On Sunday, the Green Bay Packers get their first shot of the season against the division rival Minnesota Vikings. Ted Glover of Daily Norseman was kind enough to answer some of our questions about the Vikings and provide insight into their strengths and weaknesses.
APC: The Vikings offensive line struggled to protect Teddy Bridgewater for much of the season, but lately that appears to be less of an issue. Bridgewater has only taken three sacks over his last three games. Are the sack numbers misleading, or has the line improved in pass protection?
No, the line has gotten better. They were hit with two big injuries in the pre-season—C John Sullivan and RT Phil Loadholt, both lost for the season. The Vikings replaced them with veteran super-sub Joe Berger at center, and rookie T.J. Clemmings at RT. Brandon Fusco, who started at RG last year, was moved to the left side, and Mike Harris won the starting RG job. So, when you think about it, other than LT Matt Kalil, who was the weak link on a bad line last year, there was a new starter at each position. It was kind of rough going early, and things probably came to a head at Denver, when Teddy Bridgewater was under siege for the entire game. They've gotten better each game, and have become an asset instead of a liability.
But a good part of Teddy Bridgewater staying clean is Teddy, too. He has very good pocket sense, and feels pressure well. He does a good job of avoiding the rush and either stepping up in the pocket to make a throw, or rolling out, or tucking the ball and running.
APC: The advance metrics don't like the 2015 Vikings defense (20th overall in DVOA), and yet they have given up the second fewest points in the league on a per game basis (17.1). How do you rate Minnesota's D this year, and what are its strengths and weaknesses?
The advanced metrics can bite me, if we're being honest. This is a really good defense, and their transformation in less than two years under Mike Zimmer is a borderline sports miracle. They have talent and depth from front to back, with the exception of SS and linebacker depth. The defensive line can rotate eight solid guys up and down the line, with Linval Joseph and Everson Griffen leading the way. The two starting linebackers, Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr, are fast and athletic, are excellent at the point of attack, and do a pretty good job of shutting down the perimeter. When the Vikings are in a 4-3, vet Chad Greenway is having somewhat of a Renaissance season, playing well in a more limited role.
In the secondary, the Vikings have three good cornerbacks in Xavier Rhodes, Terence Newman, and Captain Munnerlyn, with FS Harrison Smith punishing guys coming across the middle. CB Trae Waynes has played well in a reserve role, and the only question the Vikings have in the back end is SS Andrew Sendejo, who is almost a textbook definition of the word liability.
Last I heard, not letting your opponent score is a pretty key advanced metric, and the Vikings haven't given up more than 23 points to a team all season. If you do that, you're going to win a lot of games.
APC: The Vikings are nearing the end of Year 2 under Mike Zimmer. How do you assess their progress since the start of 2014, and what do you think the team's ceiling is this season?
Defense is way ahead of where I thought they would be, the offense is okay, but could be more consistent, and special teams, in all phases, is stellar. When you look at the dumpster fire that was the Vikings defense at the end of 2013, and compare them to today, it's literally not the same team, other than the uniforms they wear.
On offense, they can move the ball, but struggle in the red zone. I like how Teddy Bridgewater is developing under Norv Turner, and Adrian Peterson seems ageless. Bridgewater has developed a good rapport with rookie WR Stefon Diggs, but has struggled finding any kind of rhythm with Mike Wallace, the big off-season trade acquisition, and the guy who's supposed to be the #1 deep threat.
This is a team that will be in the thick of the playoff race all year, and I expect them to make the post-season, especially if they win on Sunday. I don't know that they can win the division, but they'll go a long way to doing that if they can win Sunday. They have a defense than can play with anyone, and an offense that, if they can find some consistency, will turn this team into a very dangerous one.
Zimmer constantly preaches that this is a good complementary team, and he's right. The offense complements the defense, who complements the special teams. It's as solid a 53 man roster this franchise has had since 2009, and the coaching staff is as good as almost any in the NFL.
APC: If you were game planning against the Vikings, how would you attack them on offense? On defense?
If I am on offense, I want to run the ball. It's going to be tough to do between the tackles, but teams have found success on the perimeter, especially using misdirection with wide receivers. You have to keep the down and distance manageable, because letting the Vikings pin their ears back and go after your quarterback isn't ideal. When they blitz, it's usually through the A gap, so knowing who the ‘hot' receiver is and getting the ball out quickly is paramount. And yeah, Aaron Rodgers is pretty good at that.
My passing game will be a lot of intermediate stuff, in the 10-20 yard range, in the middle of the field. As good as Eric Kendricks is against the run, he's been a liability against the pass, and there's money to be made there. Same with Andrew Sendejo. If you can go four and five wide, spread the Vikings out and force Sendejo and/or Kendricks into one on one coverage consistently, you're going to have a good day.
On defense, I'm going to stop Adrian Peterson. I don't care how, but I'm not going to let him get four and five yards a crack. The Vikings offense generally sputters if they have second or third and long, but if you let them stay comfortable with manageable down and distance, it opens up their whole playbook.
And by stopping AD, I don't mean putting eight or nine guys in the box anymore. Teddy Bridgewater's numbers aren't eye popping, but the Vikings passing game has to at least be respected now. So your linemen need to eat up blocks, your linebackers need to maintain gap discipline and flow to the ball, and tackle him. If you drop down nine guys, the Vikings are going to make you pay. And if you drop nine guys and they give the ball to Peterson, you better get him at the line of scrimmage, because if he breaks into the second level, he's gone. Just ask Oakland.
APC: Finally, it's prediction time. Which team wins on Sunday, and why?
Like I mentioned in my questions to you, this is the first game between the Packers and the Vikings in awhile where I look at this game and see the Vikings on par with Green Bay, and they're actually favored by one point. Neither of those things has happened since 2009. This is a straight up winnable game for the Vikings, and it's not a ‘well, if' path of hope, weird flukes, and odd bounces to talk yourself into that win if you're a Vikings fan.
That said, history tells us that these are the games that Minnesota invariably finds a way to lose, and Green Bay always finds a way to win. The Vikings, through an incredibly incompetent coaching maneuver or poor series of plays on offense or defense, snatches defeat from the jaws of victory in the last minute, and a chance to take control of the division slips through their hands. The Packers haven't lost four games in a row since 2008, the Vikings haven't won six in a row since 2009, and the Vikings are now dealing with the unfamiliar role of front runner, with the pressure and expectations falling on them. Kind of.
But somehow...this feels like a different Vikings franchise than past iterations. This team is as fundamentally sound as any in football—they are well coached, they don't beat themselves with dumb penalties or dumb plays, and they go a full 60 minutes of football, in all phases, not 59. Yet in many ways it still feels like they're playing with house money and have nothing to lose. No one really thinks they're 7-2 good, and they're feeding off of that. Call it ‘us against the world', ‘no respect', or something else, whatever Mike Zimmer is telling them they're buying, and it's working.
Vikings win, 24-20. And we wake up to a glorious new dawn on Monday morning.
We'd like to thank Ted and Daily Norseman for answering our questions. Be sure to check out our Q&A session over there, as well as their fantastic coverage of all things Vikings. As always, keep your internet machines tuned to Acme Packing Company this Sunday for our comprehensive game-day coverage of Packers vs. Vikings.