The Vikings and Packers head into Sunday’s game at Lambeau Field well aware they’ll need other ways to win besides what got them through Week 1 unscathed.
Three days before the Vikings won throwing the ball 10 times, the Packers won at Chicago with 10 points for the first time since a 2-0 victory on Oct. 16, 1932.
“Each game,” said Vikings coach Mike Zimmer with a shrug, “is different.”
Amen, says Matt LaFleur, his rookie counterpart Sunday.
The 39-year-old offensive wunderkind was hired to revitalize the Packers’ offense. To prevent Aaron Rodgers from retiring with only one ring. To bring a youthful NextGen pedigree that meshes some old-school Shanahan two-back with some new-school McVay three-receiver looks.
So how will the first quarter of the LaFleur Era be remembered?
Three three-and-outs. Two third-down sacks. And minus-12 yards of offense.
“Yeah, I hope it doesn’t get any worse than that,” LaFleur said. “That was a pretty bad feeling. We were lucky to be in the position we were. Down 3-0 and our defense was playing great.”
Three quarters later, Mike Pettine’s defense — with four new starters in linebackers Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith, veteran safety Adrian Amos and rookie safety Darnell Savage — had saved the night with five sacks and an interception in dominating a 10-3 victory.
And, suddenly, LaFleur wasn’t being ripped for punting nine times. Instead, LaFleur was being mentioned alongside Vince Lombardi as the only Packers coaches to beat the Bears in their first try.
Asked what goes through his mind when mentioned alongside Lombardi, LaFleur says, “The only thing that goes through my mind is we got a huge game this week.”
Somewhere, Vince is smiling.
In the locker room after the Bears game, Rodgers presented LaFleur with a game ball as the coach’s phone hummed with messages from a coaching past going back 12 seasons in the NFL and five more in college.
“I even texted him after the first game,” said Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, who spent his first two seasons in Washington with LeFleur as his position coach.
“I said, ‘Congrats getting your first win as a head coach. But we’re coming on Sunday.’ He knows that, and they’re coming for us.”
Cousins and LaFleur are Michigan guys. LaFleur used to vacation one town south of Cousins’ hometown of Holland. Both played quarterback, although LaFleur starred at smaller Saginaw Valley State before playing two years in the National Indoor Football League for the Omaha Beef and Billings Outlaws.
“It didn’t last very long,” LaFleur said of his pro career. “It was one of those deals when I was GA’ing for Central Michigan. Brian Kelly was our head coach. The opportunity came up to go out there and play a little arena ball or whatever. We were breaking for the summer and had a couple weeks off and he was, ‘Hey, yeah, go for it.’ ”
A coaching career that started at Saginaw Valley State in 2003 reached the NFL as Gary Kubiak’s offensive quality control coach in Houston in 2008-09. Other stints included the four years in Washington under Mike Shanahan, a trip to the Super Bowl during the 2015 season as Falcons quarterbacks coach, a one-year stint under Sean McVay as Rams offensive coordinator and last year’s move to Tennessee so he could call plays as an offensive coordinator.
The Titans ranked 27th in scoring (19.4) and 25th in total offense (312.4 yards per game) while missing the playoffs.
“[LaFleur] loves screens, all downs and distances,” Zimmer said. “Hurry-up offense, they’ve always done that wherever he’s been. A lot of the boots and nakeds. There’s a lot of similarities to what we do.”
Of course, the Vikings didn’t need their full game plan after jumping on top of Atlanta 28-0 last week. They finished with 38 rushes for 172 yards, a far cry from the 48 passes and 18 runs they had last year in a 29-29 overtime tie at Green Bay in Week 2.
“We didn’t go into last week’s game saying we’re going to throw it 10 times,” Zimmer said. “Maybe we’ll throw it 48 again. We’ll see. We’re going to do whatever we need to do to win.”
Same goes for a Packers team whose defense is strangely ahead of the offense. Or perhaps upon further review of last week’s opponent, the offense isn’t all that far behind.
“I think the Bears defense is pretty good,” Zimmer said. “Those guys up front are very, very talented. The linebackers are talented. It was a tough test for [Green Bay]. But the bottom line is they won the game.”