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Thielen and Diggs state case vs. Packers as NFL's best receiving duo

Jaire Alexander didn’t have much of a chance without risking pass interference. The Packers rookie cornerback chased Vikings receiver Adam Thielen down the sideline, turning his head only when it was too late.

Thielen ran an out-and-up pattern as Alexander trailed him. It was first down with 36 seconds left and the Vikings needed eight points to force a tie and overtime. To not give away the impending 22-yard touchdown catch, Thielen kept his hands low until the last possible moment — a trick of the receiver trade perfected from legends like Randy Moss to Larry Fitzgerald.

“For me, it was just make sure I have really late hands,” Thielen said Monday. “So the defender can’t put his hands up and knock it down. I knew that if it would just sneak over his head, it would be a catch.”

Quarterback Kirk Cousins’ throw over Alexander’s shoulder, while he was drilled low by Packers defensive tackle Mike Daniels, was overshadowed only by Thielen’s finesse.

The Vikings’ premiere receiving duo capped Sunday’s 29-29 tie in Green Bay with two exclamation points. Stefon Diggs’ in-and-out move on 35-year-old corner Tramon Williams produced one of the easiest goal-line fades you’ll see for the ensuing two-point conversion.

Thielen and Diggs became just the third receiving duo to each record 125 yards in a game since the start of last season, joining Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson (Week 1, 2018) and Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller (Week 7, 2017), according to Pro Football Reference.

1. The NFL’s best receiving duo? Thielen and Diggs nearly broke their own record for most combined yardage in a game after racking up 21 catches for 259 yards in Green Bay. It’s the duo’s most productive outing behind only last year’s win against Tampa Bay when they combined for 271 yards.

They did it on short, intermediate and deep routes. Diggs spent much of his afternoon roasting Williams, the Packers veteran, including on an 18-yard comeback route and the two-point conversion. Diggs gets a lot of attention for fluid route running and sharp breaks that spin around defenders, but his long speed was on full display during the 75-yard touchdown. A stack release, with Diggs lined up behind Laquon Treadwell, gave him the room to get a full head of steam at Davon House, who watched Cousins’ 60-plus yard throw turn into a quick fourth-quarter touchdown.

The Vikings’ depth behind their top duo was exposed in the late-game shootout. Treadwell (45 snaps) dropped three of six targets, tipping a late pass into a costly interception deep in Vikings territory. He and Cousins also weren’t on the same page on an overtime throw that sailed outward as Treadwell cut inward. So, the Vikings signed veteran burner Aldrick Robinson, who once ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash, after the game.

There’s little criticism to be levied on Cousins after he became just the fifth Vikings quarterback to ever produce a 400-yard, 4-touchdown game — the first since Daunte Culpepper in 2004.

Cousins responded from his 0-for-6 fourth quarter in Week 1 by throwing for 134 yards, three touchdowns and the tipped interception in Sunday’s fourth quarter.

2. Pressure report: You’ve probably seen the stat that quarterback Aaron Rodgers was 9 for 9 throwing against Vikings blitzes. That doesn’t tell the whole story. The Vikings blitzed Rodgers on 12 of his 49 dropbacks [24.5%] and the former league MVP was successful on seven of those 12 plays. The other five blitzes ended in two Vikings sacks and three completions well short of the marker for eight yards.

Overall, the Vikings sacked Rodgers four times within nine hits, led by defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson (3 hits) and defensive end Everson Griffen (2 hits). Richardson also drew a hold that negated a Jimmy Graham touchdown in the third quarter. Packers tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga were stiffer opponents for ends Griffen and Danielle Hunter than the week prior vs. San Francisco. They were still able to cap pressures with sacks, including Hunter breezing past Bulaga on a speed rush for his sack. Defensive end Stephen Weatherly later beat Bulaga for a hit on Rodgers.

The Vikings’ offensive line continues to be its weak link. Coordinator John DeFilippo has schemed ways to help them in pass protection, including varied screens, sweeps and play-action bootlegs that heavily featured tight end Kyle Rudolph in the passing game. The overall outcome was solid considering Cousins was sacked just twice on six hits.

When right tackle Rashod Hill (41 snaps) went down with an injured right ankle, rookie Brian O’Neill (32 snaps) made his debut on offense. O’Neill wasn’t beat quickly, which is a good first step. Run blocking is where the Vikings could desperately use more from their offensive line. Running back Dalvin Cook was again more of a factor in the passing game, partly because of an early deficit but also because the quick pass game has been used to supplant an inefficient run game.

Only six of the Vikings’ 43 first downs through two games were gained on the ground. That’s not good. Both Hill and left tackle Riley Reiff were called for holding Packers defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson on run plays.

