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Packers-Vikings Week 1 preview, by the numbers

Can Green Bay’s revamped defense slow down Minnesota’s weapons?

Minnesota Vikings v Green Bay Packers Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

After months of drought, real football is back, and it is back with a vengeance. The schedulers at 345 Park Avenue did not give the Green Bay Packers the opportunity to ease into the season with a non-conference game or a game against a weak opponent. Instead the Packers will open against their top competitor for the NFC North, the Minnesota Vikings.

Traditionally in these previews, I have gone through how the teams stack up from a numbers perspective and where the matchups could favor each team. However, with it being a brand new season, that doesn’t work quite as well. Last year’s data plus the offseason additions will have to be taken into account to try and figure out how these teams will match up.

The Vikings come into this game following an off-season of organizational upheaval. Rick Spielman, Mike Zimmer, and Klint Kubiak are out, and Kewis Adofo-Mensah, Kevin O’Connell, and Ed Donatell are in. The big change is at head coach, where Zimmer seemed to be at odds with the offense for the entirety of his tenure. It is quite possible that Minnesota will miss him on the defensive side of the ball, as he is seen by many as one of the best defensive minds of the twenty-first century, but the organization is betting on improvements and cohesiveness on the offensive side to make up for that.

The Vikings offense is seen by many to be an elite unit this year, and it isn’t hard to understand why. They have a strong set of weapons, led by dynamic young receiver Justin Jefferson, who finished 12th in DVOA and third in DYAR last year. Veteran Adam Thielen provides a solid, if aging, number two option. One sneaky option who could become more well-known this year is KJ Osborn, particularly if Minnesota utilizes more 11 personnel (3 WRs, 1 TE, 1 RB). Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison provide a good running back duo to the weapons cache, while tight end will mostly be left to Irv Smith Jr., an undersized move-TE less inclined to work as a traditional Y in an offensive system similar to those being run in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Green Bay.

The place where Minnesota’s offensive ceiling gets determined is going to be in the trenches. The Vikings’ offensive line struggled last year, ranking just 25th in the league in pass block win rate and 13th in run block win rate. The Vikings’ issues were predominantly on the interior, as Brian O’Neill remained a rock-solid right tackle and rookie left tackle Christian Darrisaw had a respectable rookie season. The interior is where the problems existed, primarily with center Garrett Bradbury, who was one of the worst centers in the NFL, but retains the starting job this year. It has become tradition since Bradbury entered the NFL that Kenny Clark manhandle him twice per season.

Green Bay’s defense actually matches up fairly well against Minnesota’s offense, assuming the Packers can keep their starting EDGE group on the field. The interior of the defensive line saw an injection of talent with the addition of Devonte Wyatt and Jarran Reed. Kenny Clark routinely has field days against Minnesota. Since 2019, Clark has managed three games with more than five pressures against Minnesota.

On the back end, the Packers are perhaps the only team in the NFL that can legitimately go three-deep at corner with legitimate high-end options, which will be necessary to help slow down Minnesota’s passing attack. Against a team that is going to utilize outside zone and play-action off of it, having plus-athletes at the linebacker position is a necessity, and Green Bay has two of them in De’Vondre Campbell and rookie Quay Walker.

In the 2021 matchup with Minnesota, the game was lost largely because Kirk Cousins blacked out against pressure. Green Bay was able to hold the Vikings to a very respectable -0.12 EPA/play on early down rushes, but Cousins posted an elite 1.15 EPA/play on third downs. Green Bay racked up 22 pressures in that game on 37 dropbacks. The model Green Bay used in that game should be a winning one, but a combination of missed sacks and dropped interceptions cost Green Bay that game. The 2020 loss at Lambeau Field revolved much more around playing the game Minnesota wanted to play: low possession and keeping the offense on schedule. GB allowed an extremely porous 0.2 EPA-per-rush and allowed Cousins to pick them apart on third down yet again.

