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Spreading the Vikings out could be the best way to attack dominating defense

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Even against a great pass rush, Mike McCarthy should attack a thin secondary with Aaron Rodgers.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers
Randall Cobb could be set up for a big day against the Vikings secondary with some question marks looming.
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Most teams with an ailing quarterback would decide to play more with two tight ends, run the game, and limit the amount of shots an opponent can take at their signal caller. The Green Bay Packers aren’t most teams because Aaron Rodgers isn’t more quarterbacks.

Adding Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis to Lance Kendricks this offseason set the Green Bay offense up to play much more heavy personnel, with two tight ends on the field. Considering Graham’s skill as a receiver, it was more like playing with one tight end and a matchup nightmare, creating difficult questions for how defenses attack that personnel.

But just as the Packers aren’t a normal offense, the Vikings aren’t just any defense. They have speed and coverage ability from their secondary pieces. Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith form one of the best linebacker-safety duos in the league in terms of their ability to cover ground. This was the No. 2 team in football last season defending tight ends according to Football Outsiders and the top team against running backs. There aren’t many matchups to like in the mix, but those are no fly zones for the Packers.

Most weeks, trotting out 11 personnel, with three receivers and Jimmy Graham, might as well be a four-receiver set. But not against the Vikings. The answer could be counterintuitive for Green Bay with Rodgers nursing a knee injury: spread the Vikings out.

Mike Zimmer loves to disguise coverage and blitzes by showing pressure with a nebulous group of purple, then dropping out of it, leaving the offensive line confused and helpless. If there are four or five receivers on the field, it’s much harder to disguise because having defenders out of position at the snap could be potentially ruinous with Rodgers pulling the trigger.

The Packers didn’t go to four receiver sets against the Bears, and that shouldn’t be surprising given the confidence level in three rookies behind the entrenched three starters, but Green Bay may have to bite the proverbial bullet and give it a shot.

Xavier Rhodes can lock down his man and he’ll likely have Davante Adams most of the afternoon, a matchup worth the price of admission all on its own. But beyond that, the Vikings have some questions in the cornerback room.

Former first-round pick Trae Waynes hasn’t developed into the kind of top-tier man corner Zimmer and the Vikings hoped he’d be when they tabbed him with the 11th pick out of Michigan State back in 2015. In fact, of all the excellent drafting they’ve done on defense lately, Waynes may well be the Vikings’ worst high pick. He allowed 1.35 yards per route run last season, good for 92nd in the league per Pro Football Focus. For some perspective, that’s the same figure as Davon House who is no better than CB5 on the Packers roster and has been relegated to special teams duty this season.

And among regular starters, he allowed the 12th most touchdown passes in football last season. In that same group, among corners playing at least 80% of their teams’ snaps, only Kyle Fuller was targeted more last season than Waynes. He’s clearly the weak point in this secondary. Expect the Packers to find ways to get Adams or Randall Cobb matched on Waynes, as well as Graham, but it could just be another big day for Geronimo Allison who proved his mettle last week against the Bears (coincidentally, scoring that beautiful long touchdown on the aforementioned Fuller).

Waynes, who started outside but struggled with a knee injury in Week 1, gave way to rookie rookie Mike Hughes who ended up seeing 33 cover snaps to Waynes’ 12. The rookie got a pick-six off Jimmy Garoppolo in Week 1, but the throw was gift-wrapped like it was Christmas morning. The receiver slipped and Jimmy G threw it way too far inside. Hughes barely had to move to make the play.

If not for that play, his NFL debut would have been considered much rockier, allowing 59 yards on three catches in six targets per PFF. On a per reception basis, he posted one of the worst figures in football in Week 1.

Mackensie Alexander missed last week with an ankle injury and even if he gets the go-ahead for Week 2, he won’t be at his maximum physical potential. The Vikings didn’t play more than three corners once against the 49ers, the opposite approach Mike Pettine took against the Bears. The Packers should be trying to stress this unit, especially with a rookie starting and potentially gimpy slot corner.

Leaving the Packers’ tackles on an island to block Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen won’t be an enviable task, but it could force the Vikings to simplify their looks, making them easier to decipher and attack. Rodgers’ quick release subverts the impact of edge rushers, and mitigates the concern for the Green Bay tackles (though given the quality of David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga, that concern should have been minimal).

The last time Rodgers played a full season (2016), he posted a passer rating of 105.9 when throwing the ball in 2.5 seconds or less, the third-best figure in football. And the last time he faced a similar situation due to injury (2014), he put up a passer rating of 113.8 on those quick release throws.

We know he can thrive with the quick passing game, the tackles can hold up long enough for him to get the ball out, and these receivers should be able to find ways to get open against a young secondary. Forget running the ball and limiting the quarterback’s opportunities. Put the ball in the hands of the man who just put on his Superman cape and let him go leap tall NFC contenders in a single bound.