Finally! The season opener between the Chiefs and Texans kicks off tonight, so it’s about that time of year to make predictions before the games get rolling.
What can we expect from Green Bay this Sunday against the Vikings in the first road game of the year?
If the offense is going to take a step forward in the 2nd year of Matt LaFleur’s tenure with the Green Bay Packers, it’ll have to start with Rodgers. Entering year 16 in the league, Rodgers has had to endure a media-frenzied offseason yet again with rampant speculation around his future with the Packers. A chance to play a game and live in the moment must be appreciated by him and anyone else sick of having to listen about what a future Aaron Rodgers and Packers decide to do when there is clearly no immediate plans to take away Aaron’s keys to the offense.
One of the most notable things looking back at the week 2 game last year against the Vikings was how Rodgers had a hard time making the easy throws. While the offense hit the ground running, scoring 3 touchdowns in the first 3 drives, Rodgers missed a few throws that should be considered “gimmes” at the NFL level. With the lack of preseason to work at game speed, it would make the Packer’s life a lot easier if Rodger’s is able to work the scheme quickly instead of waiting of guys to get open as a play develops, which is when he can get into trouble operating off schedule. Look for a bunch of 3 and 5 step drops paired with rhythm play action to get him and the wide receivers going.
The play below is a good example of the kind of concept that, if executed properly, will propel the Packer’s offense to success.
In the above play, LaFleur deploys an 11 personnel package but with the TE, Graham split out as an X against the boundary corner which previews a zone look from the defense. Before the snap, Harrison Smith drops from a blitzing position and the other safety rotates to show a 2 deep coverage, in this case Cover 4.
On the snap, Rodgers takes a five-step drop and in rhythm fires a bullet to MVS. 83 runs a good route, stemming his initial vertical sprint to the boundary before flipping his hips and cutting across the field underneath the corner who is dropping to a quarters zone. When Anthony Barr stays in coverage underneath on Aaro0n Jones who leaks out of the backfield to the underneath zone on the right side of the formation that opens up the middle of the field.
Aaron Rodgers is notorious for not throwing across the middle but on this play, he makes a great connection with MVS for a first down. These kinds of plays, where Rodgers is able to quickly identify the coverage and picks apart the defense simply by playing what they give him, the Packers offensive efficiency will go a long way from where they started in 2019.
While the Vikings had by all accounts a stellar draft, there is a lot unknown and untested on the offensive side of the ball. The opposite is true for the Packers who spent big last offseason on the defense and with the exception of swapping out Tramon Williams for Chandon Sullivan as well as Blake Martinez for Christian Kirksey, the defensive side of the ball is running it back this year. While this definitely provides a lot of stability for the defense, it doesn’t do a lot to fix some of the areas where the defense was subpar last year- most specifically, run defense.
Anyone who watched the NFC Championship knows that the Packers don’t place a lot of emphasis on stopping the run- shown by how often they brought on extra pass defenders as opposed to a heavy run set (nickel/dime vs. base defense). So if they are going to keep the same personnel, then the chance for the Packers to improve will be dependent on scheme changes.
The play below is an example of what a well-defended run scheme looks like, and should highlight what the Packers need to do consistently in order to contain the Vikings rushing attack:
Minnesota’s zone running scheme is dependent on blockers who can move quickly and beat defenders to leverage. If the offense has the same number of blockers available as the defense has box defenders, then each lineman has to win their 1-1 matchup in order for the play to be successful. So by extension, the Packers will have to have someone step up and consistently win those 1-1 position battles to stop the rush before it really gets going.
Pre-snap the Vikings trot out a 12 personnel package with a motion across to the run side by Adam Thielen who acts as an additional run blocker, and the Packers don’t trail him which indicates a zone coverage. Blake Martinez recognizes the motion and signals to the rest of the defense that this will be a run to the offensive left. Since this is a zone call, both outside corners (Jaire Alexander and Kevin King) are able to help with run support since they will be peeking into the backfield on the snap and are able to diagnose the play early.
On this particular play, CJ Ham is lined up as an H Back and is suppose to be a lead blocker against the edge, Za’Darius Smith. While Ham gets in a strong position, he lunges to cut Z. Smith but comes up short, allowing Smith to shut down the edge and force the running back, this time alexander Mattison, back inside where he was either going to be swallowed by Smith or trapped by the backside defenders Jaire Alexander and Preston Smith.
This is an example of the Packers defense playing well both individually, winning their 1-1 matchups, and collectively playing as a unit. With another year in Mike Pettine’s defense and adding safety Raven Greene back to the mix, the Packers can definitely make improvements to the run defense this year.
This will be the unit that will have suffered the most from the pandemic-shortened preseason. During preseason games, special teams are sloppy for the most part since they are the unit that has the lowest overall NFL experience. An additional handicap will include not having had any high contact plays during training camp, which (most likely) will lead to a high number of penalties and frankly really ugly looking plays. Again, the Packers really shouldn’t have a lot of new faces here since the roster is really similar to the one from last year but it seems like the team that makes the fewest mistakes on special teams will be the one that has an advantage here. As much as we would love to see Tyler Ervin rip off some amazing returns, I’ll probably settle for just no mistakes or negative plays.
While this is technically a road game, since there are no fans in the stands the home-field advantage by the Vikings should be negated for the most part. It’ll be the team that makes the fewest mistakes that’ll win this matchup and I like an experienced Packers team to out-execute the Vikings on Sunday.
Packers 28 (+2.5) Vikings 24
——————Joe Kelley is a lifelong Packer fan born in Wisconsin and currently living surrounded by Patriots fans in New England- please send messages of support to @Jkelleylol on Twitter or @j.k.lolz on Instagram.