Packers Poised to Spoil Vikings Stadium Debut - Week 2 Preview

I want this one. I want it bad.

Surprisingly, this is the first time since 1924 that the Packers have played their first two games on the road, but it’s already the second time the Packers and Vikings have christened a new or renovated stadium together.

In 2003, the Packers hosted the Vikings in the season opener at the newly renovated Lambeau Field. Despite a late comeback, Minnesota came away with a 30-25 win. Now, the Packers will have a chance to return the favor of spoiling a stadium opening.

Minnesota has previously opened two new stadiums, and they’ve won both contests: a 37-13 thumping of the Chicago Bears at Metropolitan Stadium in 1961 and a 17-10 slugfest with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Metrodome in 1982.

The Packers have a good chance of stopping the Vikings from going 3-0 in stadium openings, but they’re going to have to go through Mike Zimmer to do it.

Mike Zimmer, defensive mastermind

Last year, Mike Zimmer and the Vikings celebrated their NFC North crown at Lambeau Field. Will the Packers return the favor by spoiling Minnesota's first game in U.S. Bank Stadium?

Last year, Mike Zimmer and the Vikings celebrated their NFC North crown at Lambeau Field. Will the Packers return the favor by spoiling Minnesota's first game in U.S. Bank Stadium?

As referenced in this week’s episode of Blue 58, Zimmer is the architect of the increasingly stingy Vikings defense, and he’s been a thorn in the Packers’ side for a long, long time. Aaron Rodgers is a lifetime 3-3 against Zimmer, dating back to his time as the defensive coordinator of the Bengals.

When facing Zimmer, Rodgers’ numbers fall dramatically across the board. His total yards, touchdowns, completion percentage, and yards per attempt all drop significantly against Zimmer’s tremendous 4-3 defense.

Zimmer treats his 4-3 much like Dom Capers utilizes the 3-4: the base alignment is more a suggestion than an indication of what’s actually going to happen. You can count on one thing that almost certainly will happen when you play against a Mike Zimmer defense, though: he’s going to blitz the A-gap, and he’s going to blitz there a lot.

Watch out for the double A-gap blitz

Mike Zimmer’s double A-gap blitz is one of the most fearsome defensive tactics in the league today. At its most basic level, it’s a numbers game. Zimmer will assign two blitzers (typically linebackers, but sometimes a safety like Harrison Smith) to storm the A-gap, the space on the offensive line between the center and guard. Combined with action from two defensive tackles, this puts tremendous stress on the three interior linemen: they have to block four people with three.

At the very least, this will change the way the quarterback operates in the pocket. By collapsing the area in front of him, he has nowhere to step up to escape pressure.

Here’s a great example of what that looks like:

In this play, Vikings linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks blitz the A-gap, forcing Philip Rivers to step out of the pocket (and away from his protection) to attempt a throw. When he does throw, Barr gets his hand on the ball from behind, and the Vikings recover.

Take note, as well, of how many players are near the line of scrimmage at the start of the play. This was on a 3rd and 11 early in the game, not exactly the sort of situation where you’d expect to have seven or eight guys within three to five yards of the line. But Zimmer does, and that makes it harder to identify the pressure.

The threat of the double A-gap blitz can also be an effective strategy.

Look at how the threat of a two blitzing linebackers affects the communication between the center and right guard on this play:

The pair ends up trying to double a defensive tackle while the linebacker sprints into the backfield. Matthew Stafford never has a chance.

Here’s one last look at how just the threat of the double A-gap blitz can be a huge problem for the offense:

fake blitz 2.gif

In this play, instead of coming through the middle, one linebacker loops around the outside. With help from a safety blitz, this more or less collapses the left side of the offensive line, leading to a sack.

The Vikings are a much improved team on offense, even without Teddy Bridgewater. Adrian Peterson is still formidable, even if he did have a lower yards per carry average in Week 1 than John Kuhn.

But Minnesota’s fortunes will rise and fall with the effectiveness of their defense and their ability to get pressure up the middle.

Last Time - Vikings 20, Packers 13 - January 3, 2016

How did the Packers not win this game? Green Bay twice had the ball in Minnesota territory in the last three minutes of the game and came away with no points. Sure, the second of those two possessions was a two minute drill (one that featured a one yard pass to Richard Rodgers… presented without comment), but certainly things weren’t that bad, were they?

Yeah, they kind of were, actually. Aaron Rodgers threw for 291 yards, but it took him 44 attempts to do so. One of those 44 attempts was a weak effort on a fourth down play late in the game, which ended up in the hands of Xavier Rhodes. It certainly wasn’t Rodgers’ finest performance.

This game was also emblematic of the Packers’ offensive struggles as a whole. No receiver seemed capable of creating separation when it mattered, and Rodgers was left holding the ball with nowhere to go far too often.

Viking To Watch: Anthony Barr

Anthony Barr is something every good defense needs: a big, scary dude.

At 6-5, 255, Barr is officially a linebacker, but he functions much like a defensive end. The Vikings move him all over their defensive front to allow him to get pressure from a variety of alignments. His 4.66 speed in the 40-yard dash gives him the sort of explosive ability a player needs to successfully rush from anywhere. Expect him to pair with fellow linebacker Eric Kendricks on several blitz combinations.

Facts to Impress Your Friends

  • Mike McCarthy may want to consider playing Jared Cook on defense. The Packers tight end caught passes from both Sam Bradford and Shaun Hill as a member of the Rams. Maybe they’d throw to him out of force of habit?
  • This is the earliest the Packers and Vikings have met in the regular season since 2008, when they met in the season opener. Aaron Rodgers led the Packers to a win in his first career start that day.
  • Rodgers has thrown just one interception against the Vikings in his past seven starts against them, including the playoffs.
  • 21 of the 53 players on the Packers’ roster were drafted in the sixth or seventh rounds, or were acquired as undrafted free agents. Conversely, the Vikings have 14 first round picks on their roster: eleven of their own selections and three from other teams (Terence Newman, Andre Smith, and Sam Bradford.)

Jon’s Pick

I really, really, really want this one, but I think it’s going to be tough. The Vikings have played the Packers really well since Mike Zimmer came to town, and opening a new stadium is sure to give Minnesota a boost. I don’t know if it’ll be as loud as the Metrodome, but you can bet crowd noise will be a factor.

I’m really interested to see how the Packers’ wide receivers play this week. As I mentioned above, a lack of separation was a huge problem the last time the Packers and Vikings played, and if they can’t create space this time, Rodgers is going to face some serious pressure.

Incidentally, the record for the largest margin of victory in NFL history comes courtesy of the Chicago Bears 73-0 dismantling of the Washington Redskins in 1940. Mike McCarthy, if you’re taking notes, I think that’s a reasonable goal to shoot for.

Packers 24, Vikings 23

Gary’s Pick

Jon and I first met and became friends at a university about nine miles away from the site of U.S. Bank Stadium. The majority of our friends (save for a random Dolphins fan) there were Vikings fans, making the Packers-Vikings matchups a perilous tightrope walk.

Jon has written and spoke at length about the impact Zimmer’s defense can have on an opposing quarterback. On the other side of the ball, Shaun Hill has started one 2010 game for the Lions against the Packers and lost 28-26. Sam Bradford has started twice against Green Bay as a member of the Rams in 2011 and 2012 and lost both, 24-3 and 30-20.

No matter the starter, neither will win their first game against Green Bay on Sunday night.

Packers 31, Vikings 28