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Preview: Packers visit Vikings, US Bank Stadium

The Green Bay Packers travel to Minneapolis Sunday night to help the Minnesota Vikings open US Bank Stadium.  The 73,000-seat sand crawler – errr, ship-themed dome has hosted a few events prior to tonight, but this game marks the regular season review of the new digs.  The Vikings anticipate that US Bank Stadium will be louder than the notorious Metrodome due to the materials used on for the semi-translucent roof, as well as the additional seven thousand people the stadium can seat.

The Packers have a slight historical lead over the vikings, leading the series 59-50-2 all-time (including playoffs).  However, the Vikings won the last match-up, which took place in the final week of the 2015 season and in Green Bay, 20-13.  Not only did that give the Vikings bragging rights over their NFC North rival, but moved the Vikings passed them in the division.

Both teams went to the playoffs, but the Vikings get to hang the banner.  That broke a four-year streak for Green Bay.  Today the teams fire the first shots in the next battle for king in the north.  Here are a few keys to the match for each team.

The Battle at the Line: Vikings Offense vs. Packers Defense

The Vikings easily dispatched the Tennessee Titans in week one of the season, and their defense looked dominant.  The offense, however, appeared to have significant issues with Shaun Hill at the helm.  Namely, Adrian Peterson was bottled up all day, gaining just 31 yards on 19 carries.

That lack of production has a few likely origin points, including the fact that the Titans did not respect Hill’s ability to beat them downfield (Hill had a respectable 236 yards on 18 of 33 passing).  Recent addition Sam Bradford takes over the offensive helm this evening, and the Vikings will hope that he provides something more of a downfield threat, and the Vikings have the benefit of a concussed Sam Shields, the Packers’ top cornerback, sitting.

However, the Packers’ run defense looked strong in week 1 as well, shutting down the Jaguars attack.  No one will mistake TJ Yeldon or Denard Robinson for Peterson, one of the NFL’s all time greats.  Nevertheless, the Vikings have a task in front of them.  Their offensive line consists of long-struggling Matt Kalil and four unremarkable companions who, according to at least some commentators, struggled mightily with communication and basic blocking against Tennessee.

Peterson has averaged 110 yards per game against Green Bay.  The Packers are no strangers to watching him go off.  However, he has only crossed the 100 yard mark once in the last four games against Green Bay, and the Packers’ defensive line is stout and probably a bit underrated.  Peterson and the line will really need to turn on the switch this evening for the Vikings to win.

Rodgers vs. Zimmer

Aaron Rodgers has historically struggled against teams with a Mike Zimmer defense.  This handy chart, created by CBS Sports, tells the story:

DATE OPP W-L COMP ATT COMP % YDS YPA TD INT QB RTG
9/20/09 CIN L 24-31 21 39 53.8% 261 6.7 1 0 83.4
9/22/13 CIN L 30-34 26 43 60.5% 244 5.7 1 2 64.5
10/2/14 MIN W 42-10 12 17 70.6% 156 9.2 3 0 138.7
11/24/14 MIN W 24-21 19 29 65.5% 209 7.2 2 0 109.7
11/22/15 MIN W 30-13 16 34 47.1% 212 6.2 2 0 86.9
1/3/16 MIN L 13-20 28 44 63.6% 291 6.6 1 1 80.8
CAREER ZIMMER 3W – 3 L 122 206 59.2% 1,373 6.7 10 3 89.3

Rodgers’s success against Zimmer is essentially limited to two games in 2014, when the coach was new to Minnesota, and during a time of extremely strong line play in Green Bay.

Furthermore, though Rodgers overcame a slow start to finish a respectable 20-34 for 199 yards and 3 total touchdowns in Jacksonville, the Packers offense appeared to struggle with some of the same problems that it had in 2015.  Rodgers was slightly off the mark on a number of throws to the sideline, and seemingly the misfires had as much to do with lack of synchronicity with receivers as inaccuracy.  Furthermore, the offense was often rushed at the line as Rodgers attempted to set the formation correctly, culminating in an unacceptable delay of game penalty when the team had to use two straight timeouts in the fourth quarter due to miscommunication.  At the en of the day Rodgers finished with a completion percentage under 60 and a poor yards-per-attempt figure, and seemed plagued in much the same way as last season.

The 2016 Vikings, meanwhile, may just be Zimmer’s crown jewel defense.  The year is young and one should try and avoid hyperbole, especially when it is based on beating up on the Titans, but the Vikings looked more than just stout in week one.  Anchored by young, excellent linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr (who are both versatile and cover well), and taken to the next level when free safety Harrison Smith is on the field, the Vikings figure to give the Packers passing game fits.  That is especially true with the emergence of Danielle Hunter across from Everson Griffen to help give the pass rush a boost.  Add the noise expected in the new stadium, and Rodgers will need to be at his best if the Packers are going to win this game with the offense.

Full Nelson?

Finally, just like the Packers, the Vikings will be missing their top cornerback as Xavier Rhodes was ruled out with continuing knee problems.  Packers receiver Jordy Nelson returned for his first game in over a year last week and after an initial adjustment period, was able to contribute to the offense with 6 receptions, including a touchdown (albeit for just 32 yards).  Can he find his stride and, if he does, can the Vikings cover him without Rhodes?  If not, that may prove just the antidote the Packers need to kickstart their offense.

Similarly, on the other side of the field the Packers will have to deal with emerging talent Stefon Diggs. Diggs had 720 yards on 52 receptions in his rookie year, and started off hot this season with 103 yards on seven receptions.  He was targeted just nine times, and looks to be the Vikings’ best threat at receiver since the halcyon days when Forever Packer Brett Favre was having fun out there throwing to Sidney Rice.  The Packers have a promising stable of young cornerbacks, but struggled last season with Shields on the bench.

Prediction

This is an extremely difficult game to call with any confidence.  I expect a tight affair in which each offense struggles, and a few big plays on either side determine the outcome.  Under those circumstances, one has to give the nod to Rodgers over Bradford.  Packers 23, Vikings 20.