Zimmer, Vikings send thriving defense at Packers
By Dave Campbell
AP Pro Football Writer
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The fast, clever and tough defense Minnesota has had in four seasons with head coach Mike Zimmer has given the Vikings as good a chance to beat rival Green Bay as they’ve had since Aaron Rodgers became Packers starting quarterback in 2008.
That doesn’t mean Rodgers is fun for Zimmer to prepare for, with the latest matchup looming Sunday.
Even in his 24th year in the NFL, he’s still prone to anxiety figuring out how to defend the quarterback Zimmer said is essentially the best he’s ever faced. Rodgers will be fresh from his latest mastery, a 35-31 comeback to beat Dallas last week that kept the Packers in first place in the NFC North.
“When you combine everything, his arm strength, his intelligence, his escape ability, the way he see things,” Zimmer said, pausing for effect: “I think they should trade him.”
That probably will never happen, though the Packers did wind up dealing Brett Favre to pave the way for Rodgers to take over. He’s 12-6 with 40 touchdown passes and six interceptions against Minnesota since then. But the Vikings have won two of the last three meetings, including a five-sack, one-interception performance at the home opener in 2016 during which Rodgers passed for a modest 213 yards in a 17-14 defeat.
Zimmer’s creative and aggressive approach to pass rushing and preference for tight man-to-man pass coverage has provided the Vikings a formula for slowing the Packers that they haven’t had in decades.
“He’s an innovator,” Rodgers said. “He’s brought some concepts to the league other people have tried to copy but not with anywhere near the kind of success he’s had.”
Here are some other key angles to follow for the game:
GRIFFEN GETS EVEN BETTER: Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen is one of three NFL players with at least one sack in each game this season. His streak of five straight games is second in team history to Jim Marshall, who had a sack in eight games in a row in 1969.
With 10 sacks in 15 career games against the Packers, Griffen has gained the respect of Rodgers. But the admiration grew out of more than just his ability to rush the passer with pure speed, quick moves and relentless power. Rodgers recalls a 76-yard touchdown pass he threw to Jordy Nelson at the Metrodome in 2013, when Griffen almost caught the wide receiver from the opposite side of the play. Rodgers also remembered watching the 6-foot-3, 280-pound Griffen earlier in his career play the outside coverage spot on the punt team often reserved for wide receivers and cornerbacks.
“I said, ‘Who’s this humongous guy out as the gunner?'” Rodgers said. “He’s huge. He’s fast.”
ANOTHER AARON: Aaron Jones, one of three rookie running backs on the Packers, unquestionably remains the second-best Aaron in the backfield. With 125 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries in place of the injured Ty Montgomery against the Cowboys, however, the fifth-round draft pick from Texas-El Paso caught the league’s attention.
The Packers, with Eddie Lacy in 2013 and 2014, have only had a 1,000-yard rusher twice in the last seven seasons. Montgomery, who sat out with broken ribs last week and is on track to return and start Sunday, is a converted wide receiver. But whether from a project rookie or a position switcher, a productive ground game would make Rodgers and the Packers that much more dangerous.
“If you let them get the running game going and the play-action and then they have Aaron, they’re like three-dimensional,” Griffen said. “You can’t give them three dimensions.”
JET SET: The Vikings survived their first game without rookie running back Dalvin Cook with a productive night by Jerick McKinnon, who’s sharing the load in the backfield with Latavius Murray.
McKinnon had 146 yards from scrimmage, the second-highest total of his four-year career, on 22 touches in a 20-17 victory at Chicago . He caught all six passes that were thrown to him and scored on a 58-yard run off a toss sweep , but the 5-foot-9, 205-pound McKinnon was equally impressive by the way he absorbed and delivered punishing hits at the end of some of those plays.
“He’s a tough kid, but he’s also in great shape and as physically gifted as anyone I’ve ever been around,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “To be as big and fast and strong as he is, I’d hate to be on the receiving end of that as well.”
THE LATEST ON THE LIST: The secondary is the current area of concern on the injury report for the Packers.
Rookie cornerback Kevin King (concussion) missed practice at midweek, as did safety Morgan Burnett (hamstring). Both players were hurt against the Cowboys. King, the second-round draft pick out of Washington, has been the team’s best cornerback so far. Burnett is the steady defensive signal caller whose versatility allows him to also play in the box as a valuable run stopper. Starting cornerback Davon House (quadriceps) was also limited this week.
Only five defensive players have started all five games for the Packers: Burnett, nose tackle Kenny Clark, free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and linebackers Blake Martinez and Clay Matthews.