-2) have a 3½-game lead on the Vikings (4-5), well on their way to their third straight NFC North title and currently in control of the No. 1 seed for the playoffs.
Green Bay is 13-1 against division opponents in three years under coach Matt LaFleur. According to Elias Sports Bureau research, LaFleur and Steve Mariucci are the only coaches to win 13 of their first 14 divisional games. Mariucci won 16 of his first 17 against the NFC West with San Francisco from 1997-99.
The Vikings handed LaFleur his only divisional loss thus far, when Dalvin Cook had 226 yards and four touchdowns from scrimmage in a 28-22 victory at Lambeau Field.
The Packers will likely be without 2020 Pro Bowl running back Aaron Jones, who sprained his knee last week. Jones, who has rushed for 336 yards and four touchdowns in his last three games against the Vikings, also missed the loss to Minnesota last year because of a calf injury.
A.J. Dillon has shown recently he’s capable of carrying the load. The 247-pound second-year player scored both touchdowns against Seattle and has 218 total yards over the last two games.
Since setting a franchise record with 27 consecutive successful field-goal attempts, Green Bay’s Mason Crosby has made just five of his last 12 tries while working with a new holder (punter Corey Bojorquez) and snapper (Steven Wirtel).
Meanwhile, Minnesota’s special teams have been on a roll after a few rough years. Greg Joseph is 6 for 6 on field goals and 8 for 8 on extra points over the past three games. Dede Westbrook had a 45-yard punt return last week, the second longest in the NFL this season. Kene Nwangwu returned a kickoff for a touchdown two games ago.