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Packers-Vikings Preview: A look at Minnesota by the numbers

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The Vikings are outstanding on defense, but the offense has some holes.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Minnesota Vikings Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Last week the Green Bay Packers were able to defeat the Chicago Bears with quick passes designed to put pressure on the Chicago defensive backs while negating the pass rush. It’s not going to be that easy this week against the Minnesota Vikings. Minnesota’s defensive front is every bit as good as Chicago’s, even with Khalil Mack, and their secondary, led by corner Xavier Rhodes and safety Harrison Smith, is much better.

While the Bears had a bevy of weak spots to exploit, the Vikings don’t make it easy, coming off a 2017 campaign in which their pass defense ranked 4th overall by DVOA. They make things especially difficult in the short passing game, where they were the best team against pass-catching running backs and the second-best team against tight ends. Part of that success is also due to the coverage skills that linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr possess, as they are as good in coverage as they are providing pass rush or run support. The Vikings were the seventh-best team last year against slot receivers, and ranked in the top ten against opposing number one and number two receivers. They were, simply, great (outside of one game against Philadelphia).

The Vikings faced the 49ers in week one, and San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo completed less than 50% of his passes while throwing three interceptions. It was an ugly performance from the 49ers, who lost receiver Marquise Goodwin to an injury early and were unable to compensate. They responded by running the ball far too much (23 carries for 84 yards) and put themselves in dangerous positions. Garoppolo was also atypically inaccurate, and at least two of his interceptions were the result of bad ball placement. The 49ers did have some success throwing to tight end George Kittle and throwing deep against Trae Waynes, but generally speaking the Vikings were their typical dominant selves.

To move the ball, Rodgers likely will need to attack the nickel and dime corners and safety Andrew Sendejo. While the efforts of Geronimo Allison and Randall Cobb were sufficient against the Bears, the Packers will probably need one of the rookies to step up in this game.

Additional Note: Terrance Newman retired to become a coach for the Vikings before the season started. Newman was up there in age for a player, but it’s worth noting that even in limited action last season, he was outstanding, leading the secondary in success against targets and still providing stout run support. Trae Waynes has improved steadily and he’s certainly not bad, but losing Newman on the field may hurt more than many realize.

Cousins and Ballhawks

The Vikings were outstanding on offense last season, with Case Keenum leading quarterbacks in DVOA and Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen putting up outstanding efforts at wide receiver. That said, while the Vikings are unassailable on defense, there are some issues on offense. The offensive line in recent years has been bad, and that held true in the opener against the 49ers, when Dalvin Cook was held in check as a runner and Kirk Cousins was sacked three times.

Last season, Keenum was also one of the best quarterbacks in football against pressure with a rare positive 6.8% DVOA. Even if that is a bit of a fluke and Keenum starts to struggle under pressure this year with Denver, that doesn’t change the fact that it happened, and it also doesn’t change the fact that it’s very unlikely to happen with Cousins, who has never been better than -54.5% DVOA in his career against pressure.

The offensive line and Cousins make for a questionable duo, but that’s exacerbated by Cousins’ struggles near the goal line. He’s a good quarterback, but he’s best in the vertical game, hitting big strikes to his receivers. Thielen and Diggs are great at this, but if you can stop either one short of the end zone, the calculus changes. Cousins struggles mightily fitting balls into tight windows, and he can be picked off in small spaces. The fact that the Minnesota line isn’t going to overpower anyone to create rushing touchdowns adds further pressure. The Packers’ secondary is still largely unknown, and I’m sure it has its weak points that smart teams will exploit, but Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson have shown themselves to be ballhawks in their brief careers, and don’t be surprised to see Cousins throw a pick or two, especially as he approaches the goal line.

The Packers should have no issues stopping the run, so this game will likely depend on preventing big scoring plays and forcing Cousins to beat then with the short game. It will, somewhat ironically, require a “Dom Capers” style gameplan. If they can execute and pressure the new Minnesota signal caller, they have a good shot to win.

Of course, if Aaron Rodgers or Davante Adams misses the game, they will probably get destroyed.