With zero snaps of real game time, it’s impossible to know if the defense will be able to perform to the standard it should on paper, but if any defense is set up to slow down Minnesota’s offense, it’s Green Bay’s. It will require the front to perform as well or better against the run as they did in 2021, and the secondary to step up and actually catch a ball or two Kirk may throw to them this year.

On the other side of the ball, Minnesota has changed things up quite a bit. The Vikings prioritized defense in the draft, adding safety Lewis Cine and corner Andrew Booth. They also added former Packer Chandon Sullivan in free agency to man the nickel spot and traded for defensive lineman Ross Blacklock amid the cutdowns. Their biggest move of the spring, however, was adding former-Packer Za’Darius Smith to play opposite, and sometimes next to, Danielle Hunter.

Whether Minnesota is a plucky wild card team or a legitimate contender will depend mostly on how this defense performs. Despite the household names, there is not a lot of recent production on this defense outside of Eric Kendricks and the ageless Harrison Smith. Danielle Hunter has played in just seven games across the past two seasons, but was very productive in those seven games. Za’Darius Smith missed virtually all of last season after having back surgery, and despite good sack production in 2020, the pressure numbers were already declining from his breakout 2019 season. If Smith and Hunter can’t stay healthy, Minnesota, like Green Bay, lacks depth at the position.

Across their new 3-4 front, Minnesota is relying on a lot of castoffs and league depth pieces with Ross Blacklock, Harrison Phillips, and Dalvin Tomlinson likely eating up the majority of the snaps. None of these players are stars, and I’m not sure there’s a unit in the NFL that is more JAG than the Vikings interior defensive line. That’s not to say this unit is bad, but it’s unlikely to have a lot of production in the passing game. They’re there to eat up blocks in the run game, and even then, it’s not the strongest group. The Packers offensive line shuffle has not been figured out yet due to David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins still being question marks for this game. One thing we can be pretty sure of though: If Royce Newman or Jake Hanson ends up on a healthy Za’Darius Smith or Danielle Hunter, we have failed as a society.

On the back end, Patrick Peterson is the big name, but he has not been an elite player since 2018. If Booth replaces anyone in the starting lineup this season due to performance, it’s more likely to be Peterson than his running mate Cameron Dantzler. Dantzler has had an okay start to his career, but has a glaring weakness in his game: he’s quite slow for a corner. His 40-yard dash, 20-yard split, and 10-yard split all ranked below the 25th percentile at the combine, and his lack of foot speed is something Aaron Rodgers has taken advantage of before.

Green Bay has good team speed at receiver and this could be something they target on Sunday. Chandon Sullivan is another athletically limited corner that Green Bay could take advantage of. The Packers receiving corps is far from nailed down, with the only thing anyone is sure of is that Allen Lazard is going to get a lot of snaps, if he plays. There are questions surrounding whether Lazard will be active this week as he has been hampered by an ankle injury and has not practiced through Thursday. This could lead to a strong matchup for the likes of Christian Watson, Sammy Watkins, and Romeo Doubs to use their athleticism to create problems for Minnesota on the outside.

The star of the show for Minnesota’s defense is Eric Kendricks. He is legitimately fantastic by pretty much every production or advanced number among off-ball linebackers. He is great in coverage and he covers ground in the run game. He’s a problem. I would not be surprised if Green Bay leaned more heavily on their inside zone or power/counter game than their traditional outside zone to try and target the weaker Vikings interior defensive line rather than try and test the stronger EDGE corps and Kendricks’ ability to go sideline-to-sideline.

Green Bay is favored coming into the week per our friends at DraftKings Sportsbook, and reasonably so. Markets expect Green Bay to take the NFC North, but there’s a reason the Packers are only slightly favored on Sunday. Minnesota has been a thorn in Green Bay’s side for quite a while, and the combination of offensive weapons and a few defensive stars could be enough to give this revamped Packers team some real problems, particularly if Sunday’s injury report leaves them without Bakhtiari, Jenkins, and Lazard. The Packers are facing the Vikings at the worst time, where all of their old or oft-injured players are healthy, and while the Packers are still without clarity on their own depth chart. Despite that, I do expect the Packers to squeak this one out.