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Packers’ mistakes, inability to cover Justin Jefferson lead to 23-7 loss to Vikings in opener

A dropped touchdown on the first offensive play of the season set the tone as Green Bay couldn’t get much going and gave another ugly, disjointed performance in a season opener.

Syndication: Journal Sentinel Mark Hoffman / USA TODAY NETWORK

If you watched the first half of the Green Bay Packers’ week one game on Sunday afternoon and thought it was last year’s opener against the New Orleans Saints, you could be forgiven. Instead of the Saints giving a listless Packers team a 38-3 drubbing on a hot Jacksonville September day, it was the Minnesota Vikings and Justin Jefferson running free through the Packers’ secondary constantly for the first 30 minutes.

Jefferson torched Green Bay’s defensive backs, posting a career-high 184 yards along with two touchdowns on nine receptions. The Packers’ inability to find an answer for Jefferson put them in a hole that another ugly offense performance could not pull them out of.

A brief glimmer of hope did appear in the third quarter, as the offense got the running game humming a bit. AJ Dillon scored the Packers’ first touchdown of the season from two yards out to pull Green Bay to within two scores. The defense also did its job in the final two quarters, holding Minnesota to just two field goals after the half.

Unfortunately, the offense managed just seven points, leaving all sorts of plays on the field while failing to keep Aaron Rodgers protected with any consistency. The early portion of the game could have looked very different if the Packers’ first offensive snap had gone another way, however. Rookie receiver Christian Watson, on the first NFL snap of his career after he missed the entire preseason with an ankle injury, broke free from the defense and dropped a wide-open pass from Rodgers that would have gone for a 75-yard touchdown. Instead of a quick response to an opening-drive touchdown from the Vikings, the Packers would spot Minnesota a 20-0 lead before finally getting on the board in the third quarter on Dillon’s touchdown.

Green Bay also failed to convert on a 4th-and-goal from the one-yard line and another 4th-and-1 late in the game, leaving numerous potential points on the field instead of putting them up on the scoreboard. Those failed opportunities all combined for another ugly season opener, this one going final as a 23-7 defeat.

Minnesota’s opening drive saw the Vikings drive down the field thanks to Kirk Cousins and Justin Jefferson. The two hooked up on gains of 22 and 20 yards, one coming after he beat Eric Stokes on a route and the other a well-designed play to get him open in the flat. The Packers defense got a third-down stop in the red zone, but on fourth and inches, Jefferson came in motion and caught Stokes flat-footed, taking an easy pass to the flat and to the pylon for the Vikings’ first points of the season.

Green Bay’s defense rolled out some odd early wrinkles, including a 4-3 look with linebackers De’Vondre Campbell, Quay Walker, and Krys Barnes all on the field together.

The Packers should have had an instant response on their first offensive play. Rookie wide receiver Christian Watson got the call on the first play, burning Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson on a go route. Aaron Rodgers dropped the football perfectly into his hands in stride but Watson dropped the ball, a gutting reminder of his inexperience on his very first NFL snap. Fellow rookie Romeo Doubs had a miscommunication with Rodgers on a third down a few plays later, forcing the Packers’ first drive to end in a punt.

The defense rebounded quickly after its early struggles, however. Rashan Gary got his breakout season off to a nice start on the Vikings’ second drive, sacking Cousins on third and long to force a punt that gave Green Bay good field position near midfield. Unfortunately, that drive ended with a sack by Za’Darius Smith, who beat right guard Jake Hanson one-on-one. Kenny Clark did the same to Vikings guard Ed Ingram on the next drive as the two teams continued to trade punts:

Finally, the Packers’ offense settled into a rhythm on the ensuing drive. The play-action passing game got going with big gains to Robert Tonyan (23 yards), Aaron Jones (22) and AJ Dillon (12), but after reaching the one-yard line, they came away without points again. Dillon was stuffed on 4th-and-goal, turning the football back over to the Vikings. Jefferson struck again, breaking loose from the Packers’ safeties for a 64-yard gain that set up a short field goal and a 10-0 Vikings lead.

A quick three and out ahead of the two-minute warning led to yet another big play from Jefferson. A wide-open catch-and-run turned into a 36-yard touchdown, giving Minnesota a 17-0 lead before the half.

Out of the half, Rodgers took a massive hit from a pair of Vikings. The ensuing fumble resulted in a quick field goal following what felt like the Packers’ first successful play against Jefferson — with Jaire Alexander finally matched up with him, Jefferson was called for offensive pass interference, pushing Minnesota back a bit. Greg Joseph still hit a field goal from 56 yards to extend the Vikings’ lead to 20-0.

Finally, though, the Packers got on the board thanks largely to their running game. With Jon Runyan out and being evaluated for a concussion, Zach Tom came on at left guard and helped the Packers break off a few big runs, topped by a 29-yarder from Aaron Jones. The Packers also got some contributions from Romeo Doubs with an 11-yard run and a 9-yard reception before Dillon plunged into the end zone from two yards away for the Packers’ first points of the season.

But after showing signs of life on offense, the Packers continued to struggle to keep Rodgers protected. Another drive failed after a third-down sack, leading to yet another explosive play from Jefferson on the other end. He and Thielen each posted gains of over 20 yards on the mid-fourth quarter series, but the defense stiffened in the red zone to force another field goal and keep the score within 16 points.

Even though the Packers managed to move the ball down the field late in the game, their situational play failed them. One play after recording his first catch on a nine-yard out, Watson failed to be alert on a quick throw from Rodgers that was nearly picked on third-and-1. Rodgers then tried to squeeze a pass in to a double-covered Robert Tonyan at the goal line on fourth down but Eric Kendricks broke up the pass to keep the Packers at seven points.

The Packers managed to get the ball back with under a minute left, giving Jordan Love a few plays to try to make something happen. He completed all four of his intended passes for 65 yards, but time ran out after a 23-yard gain to Watson.

Rodgers finished the game 22 of 34 passing for 195 yards and an interception, while Dillon led the way as a receiver, topping the team in targets (6), receptions (5), and yards (46). Jones led the team with 49 yards rushing on five carries, while Dillon had 45 yards on ten attempts and the team’s only touchdown.

The Packers saw four players leave the game with injuries on Sunday. Left guard Jon Runyan, Jr. left with a concussion in the third quarter before linebacker Quay Walker and cornerback Keisean Nixon both left in the fourth with shoulder injuries. Walker’s replacement, Krys Barnes, also was injured late, being carted off in an air cast with an apparent leg injury.