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Previewing Packers v. Vikings by the numbers

Two methodical offenses face off on Sunday, which one looks primed to come out on top?

Syndication: PackersNews Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via Imagn Content Services, LLC

After an ugly, if still dominant, win over Seattle on Sunday, the Green Bay Packers sit in full control of their destiny for the all-important bye. Much work is left to do, however, as Green Bay has several contenders nipping at their heels even though Green Bay is at virtually no threat of missing the playoffs (FiveThirtyEight gives them >99% odds), and there is very little risk for Green Bay to even miss out on yet another NFC North title (95%).

That may normally take some of the verve out of a matchup of the two most competent franchises in the division, but this game remains quite important for both teams. Green Bay currently sits with a 45% chance at the one-seed per FiveThirtyEight, a win increases those odds to 60% while a loss reduces them to 24%. For the Vikings, this game is of even greater importance. They currently lead the pack of mediocre teams chasing the seventh seed in playoff odds at 41%, but a loss would be devastating, dropping them to just 27%. The Packers are favored by a point by our friends at DraftKings Sportsbook, which suggests this one could be close. Even though Minnesota has a minimal chance of threatening Green Bay for the division, the stakes remain high. So how do these teams matchup?

Plenty of Skill, but Issues Remain

The place to start with the Vikings offense has to be their plethora of skill position talent. Justin Jefferson exploded onto the scene last year with one of the most prolific debut seasons in NFL history. The follow-up album is just as impressive as the debut. Jefferson ranks third in DVOA and second in DYAR combining elite efficiency with high volume. Green Bay’s secondary has been incredibly impressive over the past six weeks, and that will need to continue as they deal with one of the league’s premier receivers.

Veteran Adam Thielen is no longer the fringe-star he once was, but is still posting very solid WR2 numbers as he continues to pull in nearly 70% of his targets. Age is beginning to catch up with Thielen, however, as he is used less and less downfield, leading to career lows in yards-per-target and yards-per-reception. One of the breakout players for Minnesota this season is KJ Osborn. Minnesota has traditionally been quite heavy in their use of 12 personnel, but the emergence of Osborn as WR3 has made them far more 11 heavy than they have been for nearly all of the Zimmer-era. Osborn is not a star, but both his volume and efficiency provide Minnesota with a competent third option at receiver they have not had.

At running back, 2021 has been less than kind to Dalvin Cook. Aside from the problematic off the field issues he is currently facing, his performance on the field has not matched prior years. Traditionally a star in DVOA, Cook ranks 24th in the stat this year. Where Cook continues to shine through though is in Next Gen Stats’ rushing yards over expected, where his +.63 ranks 11th in the league. The major issue here looks to be the offensive line, which PFF has graded as the 24th best in the league. While the tackle situation with Brian O’Neill and Christian Darrisaw looks solid, Minnesota is continuing to struggle inside. Look for Kenny Clark, TJ Slaton, and Dean Lowry to spend a lot of time in the Vikings’ backfield.

Of course, there is also the plexiglassed elephant in the room: Kirk Cousins. Kirk is once again enjoying a perfectly fine statistical season. He ranks 14th in EPA-per-dropback, actually a noticeable drop for him from his normal numbers. He still remains an accurate thrower, ranking eighth in CPOE. DVOA likes Cousins quite a bit more, ranking him fourth. Of course, the offensive line is not providing much help, but Kirk is almost never getting sacked this year.

The solid play from the offensive tackles has kept him from getting sacked, but the rough performances on the interior are making life harder on him. Overall, the unit is struggling by almost every measure in pass pro.

The Packers are now down at least two of their EDGE rotation members, but whether Green Bay wins or loses defensively probably lies on the interior. We have a short yet storied history of Kenny Clark eating Garrett Bradbury right out in public, and we may get to add another wonderful chapter to that book this week.

Last year there was a half with only four legitimate possessions in it and I would expect something similar this time. Both offenses love long possessions and ideally want to ground-and-pound. Minnesota is very uncomfortable when they fall behind and will continue to run the ball even when it is not advantageous to do so, so if Green Bay can get up early, they may be able to bury them before the Vikings have a chance to fight back. However, the slow pace of both of these offenses will likely lead to a close game, even if one of the teams dominates on a per-play basis.

A M*A*S*H Unit on Defense

Nearly every good defensive player on the Vikings defense is injured, aside from Eric Kendricks who, by decree from God, will always play Mike for this team. Danielle Hunter, Michael Pierce, and Patrick Peterson are all on IR. Anthony Barr was limited on Wednesday with a knee injury. Our own Justis Mosqueda said on the UnPack Pod that the Vikings are effectively rolling out he and fellow APC contributor Zach Rapport on the edge this week. Everson Griffen is a name folks will know, and he has been a solid contributor with a 12% pressure rate, but the rest of the group is far from adequate. DJ Wonnum has the next highest pressure rate amongst Vikings defensive ends at a measly 6%. The Vikings are more problematic inside with Sheldon Richardson, Dalvin Thompson, and Armon Watts providing solid pressure.

The issues on the edge have yet to sink the Vikings defense though, as they rank eighth in both DVOA and EPA-per-play allowed. The pass defense has been what has shined, though, where they rank sixth. Where the Vikings are really struggling though is against the run. They’re 31st in EPA-per-rush allowed and a similarly dismal 28th in rushing DVOA. The win-rate stats don’t speak well to the unit either as they rank dead last in run-stop win rate at a brutal 26%. Even with Aaron Jones sidelined this week, expect to see plenty of AJ Dillon and Patrick Taylor as Green Bay looks to hammer the Vikings front into submission.

The Vikings corner situation is not in a great place, with Mackenzie Alexander and Bashaud Breeland performing quite poorly this year. Harrison Smith was once a dominant player, but it appears age is catching up with him as his production, particularly in coverage, is dropping. Xavier Woods has been a nice surprise for Minnesota, as he stars in Sports Info Solutions Total Points Allowed and PFF’s grading. Eric Kendricks is of course the player to worry about right in the middle of the defense, but if Green Bay can continue to get lineman onto him at the second level, that will do a good job of neutralizing him.

Who Has the Advantage

Green Bay enters the game as 2.5-point favorites and that feels appropriate, if not a little low. Minnesota’s defense is quite banged up and weak in the exact way Green Bay wants to attack them. Aaron Rodgers rarely throws over the middle as-is, and against a team with questionable corners and strength at the linebacker and safety positions, I would expect that trend to continue. Look for Green Bay to try and get Minnesota into lighter personnel and attack that in both the running game and with passes to the numbers.

Minnesota’s offense has enough skill talent to be a real test for a defense that has been incredibly stout over the past six weeks. Whether this is a multi-score Packers win or a nail-biter will likely depend on how dominant the interior defensive line is. If Kenny Clark is a regular in the Vikings backfield, he could destroy this game all by himself. If we get another defensive tackle with a strong performance, whether that be TJ Slaton, Kingsley Keke, or Dean Lowry, the Packer defense could check another box towards being considered one of the league’s better defenses.

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