Early Week 2 lookahead: Defenses take center stage ahead of Packers-Vikings rivalry

Bill Huber

The Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings will bring a defense-centric focus to their latest border-war showdown.

On Thursday, Green Bay suffocated the Chicago Bears 10-3. With two games remaining in Week 1, Green Bay is tied for first in points allowed, fifth in yards allowed (254), third in yards per play (3.91), fifth in rushing yards per game (46), second in passing yards per play (4.62), fourth on third down (20.0 percent) and sixth in sack percentage (11.1).

While Green Bay’s defensive performance was a revelation, Minnesota’s defensive performance against Atlanta has been the standard under coach Mike Zimmer. In a strength vs. strength matchup on Sunday, the Vikings’ defense ruled as it overwhelmed the high-flying Falcons at U.S. Bank Stadium. The final was 28-12 but it was 28-0 through three quarters.

"I watched it," Packers coach Matt LaFleur said following a short Monday practice. "That was an impressive performance by them to beat  I know what Atlanta's all about and how good they are  and they handled them pretty good. We’re going to have a really tough challenge coming in here."

Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan threw for 304 yards but tossed two interceptions and was sacked four times. Safety Anthony Harris had both interceptions and a fumble recovery. The Vikings parlayed three takeaways and a blocked punt into the four touchdowns. With that, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins threw just 10 passes.

LaFleur was the offensive coordinator of the Rams in 2017 when Los Angeles went to Minnesota and was beaten 24-7. The Rams scored on their opening drive; their next eight possessions gained just six first downs and never got inside the Vikings' 47-yard line.

"He stresses you," LaFleur said of Zimmer. "He presents a lot of similar looks, and they do a lot of different things off of those looks. Then you combine that with the talent they have, and again on all three levels of that defense, they’ve got Pro Bowlers everywhere. So, it certainly is going to be a good task for our offense and a good measuring stick to see where we’re at, see how much we can improve from last week."

Of note when looking ahead to Sunday was how the Vikings not only limited Ryan but star receiver Julio Jones. Ryan was 6-of-11 on passes to Jones but was rewarded with only 31 yards. The Packers struggled to get Davante Adams involved against Chicago and, therefore, Aaron Rodgers struggled, as well.

“It all works together,” Zimmer said of the work done by cornerback Xavier Rhodes. “Xavier is a tough, competitive kid, and we’ve been working real hard on his technique. He still has work to do, just like we all do, but it’s nice to have another big, strong guy in there that can move on a guy. It’s not always Xavier all by himself, but it is sometimes. So it’s good. It helps.”

Ryan was sacked four times – one each by Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph and Anthony Barr – and hit on seven occasions. On 52 dropbacks, he was pressured 20 times, according to Pro Football Focus.

“When guys get to the quarterback, we make plays on the ball forcing him to make bad throws and make bad decisions,” Rhodes said. “I give thanks to the D-line and the front seven for making our jobs a lot easier today.”

This week’s outcomes, while only one game, are historically important. Since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, Week 1 winners make the playoffs 51.7 percent of the time compared to 24.5 percent of the time for Week 1 losers.

For a quick-hitting look at Week 1, check out my story at Forbes.