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Friday Musings: After tough two weeks, Packers’ slot defenders will be tested again

Minnesota has been increasingly targeting its slot receiver at the same time Green Bay has had difficulty covering it.

NFL: DEC 19 Packers at Ravens Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With their postseason chances on the line Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings will not go away easily. The question for the Green Bay Packers is if the team can finally put together a complete game for the first time of the late season and ruin the Vikings’ hopes.

A loss in the frigid air of Lambeau Field would nearly eliminate the Vikings from wildcard contention, but there are some positives in their favor. Defensively, Minnesota has found success in pressuring the quarterback throughout the season, while the offense has trended toward heavier utilization of the slot receiver in recent weeks. Green Bay, who has had its share of struggles in combating both components, will be tested.

Today’s musings discuss these items, as well as a quiet, new signing that could play a strong role for the Packers for the remainder of the season.

Packers’ slot coverage must rebound this week

The past two weeks have been abysmal for Green Bay’s defense in defending the slot. A week after Darnell Savage, Kevin King, and Chandon Sullivan were repeatedly torched in the middle of the field by Mark Andrews and others in Baltimore, the Packers continued to play soft coverage from the slot, particularly on third down. Despite his interception, Sullivan had a tough time defending Jarvis Landry, who hauled in four of his seven targets for 55 yards - three of which resulting in first downs.

Without Adam Thielen, who had season-ending ankle surgery this week, Minnesota will be down one of its usual offensive stars. However, their passing-game success from the slot will be as pivotal in this game as the return of Dalvin Cook. KJ Osborn has had a breakout year for the Vikings, and has only increased his targets and snaps as of late. After being targeted four or less times per game in Weeks 8 through 12, Osborn has posted three games of seven targets or more in his past four games, including an 83-yard performance against Pittsburgh. While Justin Jefferson will undoubtedly be a key factor in Sunday’s game, and was instrumental in the previous matchup this season, Osborn’s targets from the slot to sustain drives may be an x-factor in this game.

As the Packers have slumped in defending the slot the past few games, the Vikings have only increased their usage from that position. Thielen-less, that pattern should continue for Minnesota.

The signing of David Moore could be an underrated find by season’s end

It seems like every major Packers postseason run has included a noteworthy, if not subtle, late addition to the roster. In 1996, it was Andre Rison who developed into a late-season, playoff-impacting offensive player. The 2010 season featured a midseason pickup of Howard Green, whose career highlight was his hit on Ben Roethlisberger that resulted in a pick-six from Nick Collins. Even last season’s near-Super Bowl squad tried to replicate that model with a late signing of veteran Damon Harrison to bolster the defensive line.

This year, that player might prove to be David Moore, who was signed to the practice squad this week. The former Seattle receiver developed into a solid weapon for Russell Wilson from 2018 to 2020, before bouncing around this season. Now the fourth team Moore has been a part of since September, the Packers have a clear need for his talents. Although Randall Cobb returned to practice this week, Moore provides similar attributes as a receiver and could provide insurance down the stretch, especially with Amari Rodgers landing on the COVID-19 list. In addition, with both aforementioned receivers either ill or banged-up, Moore could be even more valuable on special teams. In 2020, Moore returned 12 punts and three kicks for the Seahawks and, while his stats are not eye-popping, any reliability in fielding kicks and any upside in the return game could be a bonus at this late stage of the season.

Chandon Sullivan is the next returner in line as of now, but if Moore gets elevated to the active roster this weekend, watch for him to make rapid special teams contributions.

Minnesota’s defense is having an off year, but it still creates pressure

Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer is on the hot seat and will be a name to watch at the conclusion of the regular season. Playing into this situation, and the Vikings’ overall performance in 2021, is an uncharacteristic season from a Zimmer defense. After Week 15, Minnesota ranked 30th in the NFL in several key categories: total yards allowed, yards per rush allowed, first downs allowed, and defensive penalties. These are several significant statistics that paint an accurate picture of the Vikings’ defense, which ranks in the bottom third of the league in most areas.

However, the one stat that Minnesota has still very much been experiencing success in is getting to the quarterback. The Vikings are tied for second, just behind Miami, with 44 sacks this season, even without Danielle Hunter after just seven games. Hunter still ranks among the team’s leaders in sacks this season, but the ranking has been a joint effort. Minnesota has five players with five or more takedowns, but that also includes Everson Griffen who is on leave from the team. Instead, the Packers will be on the lookout for blitzes from inside linebacker Eric Kendricks and pressure from linemen DJ Wonnum and Armon Watts. Wonnum, in particular, recorded three sacks just two weeks ago against Chicago and his individual matchup with Dennis Kelly will be one battle to keep an eye on.

Pressure is key on third downs and the Vikings’ ability to create it has still kept them towards the top of the league in preventing third-down conversions. If Sunday night’s game is close in the fourth quarter, the Packers will be charged with improving their protection and third-down success from the past two weeks.