GREEN BAY, Wis. – With Christmas coming, Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer had a straightforward request for a handful of Green Bay Packers beat writers participating in Thursday’s conference call.
“You guys should try to talk him into retiring,” Zimmer said.
The “him,” of course, was quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers’ response in the locker room?
“Tell him to retire.”
On Monday night in Minneapolis, Rodgers will take his 13th shot at Zimmer’s renowned defenses. This will be arguably the most important of those games. If Green Bay wins, it will win the NFC North Division and take a huge step toward earning a first-round bye and a divisional-round home game. If Minnesota wins, it will clinch a playoff berth, keep the division race alive until Week 17 and perhaps set up a wild-card round rematch at Lambeau Field for the first weekend of January.
Their matchups date to 2009 and again in 2013, when Zimmer was Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator. The Packers lost those games, 31-24 and 34-30, with Rodgers completing 57.3 percent of his passes with two touchdowns, two interceptions and a 73.5 passer rating. Zimmer became Minnesota’s coach in 2014. In 10 meetings between Rodgers and Zimmer – including the 2017 game in which Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone in the first quarter – the Packers are 5-4-1. Rodgers has completed 63.4 percent of his passes with 17 touchdowns, two interceptions and a rating of 99.8.
Combined, Zimmer’s teams are 6-5-1. Rodgers has completed 62.1 percent of his passes with 19 touchdowns, four interceptions and a rating of 94.2. Only once has Rodgers thrown for 300 yards against a Zimmer defense. In five games at Minnesota, Rodgers has never thrown for more than 213 yards. In his last four trips to Minnesota, Rodgers has completed only 53.9 percent of his passes with a paltry passer rating of 82.2.
In one way, it’s advantage, Zimmer. Rodgers’ career marks are 64.7 percent accuracy and a league-record 102.9 rating, so Zimmer has held Rodgers beneath those figures. In another way, it’s advantage, Rodgers. In his six seasons as coach, the Vikings have allowed an 84.9 passer rating. Rodgers is almost 15 points better than that mark.
“He’s just a tactician on defense,” Rodgers said. “He’s very smart with the self-scout, and he’s going to throw a number of different things at you. They’re as good with their disguise and their togetherness as the best Chicago Bears defenses that I faced over my time when they were rolling with Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs and Peanut Tillman and Tim Jennings and all the guys they had up front rushing. Just the way they would play together from the front to the back end is the same way, the continuity they have, the ability to disguise, the trust they have in each other. They can sit in a disguise until you make some sort of adjustment or check, and then be able to get back to where they want to get to, and make it really difficult on offenses.”
It’s a group built on talent and togetherness.
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That togetherness is built with thousands upon thousands of snaps together in Zimmer’s system. Defensive linemen Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter and Linval Joseph, linebacker Anthony Barr, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and safety Harrison Smith are longtime starters who have played in Pro Bowls, and linebacker Eric Kendricks is another veteran who has played at a Pro Bowl level.
The talent was built by general manager Rick Spielman. Of Minnesota’s starting 11 (based on nickel and not base 4-3), there are four first-round picks (Barr, Smith, Rhodes and cornerback Trae Waynes), three second-round picks (Joseph, Kendricks and slot Mackensie Alexander) and eight players selected in the first 100 picks (third-rounder Hunter and fourth-rounder Griffen). Another first-round pick, cornerback Mike Hughes, plays extensively off the bench.
“I think it’s a bunch of great players, and a lot of them have played together for a long time,” Rodgers said. “Hunter has obviously progressed over the years and gone from kind of a speed guy to he has all the moves. He’s a fantastic pass rusher. Everson on the other side has gone from his younger days, when he was running down on punt, to, the last five or six years, a legitimate outside pass rusher who gets it done every single year. You’ve got studs inside, a couple fantastic linebackers. The back end has great experience (and) they play well together. You add all that together with one of the best coaches in the league in Mike Zimmer, who puts together a fantastic plan every week and he stresses you in a number of different areas.”
Zimmer is the man who makes it all work. Since taking over in 2014, Minnesota is second in points allowed, third in sacks, first on third down and seventh in passer rating.
Can Rodgers solve a dominant defense on Monday night to keep the Packers in position for a first-round bye? Or can Zimmer’s defense, which has dominated at home with 14.2 points allowed per game and eight touchdowns vs. nine interceptions, turn the tables on one of only three quarterbacks to post a 100 rating against his team this season?
“I have the utmost respect for him,” Zimmer said. “He’s a terrific player. He’s extremely smart. He can make all the throws. His scrambling ability is … everything that he does is really difficult. Either me or him have to get out of this division at some point.
“It’s too hard to go against him. He’s too damn good.”