The Green Bay Packers’ offseason portended a size change with its offense, even if it’s not a seismic one. Play bigger, get better out of play-action, and create more mismatches with linebackers and safeties. Green Bay ran on the Vikings in each matchup last season, with Aaron Jones going over 100 yards in those two games, and Aaron Rodgers found openings in the secondary off play-action, particularly to Davante Adams. One of the best looking drives of the entire 2019 season came in that first matchup in week two, with Matt LaFleur using a two-back set (21 personnel) to great effect.
But after an offseason in which the Vikings gave their cornerback room a facelift, LaFleur and Rodgers will face a difficult decision: attack this team the way they did last year, which happens to be the way they want to play all the time, or attack what looks to be the defense’s biggest weakness?
Last year in week four, when facing an Eagles squad decimated by injuries in the secondary, LaFleur seemingly scrapped the gameplan and just let Rodgers cook. If not for an injury to Adams late in the game, that strategy probably would have worked. Adams set a career high in yards eating up that no-name Philly secondary even before his injury. The coach’s willingness to adapt his gameplan every week makes him a moldable, effective designer of offense, and when the team has a Hall of Fame quarterback, a Pro Bowl running back, a top-10 offensive line, and a superstar receiver, it’s easier to make just about any approach work depending on the week.
The Vikings project to start at least one rookie, with 2020 first-round pick Jeff Gladney slated to move inside in nickel with former UDFA Holton Hill and 2018 first-round pick Mike Hughes playing opposite him. Between the trio, they boast nine NFL starts and Hughes, at 23, is the oldest of the group. They’re replacing Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, and Mackensie Alexander, none of whom were particularly great last season, but all of whom brought considerable sweat equity to a defense that relies on intelligence and continuity.
If there’s a massive hole on this Minny defense, they look to be it, although Danielle Hunter’s injury certainly brings defensive line into the mix. A late-summer trade for Yannick Ngakoue saved Mike Zimmer’s group from becoming the Bad News Vikings in their front four. Between Eric Kendricks, Anthony Harris, and Harrison Smith, Minnesota can boast the best cover overhang defender trio in the league. Going big and spreading out to get tight ends and backs on this group doesn’t look like the logical move on paper.
On the other hand, the Packers opened Week 2 against Zimmer’s defense—before we found out Rhodes might be washed—with a beautiful four-play drive of scripted plays, all out of big personnel. On those four plays, the team featured three different groups of players. Three plays had pre-snap motion, there was an RPO and a beautiful shot play to Davante Adams. It’s exactly how Matt LaFleur presumably wants this offense to look and it worked to perfection against Minnesota.
It’s also how the 49ers manhandled the Vikings, taking a Diet Mostert approach to dismantling another NFC North foe in the playoffs. Kyle Shanahan put the ball in Jimmy Garoppolo’s hands early and it worked on a beautiful opening-drive touchdown march where San Francisco attacked the middle of the field, ostensibly where the Vikings are strongest. They split out fullbacks and tight ends to get Anthony Barr to move out of the box or get the safeties to slide, then hit a slant in the open space it created.
After Garoppolo threw a bad pick, Shanahan had seen enough, and the 49ers ground game activated, eventually racking up 43 non-kneel attempts to just 19 Garoppolo passes. It helped that San Francisco’s outstanding defense copied the game plan Mike Pettine so expertly crafted to slow down Kirk Cousins and their play-action attack.
The best the Packers offense looked last year came in the first quarter of that Vikings game and in the first half of the Divisional Round, when they diced up the Seahawks defense. Each performance featured heavy doses of play-action and heavier sets. In two games against the Vikings, Jones ran for 270 yards and three scores on 46 carries, nearly 6 yards per tote against the 12th ranked run defense by DVOA. And Adams posted 20 catches for 222 yards on a whopping 25 targets.
In short, The Packers got what they wanted from the players they needed and that was when Minnesota had Linval Joseph, Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter and a group of cornerbacks who knew Zimmer’s system intimately and had faced the Packers with Rodgers many times before.
This may end up being a classic case of “if it ain’t broke,” only it could end up being easier to do the things they already wanted to do: namely, getting Jones going and finding ways to get Adams the ball. It’s hard to see this secondary being better even if the whole was significantly greater than the sum of its parts last year, and the run defense by personnel fell off a cliff. Take away the dual-sided pass rush with Hunter heading for IR and no interior push, and this game suddenly looks like a game where the Packers can attack the Vikings however they want. Good matchups abound, leaving LaFleur with the enviable decision of deciding which favorable part of the game they want to attack.