Packers Keys to the Game (at Vikings)

Bill Huber

The Green Bay Packers will travel to face the Minnesota Vikings at 3:25 p.m. on Sept. 11 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. FOX will televise the game.


Packers leads 64-56-3, including 1-1 in playoffs. Packers coach Matt LaFleur is 1-2 in Minneapolis.


Green Bay – Matt LaFleur, 39-10, fourth season. Minnesota — Kevin O’Connell (first season).

When the Packers have the ball

Minnesota’s defense is led by Ed Donatell, who coordinated the Packers’ defense from 2000 through 2003. He will be tasked with fixing a Vikings defense that had fallen on hard times. Under former coach Mike Zimmer, the Vikings fielded defenses that ranked inside the top 10 in points allowed every season from 2015 through 2019. However, they ranked 29th in 2020 and 25th in 2021.

Donatell has been attached to the hip of Vic Fangio for years. That means a 3-4 base defense and a lot of two-deep coverages, which will force Aaron Rodgers and Co. to be patient.

That scheme only works with a strong pass rush. The Vikings should have that with Danielle Hunter and former Packers star Za’Darius Smith lining up as the outside linebackers. Hunter had back-to-back seasons of 14½ sacks in 2018 and 2019. He missed 2020 following back surgery, then had six sacks in seven games in 2021 before suffering a torn pectoral.

There are injury concerns with Smith, too. He had a total of 26 sacks in 2019 and 2020 but missed most of last season with a back injury.

To combat Hunter and Smith, an obvious key to the game will be the availability of left tackle David Bakhtiari and right tackle Elgton Jenkins, both of whom are coming off torn ACLs.

“I can get through the season,” Bakhtiari said Sept. 5. “It’s going to be fine. You have to just manage while playing.

“I’m just getting back in the swing of things. So, I mean, I think there’s normal rust and then new normal with three surgeries, so just kind of working that out and figuring out what my routine is.”

Dalvin Tomlinson, Jonathan Bullard and Harrison Phillips are the defensive tackles, with Ross Blacklock the first man off the bench.

Tomlinson, a second-round pick by the Giants in 2017, has started 80 of a possible 81 games in his career. He’s never been to a Pro Bowl but he’s not far off that level. The rest of the group is suspect.

Phillips started a career-high eight games last season for Buffalo and Bullard has 15 starts in six seasons. Blacklock, a second-round pick by Houston in 2020, started three games in two seasons and was acquired in a trade last week.

Eric Kendricks and Jordan Hicks form a high-quality tandem at inside linebacker. Kendricks had 143 tackles, five sacks, eight tackles for losses and two interceptions last season.

The Vikings replaced Anthony Barr with Hicks. He started every game the past three seasons for the Cardinals, with a career-high 150 tackles in 2019 and a career-high four sacks in 2021.

The secondary is the weak link, though it remains to be seen if the Packers’ revamped receiver corps can take advantage.

For now, Patrick Peterson and Cameron Dantzler will man the corners, former Packers defender Chandon Sullivan will handle the slot, and Harrison Smith and Camryn Bynum will line up as the safeties.

Smith has been picked for six of the last seven Pro Bowls. He had a career-high 114 tackles last year after matching his career high with five picks in 2020. The futures, however, are first-round safety Lewis Cine and second-round cornerback Andrew Booth.

When the Vikings have the ball

O’Connell comes from the same Sean McVay coaching tree as LaFleur.

“I think it definitely will look a lot like our offense, but they have a different set of skill players, so you have to prepare differently,” said Packers linebacker De’Vondre Campbell.

There’s been a lot of hype about Green Bay’s defense, and for good reason. With high-quality talent at every position, there’s no reason why this shouldn’t be a top-five unit. But the Vikings will pose a great opening test, with Kirk Cousins at quarterback, Dalvin Cook at running back and receiver Justin Jefferson leading a fleet of superb pass-catchers.

“They got some talented players, even at the quarterback position,” Campbell said. “Kirk Cousins is a good quarterback. He knows how to get the ball out of his hands quick. It’s going to be a tough challenge.”

Jefferson is the best playmaker in the division. As a rookie in 2020, his 1,400 receiving yards were the most by a rookie in the Super Bowl era. Last season, he caught 108 passes for 1,616 yards and 10 touchdowns. He’s got speed, route-running skill and excellent hands.

Veteran Adam Thielen has 24 touchdown receptions the past two seasons, No. 3 receiver K.J. Osborn caught 50 passes for 655 yards and seven scores last year, and the Vikings are expecting a breakout season from third-year tight end Irv Smith.

Cook and Alexander Mattison are Minnesota’s version of Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon. Last year, they combined for 1,650 rushing yards and 66 receptions. Cook is a stud with 1,135 rushing yards in 2019, 1,557 yards in 2020 and 1,159 yards in 2021. In seven career games against Green Bay, he has games of 191 total yards and one touchdown and 229 total yards and four touchdowns.

The front will consist of left tackle Christian Darrisaw, left guard Ezra Cleveland, center Garrett Bradbury, right guard Ed Ingram and right tackle Brian O’Neill. The tackles are excellent, Bradbury is the weak link and Ingram, a second-round rookie, is the unknown.

Special teams

Is Green Bay’s new special teams actually improved? The Vikings will provide a test for a unit that Rodgers hopes can simply “break even.”

The biggest challenge? Kickoff returner Kene Nwangwu averaged 32.2 yards with two touchdowns last season. Rookie Jalen Nailor, a sixth-round pick with big-time speed, might handle punts.

While longtime Packers kicker Mason Crosby is back after missing all of training camp following knee surgery, Minnesota’s Greg Joseph made 33-of-38 field-goal attempts including 7-of-9 from 50-plus yards.

Ryan Wright beat out incumbent punter Jordan Berry, who was excellent last season with 26 inside-the-20s vs. three touchbacks. Wright averaged 52 yards per punt in the preseason.