In his last three games against the Vikings, Aaron Rodgers has completed 71 percent of his passes for an average of 310 yards per game. He's tossed nine touchdown passes and thrown just two interceptions.
This isn't that surprising considering Rodgers is currently on pace for one of the greatest statistical seasons of all time.
It's also not surprising that Greg Jennings - Rodgers' obvious No. 1 receiver - has done a lot of the damage during the same three-game span. In those three games, Jennings has hauled in 20 receptions for a total of 373 yards and five touchdowns. Rodgers has connected on 69 percent of the 29 passes thrown Jennings' way. To put that in a little bit of perspective, all the other Packers wideouts combined have only caught 28 balls for 362 yards and one touchdown in the last three matchups.
Put a different way, Rodgers has averaged 8.4 yards per attempt when throwing to wideouts not named Greg Jennings. He's averaged 12.9 yards per attempt when tossing it to No. 85.
All of which begs the question; why not game plan specifically to stop Jennings? Sure, the Packers boast arguably the most talented and deep corps of wide receivers in the NFL. No. 2 wideout Jordy Nelson has scored five touchdowns and averages 19.7 yards per catch (the 4th-highest average in the league). James Jones has scored touchdowns in four of his last five games. Jermichael Finley is one of the most dangerous pass-catching tight ends in the business.Yet the Vikes have proven over the recent three-game stretch of Green-and-Gold dominance that they can stop the secondary receivers... or at least slow them down.
But they can't stop Jennings, and I'm not sure they've made much of an effort to alter their game plan to do so. For every pass attempt on which a wideout is the intended receiver, Pro Football Focus tracks which defender was in coverage. Their detailed game-charting data reveals a somewhat disturbing trend; the Vikings have seemingly ignored the fact that Jennings is the man to stop.
The data is somewhat skewed by the 33-27 loss a few weeks ago, when the Vikings' top two cornerbacks were either injured or in jail. Chris Cook had been doing an admirable job of shadowing top opposing wide receivers like Vincent Jackson and Calvin Johnson earlier this year, and may have been employed in a similar manner against Jennings in Week 7 had he been available. Without Cook or their top cover corner, Antoine Winfield, the Vikings had no chance to stop Jennings or anyone else (and they didn't, as you probably noticed when Jennings literally walked into the end zone at the end of a 79-yard touchdown strike on which he simply wasn't covered).
But in the two losses last year, in which Jennings had 13 catches for 226 yards and four touchdowns, a healthy Winfield was rarely matched up with Jennings. In fact, he was listed as the defensive back in coverage on passes thrown towards Jennings just three times. He caught one of those passes for 15 yards. Against all other Vikings defenders in those two games, Jennings and Rodgers connected 12 out of 16 times for 211 yards and four touchdowns.
One thing we know the Vikes can't (or shouldn't) do is put Asher Allen on an island against the Packers No. 1 wideout. In the last three Vikings-Packers games, Allen was the player in coverage on eight of the passes that were targeted for Jennings, who caught six of them for 102 yards and three touchdowns. And that (correctly) doesn't include the aforementioned 79-yard touchdown when Husain Abdullah blew his assignment after Allen let Jennings go down the right sideline.
Cook is out again this week, but Winfield is expected back after a four-game absence due to a neck injury. For reasons I don't pretend to know or understand, the Vikings don't typically use Winfield to shadow any one player. Other elite cornerbacks like Darrelle Revis, Charles Woodson, and Champ Bailey are frequently used in this way, but perhaps Winfield is only comfortable on one side of the field. Or perhaps the Vikings feel he's better utilized inside against slot receivers on obvious passing downs, which is how they've been using him for the past couple of years.
There's no guarantee that Winfield would be able to completely shut down Jennings, Revis Island style, nor that Rodgers wouldn't simply throw for 300 yards to some combination of Nelson, Jones, Finley, Donald Driver, or Randall Cobb if Jennings had been sucdessfully eliminated by Winfield. But given how badly the Vikes have been burned by Jennings in the recent past, isn't it at least worth experimenting with the idea of having Winfield shadow Jennings all over the field? Wouldn't it make sense to at least attempt to take away Rodgers' best and most explosive weapon and force him to beat you with less talented players?
At the very least, it's worth keeping a close eye on Jennings on Monday night. Will the Packers move him around or stick him on the right side, where he tends to play most of his snaps? When the Packers go to three- and four-wide offensive sets, where does Winfield line up? Will he stay on the outside receiver, or will the Vikings continue to move him inside? And if you see No. 85 in Green and Gold matched up one-on-one against No. 21 in purple (Allen), be afraid. Be very afraid.
Christian Peterson is the Operations Manager at LeagueSafe.com. He is a contributor to Vikings.com and is a co-host on the Fantasy Football Weekly radio show on Saturday Mornings on KFAN 100.3 FM.
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