After Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers carved up the Vikings’ secondary in the Week 1 loss with 364 passing yards and four touchdowns, he said it was “definitely different” not going up against longtime corners Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes.
The Vikings’ depleted defense has another changeup for Rodgers that could further tilt the scales in Sunday’s rematch at Lambeau Field: Defensive end Jalyn Holmes will make his second NFL start, replacing Yannick Ngakoue, the team’s most productive pass rusher, who was traded to Baltimore during the bye week.
So Rodgers will face Holmes and Ifeadi Odenigbo off the edges instead of Ngakoue and Danielle Hunter, who had season-ending neck surgery this week. While it’s not what the Vikings envisioned for this season, co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson prefers to look at the latest hole in the lineup as another lane for one of the many young defenders to develop.
“When you take pride as an organization in developing players, you enjoy being able to be the mad scientist and get your hands on these guys,” Patterson said Thursday via videoconference. “The difference now is we’re doing it at a lot of different positions, not just one or two or four.”
There should be plenty of pride on the line Sunday. During the 43-34 loss in Week 1 at U.S. Bank Stadium, the Vikings didn’t record a sack of Rodgers for the first time since 2010, and he has never played both games in a season against the Vikings without being taken down.
The Vikings defense was ranked 28th in yardage and 30th in points with Ngakoue, who led the team with five sacks while credited with 21% of their quarterback pressures through six games, according to Pro Football Focus.
Pressuring Rodgers without Ngakoue won’t be any easier. Rodgers has taken the second-fewest sacks (seven) of a starting quarterback this season while throwing the ball in 2.49 seconds, the 10th-fastest average. Four of those sacks came against Tampa Bay in Week 6, the Packers’ only loss of the season.
The number the Vikings dug up, according to coach Mike Zimmer, but care not to look at is games lost because of injuries/opt out from defensive end Danielle Hunter, linebacker Anthony Barr and nose tackle Michael Pierce. And that’s just the defensive front.
“Yeah, it’s kind of been difficult, but I think as a defensive line we’re worried about what we have to do,” Odenigbo said. “Obviously with Anthony Barr being gone and just kind of some shake-ups on defense, it’s kind of been an unusual year.”
Odenigbo, now the team leader with 2.5 sacks this season, was already adjusting to a new role as a first-year starter and is suddenly, at 26, the second-oldest defensive lineman in the room behind 29-year-old defensive tackle Shamar Stephen.
“I’ve been trying to figure out just my niche and everything,” Odenigbo said. “I’m getting more confident as I play each week, I’m speaking more and more. It’s kind of a process, but over time I think everybody on the defensive line is getting it. We just have a bunch of young guys.”
The Vikings will turn to Holmes, the big-bodied, third-year defensive end out of Ohio State, to start for Ngakoue and potentially get the next 10 games to showcase his development after transitioning this offseason from defensive tackle.
Coaches also want to see more of fourth-round draft pick D.J. Wonnum, whom Odenigbo praised for his maturity. Wonnum, the 22-year-old former South Carolina edge rusher, should see his role increase from the 25-30 snaps he was already getting with Ngakoue in the lineup.
“It’s been a process,” Wonnum said, “but I’m enjoying it along the way. Having coach [Patterson] coming in, the technique was kind of off coming out of college, but as the weeks go on, [my] progression in getting game time, production, I feel right now I’m progressing pretty well and I expect nothing but to keep going.”
Knowing Zimmer, as Packers coach Matt LaFleur noted this week, there will be a trick or two up his sleeve with varied blitz schemes that can open pass rushers if they get the desired effect of confusing blockers.
That’s where the defense’s remaining veterans, like safeties Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris, can help the front.
“The thing about his defense is they can give you a lot of really tough looks,” LaFleur said. “Those safeties do such a great job of kind of playing that cat-and-mouse game with you to not show you where [the rush] is coming from.
“Got a lot of respect for coach Zimmer and what he’s been able to put out throughout the course of his career, really no matter who is playing for him.”