The Packers came out flat in a week one loss to their divisional rivals the Minnesota Vikings, 23-7, in much the same fashion as they did last year in week one on the road in New Orleans. The Packers had no answer for the Vikings' pass defense that largely sat in some form of quarters/cover-2/cover-6/cover-8 for the vast majority of the game and sat over the top of everything the Packers wanted to throw at them.
Rodgers threw for less than 200 yards and had one interception on a forced throw down the field. The game did not start off great either after rookie wide receiver Christian Watson dropped a wide open touchdown pass after he sprinted past veteran NFL cornerback Patrick Peterson.
That sort of set the tone for the offense the rest of the game as the Packers could not run their staple RPO concepts or vertical passing routes in both the play action game and the straight drop back passing game.
In addition to the defensive scheme putting pressure on the passing game and taking away downfield routes, Rodgers also left a few guys open and did not look comfortable pulling the trigger on some throws he probably should have.
Vikings two deep safety coverages
One way the Vikings put the clamps on the Packers' offense was with the amount of two-deep safety shells their defense played, mostly cover-6. Vikings defensive coordinator Ed Donatell is off the Vic Fangio tree of defensive coaches and runs the same basic structure of the Fangio defense.
Cover-6 in the Fangio tree is a combination coverage with cover-2 away from the passing strength and cover-4 or quarters to the passing strength with the nickel aligned to that side. It is a great coverage that keeps the offense and its passing game in front of the defenders by forcing them to rely on quick game passing concepts.
It is a coverage shell that gave the Packers some trouble in the playoffs last season versus the 49ers because it allowed the 49ers defense to bracket Davante Adams with the cover-2/cloud coverage side.
The underneath defenders responsibility aligns with the back-end coverage and use match principles to fill in the gaps. For example, the “QTR Flat” defender (quarter flat) would chase the flat route out to the perimeter but would carry them if they go vertical because the safeties are playing over the top of the vertical routes or deep in-breaking routes. The vertical hook defender fills in the void in the cover-2 side and the “3 receiver hook” defender carries the third receiver into the pattern.
Here the Packers are running one of their staple concepts, an all verticals variant with a swing route by the running back that should create a horizontal and a vertical stretch of the defense.
The Packers motioned to a 4-strong formation with running back Aaron Jones to the left of Rodgers and the trips receivers to the same side.
The receivers take off downfield with the #2 in the trips running a wheel behind the outside vertical to try and create some space. Since the corner and safety to the quarters side of the coverage can get over the vertical of the #1 receiver, the quarter flat defender can carry the vertical from #2, forcing Rodgers to throw to Jones on the swing route to the flat. Unfortunately, Rodgers throws an errant pass that sails out of bounds as Jones tries to catch it.
Later in the third quarter, Rodgers coughed up his second turnover of the game when he fumbled after holding the ball too long as the coverage bracketed the throwback corner route he wanted to heave it to on the opposite side of the field. He might have had a chance to hit Watson down the left sideline as took the top off the quarters coverage.
The Packers are running a play-action boot throwback pass where, ideally, Rodgers would boot out before throwing back across the field to the throwback route. To the rollout side, Rodgers has Watson on a go-route to split the quarters coverage.
The Vikings are in cover-8 this time with the quarters side to the tight end side away from the passing strength and cover-2 side to the passing strength with the nickel. The quarter flat, vertical hook, and 3-receiver hook responsibilities remain the same as cover-6.
Rodgers fakes, boots to the left and turns to look for the throwback route, but the cloud corner sank under the throwback with the safety bracketing over the top. At this point, Rodgers should have turned and taken a chance on Watson, who had about two or three steps on the defenders chasing him. Instead, he pulled the ball down and took a sack while fumbling.
Whether or not he should have taken his chance with Watson, and for obvious reasons he probably did not trust him, the coverage still blanketed their primary route here.
On another sack at the start of the fourth quarter, the Vikings played straight quarters with match principles to deny access to certain areas of the field that the Packers like to run their concepts into.
The offense is running their double go (middle read) concept, a staple pass in the LaFleur offense and a hugely successful one that nets big gains for them. But the Vikings called the perfect coverage for it.
The coverage pre-snap quarters straight across, what is called “nickel quads” in the Fangio tree. Safety Harrison Smith (No. 22) is the quarters safety away from the passing strength so his job is to lurk around midfield and look for work. The other quarters safety matches the vertical of #2 and the corner to the single receiver side matches the vertical of #1. The underneath defenders have the same match principles as cover-6 and cover-8.
Smith rotates down and helps bracket the crosser since there is no vertical threat from his side of the field as Rodgers moves off the go route to the right and looks for the dig route over the middle. There’s no throw and by the time he gets to the checkdown, he gets sacked from behind by Danielle Hunter (No. 99).
The Packers faced some RPO trouble from the Vikings' defense at the goal line and missed an opportunity to put some points on the board.
Here, the Packers have a spot/flat RPO concept called on 4th down with the spot flat to the left. This is a favorite of the Packers and they have hurt the Vikings with this in the past, as well as other teams. However, Za’Darius Smith has seen this in practice and knows what it looks like when he sees it. He is Rodgers’s primary read on whether to give or throw.
The Vikings line up with a corner out wide on the receiver, indicating it might be zone coverage. As Rodgers motions down the receiver on a short motion to a stack to the left, the Vikings defenders trade players, another zone indicator.
At the snap, Rodgers gives the ball to Dillon expecting Smith to widen to the flat in a short zone but instead, the Vikings play man on the stack and Smith has a free run at Dillon to tackle him at the goal line.
Aaron Rodgers’ missed opportunities
The more concerning aspect of this game, other than that it felt like a game where the starting quarterback had no preseason reps with the new guys in a game, is the fact that Rodgers did not look comfortable throwing to the receivers who were open.
Chalk it up to lack of time with the new receiver group or not having Davante Adams anymore, or both. But either way, it ignores that this was an issue last season with Adams too, where Rodgers left too many throws on the field versus the 49ers.
On Sunday, he had quite a few more open receivers that he did not see or did not feel comfortable throwing to. One play, in particular, was very alarming though it probably will not continue like this for the rest of this season.
The Packers are running a variant of a Y-cross concept with Watkins running the crosser from right to left across the formation. The tight end in the left slot is running an out and up route and clearing space for Watkins’s crosser. Dillon’s swing pass to the left helps clear that void between the hashes and to the numbers to the left as well. It looks like the Vikings are in some form of quarters coverage or cover-6 again but it’s difficult to tell based on how the defender leverage plays out.
Either way, Rodgers passes up Watkins who is about to come open behind the hook zone defender. We have seen Rodgers rip this pass before with incredible anticipation as well as other throws.
On this day, he did not have that anticipation as he passed up several more open receivers throughout the course of the game.
Perhaps it is just a timing issue and a lack of experience with a receiver group that does not fully know what Rodgers’ expectations are on certain plays. This is very similar to Week 1 last season, too, and it took the Packers offense a full half of football in Week 2 last year to really start coming together.
No doubt Rodgers needs time with his receiver room and getting Allen Lazard back should help this process, but he’s going to have to rely on the young guys too because it is really the only way to build trust and understand the timing and expectations on certain plays. Hopefully, it starts coming together in Week 2.