When the opening week matchup between the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers was announced, the biggest concern was how the Vikings’ cornerbacks would fare against Aaron Rodgers. With two rookie corners and a group of veterans who have five career starts between them, Minnesota will still have to worry about Rodgers exploiting the new faces in the secondary.
But the bigger challenge will be controlling the Packers’ ability to run the ball.
Looking at last year’s stats, underestimating Green Bay’s ground game wouldn’t seem like a death sentence for opposing defenses as they ranked 15th in rushing yardage. However, the Packers were efficient on the ground, ranking fourth in Football Outsiders’ rushing DVOA metric, which takes into account strength of schedule and overall variance.
Conventional wisdom suggests that since the Packers’ rushing attack ran so well behind Aaron Jones and Jonathan Williams, upgrading the receiving core that Rodgers had to work with seemed like a no-brainer. Instead, general manager Brian Gutekunst and head coach Matt LeFleur opted to improve upon what they did well by reinforcing the ground game.
Throwing the bizarre selection of Jordan Love aside, the Packers went to work by selecting running back AJ Dillon in Round 2 and fullback/tight end Josiah Deguara in Round 3. In addition, Green Bay used all three of their sixth-round selections on offensive linemen, signaling their intent to become a run-heavy offense in 2020 after throwing 60% of the time last season.
While it may not be wise to fade one of the deepest wide receiver draft classes in recent memory, it makes sense. LaFleur found success as offensive coordinator in Tennessee when he decided to finally give Derrick Henry the ball in 2018. With the Titans running at a 48% clip, they found their way into the playoffs and continued to run all the way to the AFC Championship Game in 2019.
If LaFleur uses a similar approach, he’ll take the ball out of the hands of a fading Aaron Rodgers and be able to lean on their trio of talented backs and a defense that continues to improve. This would be horrible news for the Vikings for their first meeting with the Packers.
Last season, the Vikings were 13th in rushing yardage allowed and 12th in defensive DVOA against the run, but that aspect of their defense took a big hit in recent weeks. Michael Pierce, who Pro Football Focus graded fourth among qualifying interior defensive linemen against the run in 2018, opted out due to concerns over COVID-19. In addition, the Vikings have tabbed Shamar Stephen and Jaleel Johnson as their replacements.
Aside from that duo being extremely underwhelming, they also struggle against the run. Although being referred to as the best nose tackle in the NFL by co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson, Stephen ranked 96th against the run last season. Johnson didn’t fare much better as he fared 185th out of all defensive linemen against the run.
There is a reason for this, however, as Patterson and fellow defensive coordinator Adam Zimmer would rather have his defensive tackles act like offensive linemen for Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr to make plays. That approach ensured a whopping 10 tackles for loss between the two last season, and if someone jumps offside on the first play of the season, that total drops to nine, and Barr didn’t have a single sack in 2019.
The value on having Barr and Kendricks make plays 4-5 yards downfield as opposed to blowing up plays in the backfield could play into the Packers’ hands as a team that saw Williams rank 14th in the NFL at 2.5 yards before contact and Jones right behind him at 2.4 yards before contact.
The added gasoline on this fire also includes Yannick Ngakoue, who ranked 167th among all edge rushers against the run last season, and the possible absence of Danielle Hunter, who ranked 14th among qualifiers against the run.
Rodgers may still be priority No. 1 when it comes to stopping the Packers, but this is a team making a major shift in philosophy. If Mike Zimmer and his staff are too focused on what Rodgers could do to his secondary, there’s a chance this defense could get run over like the last time we saw them in San Francisco.