A year ago at Lambeau Field, the 116th meeting between the Vikings and Packers easily qualified as the most compelling of the three ties in the history of the rivalry. It will be remembered for its litany of special teams miscues in the game’s dying moments, but it was the resourcefulness of two highly compensated quarterbacks that made the game close at all.
Aaron Rodgers and Kirk Cousins combined to let 90 footballs fly during the 75-minute battle on an 80-degree afternoon, passing for 706 yards and five touchdowns against just one interception. Rodgers — playing with his left knee still in a balky brace after the previous week’s injury against Chicago — would go on to throw just two picks all season, while Cousins would set a career high with 30 touchdown passes.
By mid-December, both were playing for teams that had fired their play-callers. This year, they’re at the controls of offenses that are schematic cousins, working for head coaches that spent the offseason talking about the importance of throwing less and running more.
In something of an odd twist for a rivalry that’s revolved around offensive headliners for nearly 30 years, the defenses could be the keys to Sunday’s matchup at Lambeau. In particular, both teams will have to prepare for retooled pass rushes that each caused a stir in Week 1.
The Packers spent big money to overhaul their defense, bringing in Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith and Adrian Amos in free agency before spending first-round picks on linebacker Rashan Gary and safety Darnell Savage. The Vikings’ offseason investment was to keep their defensive core — one of the league’s best for the past five years — together, as they signed Anthony Barr to a new five-year deal after it appeared he was heading to the Jets.
After the linebacker decided to stay, the Vikings unveiled a wrinkle they’ve talked about with Barr for years, lining him up as an edge rusher near the line of scrimmage as part of a five-man front in the first half of Sunday’s win over the Falcons.
Bringing heavy pressure
Both teams found plenty of success with their new elements in Week 1.
The Packers pressured Mitchell Trubisky on 39.6% of his drop backs in Green Bay’s season-opening 10-3 victory over the Bears, prompting Rodgers to proclaim, “We have a defense,” during his postgame interview on NBC. The Vikings, who got a sack from Barr on the first play of the game, pressured Matt Ryan 38.5% of the time, according to Pro Football Focus. The site ranks Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter as the NFL’s two most productive pass rushers after Week 1, with 10 pressures each.
It stands to reason both teams will spend much of this week preoccupied with what the other can do to affect its quarterback.
“We have some stuff we need to clean up. It started yesterday; it [continues] today,” Vikings left tackle Riley Reiff said. “It’s dialing in technique, getting on the same page, communicating. Lambeau’s a tough place to play.”
The Vikings ran for 172 yards in their 28-12 victory over Atlanta, necessitating only 11 drop backs by Cousins, but the quarterback was pressured five times (not including a pair of second-quarter plays where penalties nullified Cousins incompletions under pressure).
Cousins was pressured on 32.7 and 44.4% of his drop backs in two meetings against Mike Pettine’s Packers defense last year. If the Vikings’ attempts to establish the running game are unsuccessful against a Packers team that allowed only 47 yards to the Bears, they will have to create more clean pockets like the one Cousins had on a 31-yard throw to Stefon Diggs against the Falcons.
“I think I took two hitches [on that play], and had a lot of space around me,” Cousins said. “That was a great thing to see; you saw what can happen when you have that. But you watch games around the league, and you see that pockets are violent. They’re loud, they’re noisy, and you have to be able to operate in the difficult ones.”
When the Packers have the ball
The challenge that awaits Rodgers — who since 2014 has beaten the Vikings only twice in games where he’s been healthy — is no less formidable.
The Vikings got three pressures on Barr’s seven rushes against the Falcons, most of them in the first half, as Zimmer forced the Falcons to contend with a five-man front, whether or not the Vikings actually brought pressure from it.
It’s another element to the defense that comes as teams become more familiar with the double-A gap blitz concept Zimmer helped popularize.
“When he walks up on the line, you have to acknowledge him,” defensive end Stephen Weatherly said. “For us up front, you’ve got five people right in front of you. More than likely, if it’s a pass situation, you have to give everyone one-on-one blocks. That eliminates the double-team, and it eliminates the chip [blocks] in some situations, as well. It makes it more advantageous for us, even if he does drop [into coverage].”
A resurgent Everson Griffen, who had a sack and four pressures on Sunday, will presumably line up against David Bakhtiari, who is battling a back injury. Asked what Bakhtiari so successful, Griffen raised what’s become a familiar gripe against the Pro Bowl Packers left tackle.
“He holds pretty good,” Griffen said.
The NFL’s new emphasis on holding, Griffen said, has not changed that about Bakhtiari’s game.
“He still holds — he find a way. He’s a good holder. But he’s a good player, too,” Griffen said. “David Bakhtiari — each and every year we have a battle. He’s one of my top three left tackles in the game, for sure. It’s always a fun opportunity to go up against him, and go out there and have fun.”
Especially if the Packers or Vikings have to lean on their high-priced quarterbacks Sunday, there will be plenty of fun to be had for a potent group of pass rushers.