The Vikings travel to Lambeau Field with the NFC North locked up. How can they attack a reeling Packers team? Daniel House takes you inside the film room.
Updated: December 22, 2017, 10:28 a.m.
By: Daniel House
By: Daniel House
What a difference a year makes.
The Vikings have a division title wrapped up and the Packers’ playoff hopes have officially been squashed. Nearly a year ago, Minnesota’s team plane was sliding off the runway in Appleton, WI and the season was on a similar downward glide. A 7-8 record and a demoralizing 34-6 loss to the Colts put an end to a season filled with injuries and odd mayhem. This year, the shoe is on the other foot for a division rival.
Aaron Rodgers' broken collarbone sent the Packers’ season into a tailspin. Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy finally showed the world what it looks like to invest three years in Brett Hundley. It's been a rocky road for the Packers, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Green Bay is last in a variety of categories on defense, including third down defense. Green Bay's defense has allowed a 69 percent third down completion percentage (32nd) and a 44.8 percent third down conversion rate (30th). In the red zone, they have surrendered points or a field goal on every single opponent trip and have allowed touchdowns inside the 20-yard-line at a 69 percent clip.
Those numbers don't even show the scheme deficiencies the Packers have displayed on defense. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers often dials up soft Cover-2 packages and doesn't have the linebacker personnel to matchup man-to-man with tight ends. Greg Olsen grabbed six passes for 116 yards and a touchdown last week. It's music to the ears of Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shumur and tight end Kyle Rudolph. Tight ends find the soft spots in coverage against the Packers. Dom Capers often play single-high safety when he wants to be more creative up front. The problem: Green Bay doesn't have the personnel to cover like this. In the clip below, Josh Jones is playing single high as Haha Clinton-Dix drifts into the box. Linebacker Joe Thomas gets caught looking in the backfield and it's an easy pitch and catch for Cam Newton to Greg Olsen.
Expect the Vikings to really use the tight end throughout the day. A notable big play in last week's game for the Panthers was aided by a small wrinkle in their route concept. The wide receiver lines up in the slot and runs an underneath route to set up a fly up the seam to Greg Olsen. Linebacker Joe Thomas takes the underneath look, while safety Josh Jones gets crossed up as they fail to pass off their man. Olsen comes deep up the seam for an easy touchdown. The Vikings need to exploit the second level of the Packers defense by running deep crossers, picks and rubs that cause confusion among their defenders.
The Vikings have the weapons to attack the Packers when they play in their traditional Cover-2. With Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, Green Bay will need to decide whether they provide help. If they don't, they'll be 1-on-1 matchups all day for one of them in the backend. The deep three routes (curls) are wide-open in the deep portion of the field.
The Vikings should also look to flex Jerick McKinnon into the slot like they have in recent weeks. Green Bay couldn't cover running back Christian McCaffrey last week with their current arsenal of linebackers. They would often run angle or arrow routes to get McCaffrey singled up in space. Minnesota has been doing plenty of this for McKinnon, especially on backside outlet plays like they did against Cincinnati last week. In the clip below, linebacker Blake Martinez is playing man-to-man, but the Panthers designed a great play. Tight end Greg Olsen picks both Josh Jones and Martinez. It opened McCaffrey up for an easy arrow route and six points. Much to linebacker Clay Matthews' dismay, it wasn't a wheel route. Look for the Vikings to get Green Bay into man-to-man looks against Jerick McKinnon to create explosive plays. The Packers simply cannot cover tight ends and running backs sufficiently.
In the red zone, the Packers have the worst defense in the league. Teams are coming away with points 100 percent of the time inside the 20-yard-line. Last week, the Panthers schemed Green Bay really well to exploit all of their defensive weaknesses. In one film clip, the Packers are playing man-to-man on the outside in their nickel package. Safety Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix is held responsible to help over the top. In the play below, he was a step late and got caught staring into the backfield. The cornerback is playing outside leverage on the bottom of your screen. Wide receiver Damiere Byrd runs a post with a subtle head fake and catches cornerback Josh Hawkins on his heels. Newton fits it into the wide-open window with Clinton-Dix unable to react.
Looks familiar, doesn't it? The Vikings ran a similar concept against the Bengals last week and it led to a 20-yard touchdown by Stefon Diggs. The safety was in better position during the clip below, but quarterback Case Keenum made a very precise throw. The cornerback was hinting at outside leverage off the snap and Diggs absolutely sold the route with a superb head fake at the stem of the route. The Vikings can spread the field and attack the soft spots of Green Bay's secondary in a similar way.
Like I said earlier, when the Packers aren't playing Cover-1, they love to play a soft Cover-2, leaving favorable matchups for the running backs and tight ends to be successful. The way Pat Shumur has been scheming in the red zone will take advantage of Green Bay's long list of issues in their coverage schemes. Shurmur's subtle wrinkles in the red zone such as rubs and picks have really been successful. He also likes to bring in unbalanced sets to cause confusion. In some instances, a tackle will report as eligible and slow two defenders to open a pass in the flat. This was the case on Kyle Rudolph's short 1-yard touchdown last week.
On defense, the Vikings need to keep quarterback Brett Hundley in the pocket. When he is pressured, Hundley will often hold the ball too long and can't escape to create. Defensive lines have been stunting and twisting inside to cause headaches for the Packers' offensive line. The Vikings did this a few times in the last matchup in October. The Steelers often sent five rushers and when they did so, Hundley was unable to do anything.
According to Remarkable Scouting, Hundley has completed just 31.6% of passes (18/57) when under pressure this season, which ranks second worst among qualified QBs. The gum-chewing quarterback will be tested as the Vikings have allowed a completion rate of just 37.9% when the opposing QB was pressured this season. Minnesota will likely send double-A gap pressure or a NASCAR package. The Vikings often went unbalanced with Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen lining up on the same side in the first matchup. They'll try to bring different fronts and utilize Harrison Smith to cause headaches.
In the clip below, Harrison Smith was sent on a safety blitz as he snuck into the box. The Packers also tried to block Brian Robison with a tight end, which is probably not ideal. Smith was a force in the last matchup, notching two sacks and an interception. Mike Zimmer was dialing up pressure packages to confuse the young quarterback and he'll surely do the same in the rematch on Saturday night.
In the clip below, Hundley didn't even recognize Smith as he crept to the edge and the Vikings forced both the guard and tackle to the outside. Hundley isn't quick at processing when he is facing pressure and often locks into his read. He also holds onto the ball too long and often drifts outside the pocket to deliver an inaccurate deep pass. With Davante Adams out, the Packers have lost another weapon as they square off with the Vikings' top-five pass defense. Brett Hundley also has been considerably worse at home, throwing zero touchdowns and tossing five interceptions. He is averaging just 131 yards at Lambeau Field and his statistical outputs nearly double when he is on the road. In a game with a forecasted high below zero, Hundley's frozen gum might chip a tooth.
The Vikings have the personnel to damage the Packers on both sides of the ball. Green Bay's weaknesses: red zone defense, linebacker play and Hundley's performance under pressure are areas Minnesota will attack throughout the night. Green Bay's mismanagement and lack of depth are on display for all to see as the power of the NFC North starts to shift west.
Prediction: Vikings win 31-10