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World’s Best Preview: Inside the Vikings

Our weekly look inside the opponent includes the man who could replace Dalvin Cook, the under-the-radar stud of the defense, play-action prowess and a shuffled secondary.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – Here’s our weekly look inside the opponent. This week, it’s the Minnesota Vikings.

WHO’S THAT?: Vikings running back Dalvin Cook piled up 154 rushing yards and 191 total yards in Week 2 against Green Bay. With Cook ruled out of Monday night’s rematch at U.S. Bank Stadium, the man who could be carrying the load for the Vikings has 144 rushing yards and 0 receiving yards in 22 career games.

The beat-up state of the Vikings backfield sent Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine digging into the film of former undrafted free agent Mike Boone.

“We’ve got to be prepared for whoever they put out there,” Pettine said on Friday. “He did get some work at the end of the game last week. He’s got some skills. This is the NFL. There’s nobody you can really sleep on.”

Boone looked like a potential star at the University of Cincinnati, with 650 rushing yards (6.4 average) and nine touchdowns as a freshman and 749 rushing yards (7.2 average) and nine touchdowns as a sophomore. However, Boone rushed for only 851 yards, a 3.8-yard average and six touchdowns as a junior and senior to fall off the NFL map. He got back on the radar at Cincinnati’s pro day. Not only did Boone run a blistering 4.45 in the 40-yard dash, but his vertical jump of 42 inches and broad jump of 11 feet, 7 inches were better results than any of the running backs at the 2018 Scouting Combine. Boone went undrafted but made the Vikings’ roster.

Last week at the Chargers, with productive rookie Alexander Mattison inactive and Cook going down, Boone came off the bench and set career highs with 13 carries, 56 yards and two touchdowns.

“I love the way he plays. I love the way he works,” Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph told reporters in Eagan, Minn., this week. “It seems like the last two preseasons, when he gets carries, he makes the most of it, and then all season long, he’s played well on special teams and been one of our best players on special teams. You never know when your opportunity is going to come. He got his opportunity on Sunday in L.A., and he ran the ball with a different tempo. He came in there and was excited, tried to make the most of every run and ended up scoring his first two touchdowns in the NFL.”

Mattison is questionable with the ankle injury that sidelined him last week. If he’s out again, Boone will be thrust into a prime-time role.

“To be in this position and possibly be able to be out there, it means a lot,” Boone said.

Cook is a premier player as a big-play threat and capable receiver who was worthy of his Pro Bowl recognition. However, with Cook averaging 4.5 yards per carry, Mattison 4.6 and Boone 4.3, the Vikings have shown they can run the ball regardless of who’s in the game.

“I think part of it is sticking with it and part of it is the scheme, obviously the runners, the guys up front have done a good job,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said in a conference call on Thursday. “I think our offensive coaches have done a great job this year of putting them in the right position, making things look the same, technique and footwork and hand placement, those have all been big. And we’ve got some good players, too.”

CAPT. KIRK: Sticking with the run is paramount in Minnesota’s offense. Stopping the run, in turn, will be paramount for Green Bay’s defense.

Similar to Matt LaFleur’s vision with Green Bay’s offense, the Vikings’ attack is predicated on establishing the run and then hitting on complementary plays in the passing game.

“Their run game feeds their play-action game, and they've got guys on the perimeter that can make plays and they can separate,” LaFleur said. “And if you give Kirk, if you give any quarterback time, but specifically a guy as accurate as Kirk with those weapons on the outside, it’s a pretty good recipe to have success for them.”

Kirk Cousins is having a remarkable season, with a 70.5 completion percentage and 111.4 passer rating – figures that rank third and fourth in the league, respectively. A lot of his success has been built on the play-action game. Of 32 quarterbacks with at least 50 play-action dropbacks, Cousins is No. 1 in passer rating (135.3), completions (100) and touchdowns (14), and No. 3 in yards (1,359) and completion percentage (73.0), according to Pro Football Focus.

The best way to combat that is to stop the run. It’s something the Packers have done well during their three-game winning streak. During the first 11 games of the season, the Packers were 28th with 4.80 yards allowed per carry and 13 rushing touchdowns. Over the last three games, Green Bay is eighth with 3.80 yards allowed per carry and tied for second with just one rushing touchdown. Improved physicality up front and better communication unit-wide have been key, numerous defenders said.