3. Anatomy of a play: A year ago, linebacker Anthony Barr (#55) was assigned to ‘spy’ a healthy Rodgers in some obvious passing situations. Barr was doing just that when he made the hit that broke Rodgers’ collarbone as the quarterback escaped the pocket. During Sunday’s 29-29 tie, Rodgers wasn’t full healthy or therefore very mobile playing through a sprained left knee. But Zimmer still respected Rodgers’ mobility when installing certain blitzes against the Packers.

On this third-and-11 below, the Vikings bring a typical overloaded blitz that sends Barr, safety Harrison Smith (#22) and has linebacker Eric Kendricks assigned to the running back; Kendricks could seemingly add to the blitz if the back, Jamaal Williams, blocked Barr or Smith. What’s different is the backside end, Hunter (#99), staggers his rush and waits for Rodgers to react to the overloaded blitz. If Rodgers were to flee to the open side, Hunter would be there waiting — effectively a ‘spy’ assignment. Defensive end Everson Griffen did this a couple times in the game as well.

This play still turns into a 31-yard pickup for the Packers, because Rodgers gets the ball out in three seconds, finds receiver Davante Adams for a 16-yard catch and safety Andrew Sendejo chips in 15 yards via an unnecessary roughness penalty. Watch below and you’ll also see Packers tight end Marcedes Lewis get away with a hold on Barr.

4. Special teams woes galore: Jettisoning rookie kicker Daniel Carlson won’t be an all-encompassing fix for the Vikings’ woeful special teams on Sunday. After punter Matt Wile nearly had a punt blocked in Week 1, it happened against the Packers when receiver Geronimo Allison slid between linebackers Devante Downs and Eric Wilson. Packers cornerback Josh Jackson recovered in the end zone for Green Bay’s first touchdown of the day. Defensive end Stephen Weatherly, blocking on the opposite side, said a review showed “a simple technique error…that won’t happen again.” “Just bad technique with the hands and eyes,” Weatherly said. “There was a lot going on.”

Aside from missing three field goals, kicker Daniel Carlson whiffed on a mortar kick that landed near the Packers’ own 20-yard line and set up a fourth-quarter drive at Green Bay’s 31-yard line. The Vikings also weren’t pleased with a couple missed fair catches, leading to lost yardage on punt returns. Starting returner Marcus Sherels had left the game due to a chest injury. Receiver Stacy Coley nearly turned over a kick return when he didn’t kneel in the end zone for a touchback before flipping the ball to an official.

5. Plenty to like, and plenty to clean up in secondary: The Vikings defense should feel good with how they covered Packers targets, specifically in the red zone, and of course with some exceptions. Overall, they surrendered three 20-plus plays (half of what happened in the last full game vs. Rodgers in 2016).

The Packers came away with just four field goals and a touchdown in five trips inside the Vikings’ 20-yard line as the defense allowed 22 points total. Linebacker Eric Kendricks showed why the Vikings signed him to a five-year extension this offseason. He made perhaps the most unheralded, game-saving play in the end zone at Lambeau.

After Treadwell’s tipped pass into an interception set up Rodgers at the Vikings’ 13-yard line, Rodgers looked for the dagger. He found Adams for what would’ve been a touchdown and two-score lead under two minutes left, but Kendricks’ right hand ripped the ball loose as they fell to the ground. Two plays later, Mason Crosby gave the Packers an eight-point lead the Vikings would eventually tie to force overtime.

Cornerback Mackensie Alexander’s return from an ankle injury was full of ups and downs to start his third NFL season. Alexander (54 snaps) had a few solid open-field tackles and an overtime sack to force a Packers punt. But the young cornerback was also the culprit on two of the Vikings’ biggest leaks to tight end Jimmy Graham. Alexander let Graham run free behind him on a 34-yard pickup down the left sideline. Then Alexander again lost Graham on a broken play that set up Crosby’s 52-yard miss before overtime. Rodgers escaped the pocket and found an open Graham, behind Alexander, for 27 yards with seven seconds left in regulation. He was also flagged for a hold on Randall Cobb that moved the chains on third-and-2 during a touchdown drive.

One uncharacteristic error kept repeating as the Vikings’ back end missed at least six tackles: two by Alexander and one apiece from Trae Waynes, Mike Hughes, Jayron Kearse and Barr.

With Rodgers in rare form, Vikings pass rush had mixed results

The working theory about Aaron Rodgers — who is now signed with the Green Bay Packers until age 40 and has said he plans to play that long — is that he’ll have to cut back on the number of plays he attempts to make outside the pocket and resort to a heavier diet of quick passes as he ages, much as Tom Brady has done.

