Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins may be clicking this year, but if the Green Bay Packers want to come away with a win on Sunday, slowing down Dalvin Cook and the running game will need to be a priority.
The two-time Pro Bowl running back has been a workhorse for the Vikings when healthy, and is currently fifth in the NFL with 648 yards despite only playing in seven games through ten weeks. However, after rushing for 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons, Cook has had a harder time finding the end zone in 2021, recording only three scores this year.
Still, Cook has historically dominated the Packers. In five career games, Cook has averaged 5.3 yards per carry, running for 434 yards and six touchdowns. He’s also added another 197 yards and two scores catching passes out of the backfield, meaning that he’s averaged 126.2 yards from scrimmage per game against Green Bay.
That dominance from Cook is something that current Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry is hoping to stifle on Sunday. Fortunately for him, this Green Bay defense is quite different from its predecessors.
Statistically, the Packers might not look like much of a threat to stop the run. They currently rank 13th in the league with 107.2 rushing yards allowed per game, while Football Outsiders has them ranked 24th against the run in terms of DVOA. However, the rushing numbers are likely skewed simply because the Packers have been inviting the run in recent weeks. Barry’s defensive game plan has been to stop opposing offenses that have emphasized a spread offense, rather than filling the box with bodies to relentlessly run the ball.
Barry has opted instead to play with lighter personnel inside the box, instead focusing on personnel to stop the passing attacks and slow down opposing quarterbacks like Kyler Murray, Patrick Mahomes, and Russell Wilson. That was especially true this past week against the Seattle Seahawks.
Packers played with a light box on 97% of their defensive snaps, the second-highest such percentage by a defense this season, per @NextGenStats. Joe Barry wanted to stop the pass, and they did that. Russ went 2-for-15 on passes that traveled at least 10 yards in the air. https://t.co/AUMESvzO9H— Matt Schneidman (@mattschneidman) November 15, 2021
That more than likely won’t be the case this week against the Vikings. Minnesota’s offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak has utilized fullback C.J. Ham heavily in the offense this season, having him on the field for 211 snaps. The Vikings have also played 181 snaps with at least two running backs out on the field, whereas the Seahawks have only run 13 snaps in similar personnel groupings.
Barry will likely adjust his defense to adapt to that, getting more defensive linemen out on the field in heavier packages. That might have been concerning at the beginning of the year, but Green Bay’s defensive line is starting to come into its own.
Kenny Clark has obviously been the star in the trenches. His consistently high level of play has reminded Packers fans why the team signed him to a massive extension a couple of years ago. Not only has he been a force rushing the passer, but his ability to blow back blockers against the run has made things so much easier for his teammates in run support.
First drive for the defense, watch Kenny Clark just eviscerate Alex Mack off the line of scrimmage. pic.twitter.com/57mDWuRwk8— Tyler Brooke (@TylerDBrooke) September 28, 2021
Clark hasn’t had to do it alone this year, with his fellow defensive linemen starting to step it up. Dean Lowry is having arguably his best year in Green Bay, while fifth-round pick TJ Slaton is starting to show flashes of his own. Despite only playing 12 snaps last week against Seattle, his effort and play strength shined on tape.
He only played a handful of snaps on Sunday, but TJ Slaton made his presence felt in a BIG way. pic.twitter.com/YcYlaYjgZ4— Tyler Brooke (@TylerDBrooke) November 16, 2021
Perhaps the most important player to Green Bay’s run defense will be Preston Smith. After a rough 2020 campaign, Smith has been both a consistent pass rusher and a reliable edge setter. His ability to constrict rushing lanes and make plays in the backfield has made it significantly harder for teams to run his way.
This play below against the Cincinnati Bengals is a perfect example of how Smith has been setting the edge and blowing up run concepts.
Preston Smith is such a dominant force in the run game right now. Watch how he stacks the block from the pulling guard.— Tyler Brooke (@TylerDBrooke) October 12, 2021
It stops the run play dead in its tracks. These plays are why Preston is having such a great season with GB. pic.twitter.com/86aw0gEj2I
Stopping the run is something the Packers have historically struggled to do, but if they are able to shut down Cook in a divisional matchup on the road, their defense will continue to garner serious national attention.