GREEN BAY, Wis. – Even coming off a 13-3 season last year that included a sweep of the Vikings, plus the benefit of playing in empty U.S. Bank Stadium, the Green Bay Packers are a field-goal underdog for Sunday’s season-opening game at Minnesota.
Here are three potential trouble spots.
1. Something’s Cooking
Clearly, this list begins with Vikings running back Dalvin Cook. He finished 10th in the NFL with 1,135 rushing yards and fourth with 13 rushing touchdowns last season. He had at least 110 rushing yards in five of the first seven games, including 154 yards on 20 attempts in Week 2 at Lambeau Field.
“First off, Minnesota has three good running backs in my opinion, with Dalvin obviously leading the way in that running back room,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. “You know, he’s a hard runner. He’s a guy that can break tackles, especially if you tackle high. He has a high motor, he can take it the distance – especially if he gets to the second level.”
Green Bay’s run defense was porous for most of last season and was demolished by San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game. The Vikings had the fourth-most rushing attempts in the league last year and figure to test the Packers early and often.
“There’s no secret formula to” stopping the run, linebacker Christian Kirksey said. “I think the guys are fully invested into understanding that teams are going to try to run the ball. And it’s our job to stop them. I wasn’t a part of the San Francisco game, but I can see that guys are really putting a special emphasis on stopping the run here.”
With a total of 61 forced missed tackles between rushing and receiving, Cook tied for sixth among backs. That will challenge a Packers defense that didn’t do live tackling during training camp.
“That’s what we get paid to do,” Preston Smith said of tackling.
2. Safeties First
While the Vikings have uprooted their cornerback corps, the safety tandem is back and elite. Harrison Smith is a five-time Pro Bowler with a do-it-all skill-set capable of wrecking games attacking from the line of scrimmage as well as in coverage. Last season, he finished second on the team in tackles (85), interceptions (three) and passes defensed (11) and first in forced fumbles (three). Between interceptions, forced fumbles and recoveries, he had a hand in eight turnovers.
Anthony Harris had 17 starts in his first four seasons before emerging as a full-time starter last year and tying for the NFL lead with six interceptions.
“I was looking at it today. I couldn't believe this is his ninth season,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said on Wednesday of Smith. “It feels like it’s gone by kind of fast. You know, I think he’s somehow an underrated player in the league. He’s been so consistent for them for so many years, and he does so many different things that most safeties don’t do. He can play in the box and tackle. He can blitz and be effective. He can obviously play the post, has great ball skills. He can force fumbles, he’s a good tackler. He’s done it all for a long time. I have a lot of respect for his game and enjoy our battles. He’s obviously a familiar face. You know (Xavier) Rhodes and (Trae) Waynes are gone, but Harris really stepped up last year and played at a really, really high level for them. Having those two guys to kind of anchor the back end really helps.”
3. Not Quite All Right
The Packers dodged a big bullet with Wednesday’s news that Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter had been placed on injured reserve. Rushing from left defensive end, he would have been a major test for whoever lines up at right tackle on Sunday. Hunter had 85 pressures from when rushing from the left side last season, tops in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus.
Still, that doesn’t mean the Packers are in the clear. The Vikings acquired defensive end Yannick Ngakoue from Jacksonville last week. While he rushed mostly from the defense’s right side (and against the left tackle) in Jacksonville, he’s not just a one-side rusher. According to PFF, he lined up on the defense’s left on a career-high 36 percent of his rushes last year. Ifeadi Odenigbo, a seventh-round pick in 2017, had the first seven sacks of his career last season. As is the case with Ngakoue, he rushed almost exclusively from the defense’s right.
“We really haven’t adjusted anything,” LaFleur said before Thursday’s practice. “They’re still going to have a pretty darn good player that’s playing that position. We’re really familiar with Odenigbo, they’ve got Jalyn Holmes. There’s some other guys on that defensive line that may not be as well-known as Hunter but can present a problem. You couple that with the fact there’s other premier players on that defense, I know Coach Zimmer is going to do a great job of putting his guys in position to attack us the best they can.”