The 34-year-old Rodgers played that way on Sunday not because of his age, but because of the bulky brace he wore on his sprained left knee. If what the Vikings saw Sunday was a preview of what they’ll get from Rodgers in future years, it represented a stark difference from what they’re used to seeing.

According to Pro Football Focus, Rodgers took an average of just 2.24 seconds before throwing on Sunday, down from his 2.65-second average in Week 1 and his 2.55-second average last year. He completed 21 of his 23 passes when he released the ball in 2.5 seconds or less, posting a passer rating of 105.4 on those throws.

It seemed likely the Packers would resort to quicker throws against the Vikings on Sunday, to help Rodgers protect his knee, and he was sacked only once in the first half. Even though the Vikings got to him three times in the second half, Rodgers found room to throw when he was blitzed.

 

According to ESPN Stats and Information, Rodgers was 9 of 9 for 87 yards when he was blitzed on Sunday (though the Vikings did sack him to end the Packers’ lone overtime drive on a blitz from Mackensie Alexander).

“I felt like we could be better,” defensive tackle Linval Joseph said. “Every week, we’re trying to just get better and better. One leg or two legs, Aaron Rodgers is still a magic quarterback. Just to get a tie, and finish the way we finished was big today.”

The Vikings’ front four had more success in the second half, as Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter shared a third-quarter sack and Sheldon Richardson (who finished with a half-sack and three QB hits) started to get through the line. Stephen Weatherly also got a third-quarter shot on Rodgers on a 2nd-and-4.

Overall, though, it’s worth noting that the Vikings had to bring extra heat after Rodgers in the second half, and how effective he was when they did.  Things figure to get easier next week at home, against rookie Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills.

Here are some other notes and observations from Sunday’s game:

–In an odd sequence at the end of the first half, Rodgers completed an eight-yard pass to Adams and turned back toward referee Tony Corrente to signal timeout. The problem was, though, that the Packers had already spent their final timeout of the first half, which meant Rodgers was trying to call a timeout he didn’t have. The quarterback ran to the line just in time to snap the ball and hit Adams again, setting up a Mason Crosby field goal after Adams got out of bounds. The NFL changed its rulebook in 2016 to “make it a delay of game foul when a team attempts to call a timeout and it is not permitted to do so,” which meant Rodgers should have been flagged on Sunday (though a flag would have stopped the clock, at least momentarily). In any case, the penalty wasn’t called, and after Rodgers’ completion to Adams put the Packers at the Vikings’ 19, Crosby hit a 37-yard field goal to end the first half.

–Linebacker Ben Gedeon made one of the Vikings’ biggest defensive plays of the day on Sunday, running step-for-step with Jimmy Graham as Rodgers tried to hit him on a deep ball down the left sideline in the first half. Rodgers’ throw went off Graham’s left hand, and if Graham had been a step ahead, he might have caught the pass in stride for a touchdown. As it was, Gedeon appeared to hook his right arm on Graham’s right hand a split-second early, drawing the ire of the Lambeau Field crowd once it saw a replay. At full speed, though, it was the kind of subtle move that wasn’t going to draw a penalty, and by keeping pace with Graham, Gedeon made what might have been one of the biggest plays of the game.

–Stefon Diggs’ second touchdown on Sunday — a 75-yard fourth-quarter bomb from Kirk Cousins to pull the Vikings within two — was the most explosive play of the game by either team, but his first score of the day was the product of a clever play design from offensive coordinator John DeFilippo. Diggs motioned in from a three-receiver set to the right of Kirk Cousins, with Tramon Williams following him. The receiver broke back to the right, then cut back to the left, sprinting toward the left sideline as Cousins snapped the ball. His motion helped him beat Williams to the corner, and he caught a three-yard scoring pass from Cousins to pull the Vikings within six in the fourth quarter. Diggs’ motion on the play looked like the short shuttle drill players do at the NFL scouting combine, and the Vikings essentially bet that he’d make a better cut than the 35-year-old Williams in man coverage. They were right.

–After right tackle Rashod Hill left the game with an ankle injury, second-round pick Brian O’Neill entered the game and appeared to turn in a solid debut. According to Pro Football Focus, O’Neill allowed only one hurry in 25 pass-blocking snaps, as the Vikings rallied to tie the game. It’s worth noting that the rookie’s work came when the Vikings were throwing on almost every play, which might have simplified things for O’Neill somewhat. But the Vikings felt good enough about O’Neill to keep Mike Remmers at right guard, rather than sliding him out to tackle and putting Danny Isidora at right guard. It’s worth watching how the Vikings use O’Neill going forward, especially if Hill’s ankle becomes a concern. 

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