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Old-school Vikings team presents unique opportunity for Packers’ defense to play big

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Mike Zimmer wants to run the football and play tough defense, about as traditional as you can be in the modern NFL. What will Mike Pettine do to counter?

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears
Green Bay dominated the Bears in Week 1, but the Vikings offense could have them playing a different style for Week 2.
Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

In an offseason where teams, the Green Bay Packers included, sought out the next Sean McVay, the Minnesota Vikings hired 58-year-old Gary Kubiak as an offensive consultant. It’s not just the age that makes Kubiak an anachronism by modern NFL standards. He’s the coach who gave Matt LaFleur his start in the NFL and whose offense shares the same roots as Mike Shanahan’s — and as such, helps form the basis for Sean McVay’s explosive offense.

Rather than hire the young gun offensive mind, Mike Zimmer hired his philosophical great uncle. They’re on the same family tree, but not directly related and one is definitely older and creakier than the other.

It shouldn’t be surprising to see the Vikings played more traditionally than any team in football in Week 1, running out more than two receivers at easily the lowest rate in the league. Calling 10 passes to 38 runs isn’t just an anachronism, it’s insane in 2019. But Minnesota beat Atlanta 28-12 thanks to three turnovers and a blocked punt. It was a Zimmer fever dream. This is, after all, the same coach who fired his offensive coordinator last season for not **checks notes** running the ball enough, in the Year of our Lord 2018.

A week after Mike Pettine confused and confounded one of the best offensive minds in the game with designer blitz looks and exotic sub-package personnel, Week 2 likely requires a different approach. Pettine trotted out six defensive backs on 51 of 73 defensive plays against the Bears. If Green Bay plays that small against the Vikings, Dalvin Cook will chew them up.

The obvious approach would be to play new linebacker B.J. Goodson next to Blake Martinez in more traditional base defensive formations. To hear Matt LaFleur tell it, that may have happened even without such a throwback style from their Week 2 opponent.

“I would anticipate seeing him quite a bit out there,” Lafleur said of Goodson on Wednesday.

“He’s been all ball since the moment he got here. ... You could see it the other day in practice on our bonus day, it looked like he’s been here for a while.”

Pettine used Antonio Morrison as the base linebacker last season, but the Packers defense became too easy to attack on early downs through the air with such predictable personnel deployment. Over the last few years, the league has steadily increased its first-down passing rate, making it harder, or at least less necessary, for teams to bulk up to stop the run. Put your thumper inside linebacker on the field and your team suddenly becomes more susceptible to play-action and dropback passes.

Pettine said Thursday he likes Goodson’s intelligence, echoing LaFleur’s sentiment about how quickly he picked up the defense. He provided the caveat that just how much Goodson plays will be determined by Minnesota’s personnel groupings, hinting at the idea he’ll likely be a run-stopping linebacker option. That said, Pettine added, “We’re confident that whatever situation we put him out there, he’ll be fine.”

Green Bay’s offseason and current health situation may alleviate that stress. With the cornerback room at full strength, Jaire Alexander can handle one side of the field and a swinging rotation of Tramon Williams, Kevin King, and Tony Brown can handle the other side. The Packers defense fell apart in the second half of their Week 2 matchup with Minnesota last season in large part because King left the game with injury. They’re in a much better position to weather that storm this season, particularly with the Vikings far less likely to come out in three receiver sets.

Furthermore, the safety difference provides an enormous boost. Replace Kentrell Brice with Adrian Amos for Week 2, and the Packers win that game going away. Brice botched two deep balls in the second half to set up scores as Minnesota mounted its furious comeback. If Green Bay plays Goodson, it now has cornerbacks it trusts to defend the estimable abilities of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, but safeties in Amos and Darnell Savage, who can defend the middle of the field should linebackers like Goodson get out of position.

If things start to go sideways with early-down success, Green Bay can also lean on Raven Greene, outstanding in his Week 1 debut as a regular player in this defense, in Pettine’s big nickel. Take Dean Lowry off the field and put Greene on to handle two tight end looks with Kyle Rudolph and rookie Irv Smith Jr. Now, Pettine gets enough beef to handle run plays but the speed and versatility of a safety in coverage.

Minnesota’s personnel deficiencies make this type of plan even easier. Rookie center Garrett Bradbury and guard Pat Elflein struggled mightily in Week 1 against Grady Jarrett and the Falcons front. Pettine won’t have to worry about losing beef inside when guys like Kenny Clark and Montravius Adams should be able to consistently win their one-on-one battles with the Vikings.

Playing big nickel maximizes the amount of flexibility Pettine has to put together those beguiling blitz looks, plus Goodson offers some juice as a blitzer. The former Giants linebacker was set to be in Green Bay’s base package in Week 1 according to Pettine, but they didn’t end up playing a single snap of it. Expect that to change in Week 2 with the Vikings coming in set on pounding the rock.

While the Vikings may not play a modern style of offense, something the Falcons struggled to match as an undersized team built to defend speed, the Packers have the personnel to counter with heft and athleticism. Pettine points out the unique nature of their defense, playing a 3-3-5 ‘base.’ Teams used to seeing four-down fronts, like the one Atlanta played last week, see a five-man front with Green Bay playing a trio of defensive linemen bracketed by powerful edge defenders and have to adjust their blocking schemes. In that way, Green Bay isn’t truly “small” when it goes to those big nickel fronts, particularly with monstrous outside linebackers Preston and Za’Darius Smith (no relation).

Despite the unique approach to offense, the Vikings won’t truly be dictating to the Packers how they play defense, considering Pettine could opt to play base against this zone blocking scheme (a power run team may force more heavy personnel looks). But even if he does opt for Goodson, Green Bay has the personnel around him to mitigate the kinds of early-down passing issues that plagued the team in 2018. Their first big test comes Sunday.