Mike Zimmer’s first preseason game as the Cincinnati Bengals’ defensive coordinator, against the Green Bay Packers, came on Aug. 11, 2008, when Lambeau Field was a cauldron of controversy. The Packers had traded Brett Favre four days earlier, and were casting their lot with 24-year-old starter Aaron Rodgers — who’d been booed at the team’s Family Night scrimmage the week before.
Zimmer talked with Packers coach Mike McCarthy that night about his new quarterback, saw Rodgers endear himself to Packers fans with a 30-yard touchdown pass and went on his way. The next year, when the Packers traveled to Cincinnati for a preseason game, Zimmer saw Rodgers do something that signaled things had changed.
“He ducked under a guy, spun, rolled to his right and threw a 30-yard dart on the sideline,” Zimmer said. “Since that day I’ve had the utmost respect for this guy.”
Zimmer and Rodgers have each exacted their share of blows on the other one over the years, with Cincinnati beating Green Bay twice in Zimmer’s time there and the Packers winning four out of six against Zimmer’s Vikings with Rodgers on the field for the entire game.
The Vikings beat the Packers to win the NFC North on Jan. 3, 2016, though, and they’ve won three of the past four games Rodgers started, including last year’s Oct. 15 victory where a hit from linebacker Anthony Barr broke Rodgers’ right collarbone.
That game came a week after one of Rodgers’ myth-making victories, during which he’d led the Packers back from a 21-6 deficit at Dallas, throwing the game-winning touchdown to Davante Adams with 11 seconds left. Rodgers topped the feat Sunday night, returning from a left knee injury to bring the Packers back from a 20-0 deficit, completing 17 of his 23 second-half passes for 273 yards and three touchdowns for a 24-23 win.
Rodgers said Sunday night on NBC that he would play against the Vikings this week, though McCarthy said Monday that no decision had been made about Rodgers’ status. In any case, the Vikings will be ready for Rodgers, knowing they should expect nothing less than his best shot.
“The guy is an unbelievable player,” Zimmer said. “He’s obviously — I don’t want to say anybody’s the best — but he’s pretty darn close to being the best guy.”
Rodgers’ mobility — long a hallmark of his game — was all but gone after he returned on Sunday night, forcing him to remain mostly in the pocket and operate without putting much weight on his left leg.
That could make things difficult against a Vikings front four that sacked Jimmy Garoppolo twice and combined for eight of the Vikings’ nine quarterback hits in a 24-16 win over the 49ers on Sunday. Bears linebacker Khalil Mack gave the Packers fits in the first half Sunday night, and the Vikings might present an even more formidable challenge, with their ability to send blitzers such as Barr and Harrison Smith to complement their defensive line.
If Rodgers is unable to play, the Vikings would have the fortune of facing a Packers backup for effectively the third game in a row, after Rodgers was injured early in the Oct. 15 matchup last year and missed the Dec. 23 game at Lambeau Field with the Packers effectively out of the playoff race. This time, the Packers’ alternative would be DeShone Kizer, whom the Vikings faced in London last Oct. 29 while Kizer was with the Browns.
Whatever sleight of hand comes out of Green Bay this week about the identity of the Packers’ starting QB, though, likely won’t change the Vikings’ preparation, just as McCarthy said the Vikings’ own shell game with Sam Bradford and Shaun Hill two years ago didn’t affect his plans for the Week 2 matchup that opened U.S. Bank Stadium.
The Vikings, it stands to reason, will prepare as though they’re facing Rodgers. Which means they’ll need to be prepared for anything.
“The game’s never over when he’s at quarterback,” wide receiver Adam Thielen said. “You can learn a lot from that game, because even if you’re up 20 to nothing on offense, you can’t let up. You’ve got to try to win each play, no matter what the score is.”