Also central to the improvement has been the play of safety Ibraheim Campbell in the team’s dime linebacker role. That was Raven Greene’s job to start the season but he suffered an ankle injury in the Week 2 win vs. Minnesota. Adrian Amos wasn’t as good as Greene at that position, and the safeties that moved into the lineup weren’t as good as Amos. Campbell, who suffered a torn ACL late last season, returned in Week 10 against Carolina. As he’s settled in, the defense has settled down.

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“He’s not a guy that’s going to fill the stat sheet, but as I always say in here, he’ll fill his grade sheet with a lot of plusses,” Pettine said. “He knows his job and he does his job.”

KING KENDRICKS: Even the most casual of fans can probably name half the Vikings’ starting defense. On the defensive line, Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph have been Pro Bowlers. Linebacker Anthony Barr, another former Pro Bowler, broke Aaron Rodgers’ collarbone and ruined a promising 2017 season. Safety Harrison Smith is one of the NFL’s elite defenders, and cornerback Xavier Rhodes has gone to Pro Bowls, too.

The under-the-radar star of this team, though, is linebacker Eric Kendricks. He leads the Vikings with 110 tackles and leads all NFL linebackers with 12 passes defensed.

“He’s awesome. He’s one of my all-time favorites,” Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said this week. “I remember when we scrimmaged them last year [when Hackett was Jacksonville’s offensive coordinator], watching him play, and I even went up to him when I was in Jacksonville and said, ‘Hey, man, you’re a big-time player.’ I think with him, he’s just such a smart guy. He understands the system, he understands the weaknesses, he understands the strengths, and he’s so savvy. You try to trick him and he smells it real quick. I’ve just got so much respect for a guy that is just a natural, instinctive player.”

Green Bay’s best threats in the passing game have been Davante Adams and running back Aaron Jones. Getting Jones involved will be a challenge, though, because of Kendricks. Kendricks leads all linebackers in forced incompletion rate at 21.9 percent.

“It’s one of those things he can diagnose really quickly, because you can’t fool him,” Hackett said. “You try to affect him. Not only does he read out of it quick, but he’s got that athletic ability to be able to turn around and make a play. There are guys trying to get behind him, there are guys in front of him, and he has that recoverability. I think that’s one of those things that show him be able to break a lot of things up. Typically, you love that matchup one-on-one with a running back, and he matches up well with everybody.”

THE “STARTING” CORNERBACKS: For the past four seasons, Rhodes (a 2017 All-Pro) and Trae Waynes (a native of Kenosha, Wis.) have been the Vikings’ starting cornerbacks. They were a huge reason why, from 2016 through 2018, the Vikings ranked No. 1 in opponent passer rating.

Rhodes has started all 14 games this season and Wayne has started 13 times. However, just as LaFleur has gone to the bullpen at receiver, Zimmer has gone to the bullpen at cornerback. In last week’s rout of the Vikings, Waynes played 27 snaps and Rhodes played just 14. Meanwhile, Mackensie Alexander played 47, Mike Hughes played 46, Holton Hill played 31 and Kris Boyd played seven. That rotation wasn’t based on injuries, Zimmer said.

“It was just something we decided to do as coaches,” Zimmer said in his conference call. “Sometimes, those guys get in and go out of the game and things like that. We just thought give guys a difference chance to see a little bit on the sideline and then go out there and play, where they can look at things a little bit more. It’s really not a big deal. Everybody’s making it out to be a big deal but it’s not.”

Rhodes has had some epic clashes with Adams. The Week 2 game at Lambeau Field was not one of them. Adams caught seven passes for 106 yards in Green Bay’s 21-16 victory. With the Packers desperately needing a first down to clinch the game, Adams converted a second-and-6 with a 7-yard reception. Rhodes slammed his fist into the turf in frustration.

His season hasn’t gotten any better. According to Pro Football Focus, of the 85 cornerbacks to play at least 50 percent of the snaps, Rhodes ranks 84th with a passer rating allowed of 130.2. By PFF’s best guess at coverage responsibilities, he’s allowed a completion rate of 84.4 percent. In terms of yards allowed per coverage snap, Rhodes is 71st and Waynes is 73rd.

Fortunately for Zimmer, the backups are no slouches. Alexander was a second-round pick in 2016 and Hughes was a first-round pick in 2018. The 6-foot-2 Hill went undrafted in 2018 because of off-the-field issues; he sat out the first eight games of this season due to a pair of four-game suspensions.

Just as LaFleur at receiver, the lineup changes are meant to find the right group for the playoffs. In 2017 and 2018, Minnesota allowed a league-low 28 touchdowns passes. It’s yielded 23 this year alone.

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