GREEN BAY, WIS. – Mike Zimmer looked mentally fried Sunday afternoon. He joked that he needed to buy some product to remove all his new gray hairs.
“It was very, very hectic on the sideline today,” he said.
Hectic is one way to put it. Bizarre works, too.
Zimmer’s maligned defense finished the game with only two healthy cornerbacks against Aaron Rodgers.
Two. Not even enough for a true nickel package.
The Vikings lost so many defensive backs before and during an out-of-nowhere 28-22 win that Zimmer looked like a guy trying to patch five holes in the bottom of a boat.
“I’m worn out,” he said.
Dalvin Cook’s brilliance deserves top billing on the marquee, but the Vikings surrendered only 22 points to the NFL’s second-highest-scoring offense, holding the Packers 10 below their season average.
Who saw that coming?
Yes, winds registering 23 miles per hour at kickoff with gusts reaching 40 mph had a definite impact on play-calling and Rodgers’ ability to air out deep passes. But the Packers looked as if they might score 40 points without breaking a sweat after opening the game with back-to-back long touchdown drives.
The Vikings regrouped. Then they started losing cornerbacks.
The secondary already was without Mike Hughes and Holton Hill because of injuries. Rookie cornerback Cameron Dantzler suffered a neck injury and possible concussion on a scary collision with teammate Anthony Harris in the first half.
Dantzler was taken from the field on a stretcher. The team announced that he has full body movement and was expected to travel home with the team after being evaluated at a hospital.
Mark Fields, who was promoted from the practice squad last week, replaced Dantzler, but he limped off the field late in the third quarter.
That left only three healthy cornerbacks — rookies Jeff Gladney and Harrison Hand and second-year man Kris Boyd — until Boyd went down with an injury with about three minutes left in the game.
“It was almost like a revolving door,” linebacker Eric Kendricks said. “We just had to communicate, see who’s where, act calm.”
And improvise. Zimmer inserted rookie Josh Metellus at safety and moved Harris to nickel back for the final drive. That’s three rookies in the secondary against a quarterback whom Zimmer called “the best in the business.”
“I never felt like the game was in our grasp,” Zimmer said. “Even with 57 seconds left and he’s got the ball in his hands and no timeouts and all the young guys I’ve got [on the field] and playing different spots. It was pretty rough.”
His rookies held up in coverage, and another first-year player, D.J. Wonnum, sacked Rodgers from behind on a last-gasp attempt, causing a fumble that the Vikings recovered as time expired.
Put this one in the stunner category.
The Vikings defense has been one of the NFL’s worst this season. The combination of injuries and youth movement have gutted Zimmer’s pride and joy and created a matchup against Rodgers that looked, on paper, like another rout on the docket.
The defense held up this time. Not perfect, but there were timely stops. The wind helped both defenses, the Packers hurt themselves with penalties, and the Vikings benefited from some fortunate breaks.
Rodgers overthrew a wide-open receiver on what would have been a long gain in the third quarter. In the fourth quarter, Harris was called for pass interference on fourth-and-9 incompletion, but the officials huddled and picked up the flag. Harris looked like he made contact early, though Zimmer disputed the original call vehemently on the sideline.
“I was surprised they threw the flag, how about that?” Kendricks said.
The defense need not apologize after that performance. Zimmer’s staff tweaked a few things schematically at halftime that helped limit Green Bay’s running game. And his players showed poise when the secondary started losing bodies.
“I rode them pretty hard in practice this week,” Zimmer said. “We have so many young guys that we’re trying to get ready for prime time is the best way to say it.”
They didn’t flinch this time.