A Punchless Vikings Pass Rush Let Aaron Rodgers Have His Way

Photo credit: Dan Powers (USA TODAY Sports)

Sunday’s Week 1 loss contained several firsts for head coach Mike Zimmer, and not positive ones.

The prideful defensive mind had spoken confidently about his defense’s ability to withstand the loss of five starters, not including the absence of Danielle Hunter, who is on injured reserve. Instead he was forced to have a give a blunt assessment of his rebuilt defensive group after getting steamrolled 43-34 by the Green Bay Packers.

“We didn’t play very well,” Zimmer said after the game. “We couldn’t get them off the field on third downs, we jumped offsides and had thee drives extended by penalties. We gave up some big plays and let him out of the pocket, (Aaron Rodgers) made big plays out of it. … We’re going to have to get better quick.”

The Vikings allowed the most points in a game since Zimmer arrived, exceeding the 42 points Green Bay scored on Oct. 2, 2014 when Christian Ponder assisted with a pick six. Only two of the points scored by the Packers Sunday can be directly pinned on the Vikings offense — Kirk Cousins was sacked for a safety in the second quarter. Minnesota allowed 522 total yards, 31 first downs and 6-of-11 third-down conversions in the decisive defeat.

The struggles for Zimmer’s defense will primarily be blamed on a secondary that allowed five plays of 38 or more yards and struggled to tackle while electing to play third-round rookie Cameron Dantzler a majority of snaps. Some of those growing pains in the defensive backfield were to be expected against a talented passer like Aaron Rodgers. What was equally alarming, though, was Minnesota’s lack of pass rush. ESPN Stats & Info tracked the Vikings as generating only seven pressures on 44 dropbacks, hitting Rodgers just twice and never sacking him.

The only other time a Zimmer defense failed to sack Rodgers? When Anthony Barr knocked him out of a game in 2017 with a shoulder injury.

Prized trade acquisition Yannick Ngakoue was largely invisible. For two weeks the team had praised his conditioning, as well as his urgency to learn the nuances of the Vikings’ defense, but his workload seemed to be usurped by rotational backup Jalyn Holmes. Zimmer attributed Ngakoue’s limited role to the Packers’ 41-plus minutes of possession, but the Pro Bowl pass rusher was also rotating out early in the game.

“It’s a long season,” Zimmer said, “so we’ll find out what kind of shape we’re in, what kind of game-readiness we are. That was the plan.”

Ngakoue’s lack of impact made Hunter’s absence even more glaring — and also helped explain the team’s urgency to trade for Ngakoue in the first place. The Vikings won’t have Hunter for at least the next two games while he rehabs a reported neck injury. This is relatively foreign territory for Zimmer. The last time Hunter didn’t participate in a game was Week 3 of 2015, and he had started 48 straight games in the regular season. Without him, the Packers were able to spread the field offensively without much concern for having to provide double teams, and no other Vikings pass rushers provided much resistance.

At the other end position Ifeadi Odenigbo forced an intentional grounding call on Rodgers in the first half, but otherwise failed to make the splash plays fans saw frequently in 2019 as a rotational player. Holmes finished the game with two tackles and no quarterback hits despite getting a lot of reps. One could argue Minnesota’s best defensive lineman in Week 1 was nose tackle Shamar Stephen — not the playmaker you’d like to have carrying the pass-rushing unit.

To make matters worse, Odenigbo and Holmes also gifted the Packers first downs when they jumped offsides on third and short, falling for Rodgers’ hard counts which aren’t typically a factor during noisy Vikings home games.

“I know we gave up some big plays,” said Zimmer. “Probably more upset about the jumping offsides on third downs.”

The Vikings preached throughout the week how dangerous Rodgers was at extending plays, but two of his four touchdown passes came after he fled the pocket, hitting Davante Adams and Allen Lazard for touchdowns as he rolled out to his right.

Amazingly, Rodgers’ day could’ve been even bigger. He threw two incompletions from the 1-yard line when the Packers turned the ball over on downs in the second quarter, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling dropped two passes that might’ve totaled 100 yards and at least one more touchdown if hauled in. It wouldn’t have taken much for Green Bay to put a 50-spot on the Vikings defense, which visibly wore down as the afternoon went on and didn’t force a three and out.

Minnesota was hopeful that Dom Capers’ presence as a consultant could help them generate pressure in unique ways, but nothing they dialed up Sunday got home.

“I think it was a combination of him getting the ball out quickly and him making good reads and finding the guy that was maybe loosely guarded or uncovered,” said linebacker Anthony Barr. “I think we had a couple pressure opportunities where we got in his face and forced incompletions, but I think as the game went on they were a little better in protection and forced us to be a little more tentative when it came to blitzing.”

Even by Rodgers’ lofty standards, Sunday’s performance was a doozy. Only four times prior in his 13 years as a starter has he thrown for 364 or more yards, four or more touchdowns and no interceptions.

Zimmer, though, his been one of the few coaches to make Rodgers look mortal. Sunday he looked unstoppable, and the deficiencies started with the Vikings’ pass rush.

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Photo credit: Dan Powers (USA TODAY Sports)

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