Even by the normal standards of a rivalry rarely lacking for story lines, the 116th installment of the Vikings-Packers series, to be played at noon on Sunday at Lambeau Field, is rife with subplots.
Aaron Rodgers, fresh off his return from a sprained left knee and 20-point comeback against the Bears on Sunday night, is listed as questionable for this game, with his status liable to change after the Packers’ final practice of the week on Saturday. If Rodgers plays, it would mark his first chance to face the Vikings since the Anthony Barr hit that fractured Rodgers’ collarbone last Oct. 15 (and helped facilitate a new rules emphasis to protect quarterbacks outside the pocket). And Kirk Cousins, the Vikings’ $84 million offseason acquisition, will make his first NFC North start at Lambeau Field, against the team whose quarterbacking standard has often been the difference in the rivalry over the past 26 years.
But as Cousins and Rodgers (presumably) duel for the first time as division foes, they’ll each face secondaries counting heavily on young defensive backs to hold their own against the high-priced quarterbacks.
The Vikings used rookie Mike Hughes as their nickel corner last week, before shifting him to left cornerback once Trae Waynes got hurt. They expect third-year man Mackensie Alexander to return from an ankle injury, meaning both of their young corners could get their first extended exposure to Rodgers in the same game. Alexander played only six snaps against the Packers as a rookie, and though the Vikings were in nickel coverage for the first two series last Oct. 15, Rodgers left the game after eight plays.
The Packers, meanwhile, started second-year man Kevin King and rookie Josh Jackson in Week 1 against the Bears, giving first-round pick Jaire Alexander 49 snaps (including 40 in the slot, according to Pro Football Focus). King was one of four Packers defensive backs to play all 70 of the team’s defensive snaps, while Jackson logged 46.
“We’re off to a great start,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said of his secondary this week. “If I was going to grade our position players publicly, they would clearly get the highest grade.”
As Green Bay has devoted draft picks in recent years to overhaul a leaky secondary, the Vikings have continued to use high picks to fortify a group led by Pro Bowlers Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith. Their respective investments could play a big role in determining the outcome of Sunday’s game.
“When I think back to how far I’ve come in this league in those 2½ years [since a playoff start against the Packers in 2015], I think the same would be said of any player in this league, not just quarterback,” Cousins said. “When you are a four-, five-, six-year veteran, you certainly factor that in to your understanding of them as an opponent, [as opposed to] a guy who is a first- or second-year player. Again, it comes down to scheme. If a guy is a really, really good corner, then you tell him, ‘Hey, go cover that guy.’ If he’s great covering that guy, he doesn’t need to know a whole lot else. I think if you’re good, you’re good.”
For all the attention given to the Vikings’ defensive backfield during their last matchup with Rodgers at Lambeau Field — when coach Mike Zimmer said after the game his cornerbacks had gone against his coverage plan for Jordy Nelson at the beginning of the game — Rodgers did much of his damage that day when his favorite receiver was in the slot.
He froze the Bears secondary with his movement in the pocket, luring safety Eddie Jackson upfield before throwing a strike to slot receiver Randall Cobb for the Packers’ game-winning 75-yard touchdown on Sunday night. Whether Rodgers is able to move outside the pocket or not against the Vikings, he’ll pose a threat to their young slot corners if he’s healthy enough to play.
“He’ll go down as one of the best in the game, and I’m looking forward to playing against him,” Hughes said. “I just try to play within the scheme, go out there and compete and have fun.”
It remains to be seen whether Rodgers, or Cousins, will go into the game with it in the backs of their minds to target their opponent’s young corners. But especially in the nickel corner position, mistakes tend to expose themselves pretty quickly — as they did on a couple of the 49ers’ big plays on Sunday when Zimmer said Hughes “just blanked out.”
As the quarterbacks get the headlines at Lambeau, the corners will get a baptism by fire.
“Really, it’s just these guys are out there for a reason,” Zimmer said. “You’re good, and go out there and play your technique. You definitely don’t want them to play scared.”
Ben Goessling covers the Vikings for the Star Tribune. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org