Every week following the Access Vikings Game Plan podcast, we’ll delve deeper into the player Andrew Krammer pegged as a key difference maker for the upcoming game.
Not off to a bad start after Eric Kendricks changed the game in Tennessee with a 77-yard interception return for a touchdown.
So I’ll stick to the side full of playmakers as the Vikings defense tries to repeat the dominant January night at Lambeau Field that claimed the franchise’s first NFC North title since 2009. Kickoff is set for Sunday night at 7:30 p.m.
Many elements will be different. Inside U.S. Bank Stadium, there will be no hand warmers. Vikings nose tackle Linval Joseph is healthy. Packers receiver Jordy Nelson is back in the huddle. Guard Josh Sitton, who was throttled in a spot start at left tackle, is now a Chicago Bear. And, among other things, Everson Griffen’s right shoulder is free of the brace that extended down his bicep, protecting last year’s labrum issue.
Griffen claimed his first career NFC Defensive Player of the Week award for lifting the Vikings to a division title with two sacks, two additional quarterback hits, another tackle for a loss and a forced fumble that led to Captain Munnerlyn’s return for a touchdown.
Through injury, Griffen put an exclamation point on his redemption story as the former fourth-round pick has evolved into one of the league’s best defensive ends. A combination of power, speed, a growing arsenal of pass-rushing moves and a willingness to buy in has allowed the team captain to flourish in Mike Zimmer’s system.
“He’s a lot better and more versatile than when I first got here, than I thought,” Zimmer said. “He works so hard and he’s such a good kid and a team guy, too. I know every Sunday that he’s going to give you a full day’s work.”
His 22.5 sacks over the past two seasons is tied for sixth in the NFL, behind only J.J. Watt, Justin Houston, Von Miller, Ryan Kerrigan and Elvis Dumervil.
Griffen’s behemoth night in Green Bay came against Sitton, the Pro Bowl guard who struggled mightily to compete with Griffen in space. His strength with one healthy shoulder showed particularly well on this five-yard loss by Eddie Lacy. His quick step inside and burst upfield beat Sitton and interrupted the pulling center to dismantle the entire play.
The Vikings expect the Packers to continue running out of spread formations like the one above. Defending the run with five defensive backs on the field (nickel) as been an emphasis around Winter Park this week. Two of Lacy’s biggest gains last week in Jacksonville, including a 28-yard run and 17-yard catch and run, came with three receivers on the field.
Leaving no gap open with one less defender in the box may be critical, though that sort of dominance by Griffen can be a trump card.
Griffen had an uneven opener in Tennessee, peaking with the hurry on Marcus Mariota that led to Kendricks’ interception and bottoming out with a boneheaded late shove on Mariota that negated a Harrison Smith interception.
Now he’s set to go up against David Bakhtiari, the Packers left tackle who signed a four-year extension this month that’s set to pay him $12 million annually. Griffen was contained a little better by Bakhtiari in the Vikings’ 30-13 loss at TCF Bank Stadium last year. He still finished with the upper hand in their individual matchup with one sack, another quarterback hit, a tackle for a loss and a pass deflection.
“He’s going to cause some havoc for the offensive line over there, so you can always count on that with him,” Zimmer said.