The Minnesota Vikings chose to invest heavily at the safety position this offseason, extending the franchise tag to Anthony Harris at over $11 million while continuing to pay Harrison Smith over $10 million annually. Even head coach Mike Zimmer has confessed that there are more important defensive positions than safety, but the Vikings had two of the best. Both Harris and Smith finished graded in the top three at their position last year, per Pro Football Focus. The thinking went that a strong safety tandem could mask the steep learning curve of a young cornerback room with no starters over the age of 23.
The Week 1 results, though, would indicate an inverse effect. The Vikings safeties tried their hardest to help Minnesota’s defense, attempting various blitzes to establish pass rush and cheating to one side in order to help inexperienced corners, but Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers anticipated their every move and carved up Minnesota for 364 yards, four touchdowns and no picks. Harris, specifically, was given the lowest PFF grade in his NFL career, a 34.9 that ranked fifth-lowest out of all qualified safeties.
“Very frustrating,” said Smith, who still finished with the 15th-highest safety grade through Sunday’s games. “Not only third down, which we were not good on, but first and second down, giving up first downs on those downs and not getting into the third-and-mediums, the third-and-longs when you have the advantage is kind of how we lived. We would bow up down in the red zone, which is a good thing, but you’re not going to win a lot of games where that’s all you’re doing. You’ve got to get them stopped on first and second down, get into third-and-mediums, third-and-longs and win those downs.”
The Vikings hardly put a finger on Rodgers, but that wasn’t for lack of trying. To supplement their inexperienced front four they tried using Smith as a blitzing weapon, but Smith could only generate one pressure with no sacks. As a team, they blitzed 20 times, but Rodgers completed 60% of his passes facing blitz and converted nine first downs.
As for Smith, his day started out well with a successful run blitz on the first play of the game as he wrapped up Aaron Jones for just a 2-yard gain. The remainder of the first half — and essentially, the rest of the game — the Packers moved the ball at will, rushing it effectively at 4.9 yards per carry, while Rodgers showcased his ability to avoid pressure by releasing the ball quickly while avoiding interceptable passes like the one he threw to Harris in Week 16 last year.
This 3rd and 5 late in the first quarter was a microcosm for the game. Rodgers faced double-A-gap pressure, plus the threat of Smith off the edge. The Vikings ended up bringing five rushers, but Rodgers hit Davante Adams, his favorite target, for an easy completion against Holton Hill, who graded as PFF’s worst corner in football through Sunday’s games.
Anthony Barr said after the game the Vikings got more “tentative” with blitzing as the game went on because of Rodgers’ ability to get the ball out. The Packers quarterback averaged 2.25 seconds to release, per PFF, the seventh-fastest mark in the league. When he released the ball in under 2.5 seconds, Rodgers was 26 of 31 with two touchdowns.
“He got the ball out a lot … most of the time the ball was out in two-and-a-half seconds,” Zimmer said the day after the game. “They quick-counted us one time on third down, caught is in a couple man-coverage things where they read pick routes. There were some of those situations, too. But he was getting the ball out pretty quick a lot of times, unless he got out of the pocket or unless it was maximum protection.”
The Vikings might have been satisfied with at least their first-half defensive effort if not for the final minute. Rodgers made two brilliant throws for touchdowns, sandwiched around a Kirk Cousins interception, vaulting the Packers to a two-possession lead at the half. The first score went to Adams against Harris, who hadn’t allowed a touchdown all of 2019. Green Bay lined three wide receivers up on the right side with Adams the furthest inside against Eric Kendricks. Kendricks passed Adams off to the safety, and Adams did to Harris what he did to several Vikings corners on the day: Got the defender moving the wrong way before cutting back to the sideline. Harris was off balance and late to recover as Adams hauled in the Packers’ first of five touchdowns on the day.
The 36-year-old Rodgers seemed to gain confidence from that point on and made just about every correct decision moving forward. The Packers kept the field spread and forced the Vikings safeties to commit before throwing away from them. On the Marquez Valdes-Scantling touchdown with 14 seconds left in the half, Harris is forced to keep eyes on Allen Lazard over the middle, which left rookie Cameron Dantzler on an island against Valdes-Scantling. It’s the right move by Harris to protect the middle of the field and leave Rodgers with a more difficult throw against the 1-on-1 coverage. Dantzler had some rough moments in the game, but his coverage wasn’t terrible — Rodgers just delivered a dime.
“Great go ball, great placement on the touchdown that I gave up. I feel like I was there,” Dantzler said Monday. “He just made a perfect throw and the guy made a perfect catch.”
The Packers essentially put the game out of reach in the third quarter after Rodgers hit Valdes-Scantling again for a 39-yard gain where just about everything went wrong for the Vikings.
On 3rd and 5, the Vikings again showed double-A-gap pressure and moved Harris up to the line of scrimmage to jam Lazard. That left 10 players at the line of scrimmage and only Smith deep, but it appears like Smith is hedging on Adams’ side of the field to help out the struggling Hill. That leaves two-thirds of the field unmanned. Rodgers then draws Barr offsides in the A-gap, which gives him even more freedom to heave the ball to Valdes-Scantling, though he beat Mike Hughes handily enough, that the throw probably gets made anyway. Smith has no chance to get there.
Moving into the fourth quarter, the big plays kept coming. Rodgers again goes over the top when Harris bites down on the underneath route. For the second time in the game, it looks like Smith is eyeing Adams, who was isolated on the weak side of the formation against Dantzler. Smith is in no position to defend Lazard, who would’ve scored had he not tripped before the end zone.
Give a hat tip to Rodgers, who exploited the Vikings’ secondary the way many expected. Leave a rookie corner one-on-one? He’ll throw at him. Provide help for the rookie corner? Throw to the open spot. Blitz Rodgers to get the ball out faster? He has an outlet ready.
This was a tough game to break in a new-look cornerback group, and it often came at the safeties’ expense. Their ability to freelance in the old defense was enabled by the corners’ ability to hold down their own assignments. Until the current group can be trusted, it might mean more two-deep safeties and less roaming in the box.
Zimmer, likewise, must quickly learn what he can and cannot do with this defense. Some of the old tricks may not be as effective.