GREEN BAY - When Mike McCarthy took over in Green Bay a decade ago, the Packers trailed in the all-time series against the Minnesota Vikings, 44-45-1.
Thanks to McCarthy’s domination (15-5-1) in the border rivalry, the Packers now carry a 59-50-2 record into the regular-season unveiling Sunday night of gleaming U.S. Bank Stadium.
He’s 3-1 against his Vikings counterpart, Mike Zimmer, after dropping the regular-season finale in January with the NFC North title at stake, 20-13. Before that, the Packers had swept teams coached by Zimmer: 42-10, 24-21 and 30-13.
“We need to beat them a lot more often for it to be a rivalry,” Zimmer said this week. “Green Bay is an awfully good team. Everybody is picking them to go to the Super Bowl. We’re just trying to be in the fight.”
The Packers, a 2½-point favorite, will be playing a second straight road game to open the season for merely the second time in their 96-year NFL history. In 1924, coach Curly Lambeau’s team opened in Duluth with a 6-3 loss to the Kelleys and in Chicago with a 3-0 loss to the Cardinals.
“The Pack has been dealt a bad hand on this one,” one personnel man said. “Tough scheduling, especially having to deal with the heat in Jacksonville. That makes for a hard recovery, and then you have another big game with travel. Very tough situation and rivalry.
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“On the other hand, the Vikings went on the road and showed a big character win in Tennessee (25-16) after falling way behind (10-0). That will pay dividends this week.”
That scout called it for the Vikings, 24-20, even though the season-ending loss of Teddy Bridgewater means newcomer Sam Bradford, after just two weeks of practice, or backup Shaun Hill must start at quarterback.
“Even the hype behind the new stadium won’t save the quarterback-less Vikings,” an AFC personnel man said. “Until Minnesota settles on a quarterback and finds an identity, they’ll struggle to generate ball control and points.”
His pick was Green Bay, 31-20. An executive in personnel for an NFC club also picked Green Bay, 24-14.
“Green Bay will attack either Hill or Bradford with multiple looks and pressure on passing downs,” said the NFC scout. “Hill doesn’t have the arm to make them pay, and Bradford may not have had enough time with the wide receivers or the offense. His lack of mobility makes him a target.
“Green Bay will attack Minnesota’s secondary and put up points. The X factor will be if Minnesota can pressure (Aaron) Rodgers with four. That would allow them to play more people in coverage and slow down the pace of Green Bay’s offense.”
Third-year coordinator Norv Turner, 64, is in his 32nd NFL season. Respect from his peers as a tactician and play-caller is widespread. With a run-first (48.9% last year), play-action approach, he shortens games and controls tempo. He makes liberal use of two and three TEs, two-back sets, bunches of receivers and a diverse run game. Last year, the Vikings ranked tied for fourth in giveaways (17), 16th in points (22.8) and 29th in yards (321.2).
The hope was that rookie Laquon Treadwell (6-2, 215), the 23rd pick, would emerge as a starter. Although active, he didn’t play in the opener. Physically imposing, he must find a way to win with mere 4.64 speed. Stefon Diggs (6-0, 191), a fifth-round pick in 2015, is back as the No. 1. He has 4.43 speed, attacks the ball and doesn’t cower from contact one bit. Starter Mike Wallace was cut in March and Jarius Wright (5-9½, 191), the No. 3 a year ago, was a surprise inactive. Charles Johnson (6-2, 217), the Packers’ seventh-round pick in ’13, is a tremendous athlete (39½-inch vertical jump) with the speed (4.40) for take-off routes. However, he has been nagged by injury and wasn’t effective in the opener. Adam Thielen (6-1½, 200) ascended to No. 3 by being versatile and reliable. With much uncertainty outside, TE Kyle Rudolph (6-6, 265) is a primary target inside. A six-year starter, he plays faster than he timed (4.84), uses his terrific hands to catch bad balls and blocks OK. Rookie David Morgan (6-4, 265), a sixth-round pick, was regarded by some scouts as the best blocker in the draft.
The Titans throttled Adrian Peterson (19-31) because of overpopulated boxes and winning physical battles up front. Run blocking was borderline poor. The new starters are LG Alex Boone (6-7, 310), signed March 9 from the 49ers for $10 million guaranteed, and RT Andre Smith (6-4, 325), the ex-Bengal who received $3.5 million for one year. Boone, a four-year starter, is a tough customer with long arms (34 3/8 inches) and a big personality. He’s also stiff and can be outquicked. Smith, a 77-game starter, was the sixth pick in ’09. He’s not as physical as Phil Loadholt, the starter from 2009-’14, but is more athletic in protection. Old pro Joe Berger (6-5½, 305) beat out oft-injured John Sullivan in camp. At 34, Berger doesn’t make mistakes (Wonderlic score of 36) but doesn’t get much movement, either. Probably the top player is LT Matt Kalil (6-6½, 317), the fourth pick in ’12 who gets a little better most years. With enormous arms (36½), he can steer rushers wide. However, he still gets knocked off-balance and doesn’t always sustain. RG Brandon Fusco (6-4, 306), a five-year starter, is motivated and smart (Wonderlic of 30). He also plays too high and lacks quickness.
Sam Bradford (6-4½, 224) was the first pick of the Rams in the ’10 draft. He has a good, not great arm with terrific accuracy and a quick release. He’s smart (Wonderlic of 36), mature and is well-liked by teammates. His injuries included a twice-torn (ACL) knee (2013, ’14) and a surgically reconstructed right shoulder (’09). At Oklahoma, his coaches thought he was athletic enough to play Big 12 basketball. Now, however, he can’t run at all and takes a lot of hits. His career passer rating for the Rams and Eagles is 81.0. Shaun Hill (6-3, 230), 17-18 as a starter for four teams, plays fast and gets rid of the ball. He throws a tight spiral without much on it. A tough guy, he cannot escape.
Incomparable Adrian Peterson (6-1½, 220) comes off the poorest first game of his nine-year career. “I honestly think I can do this, and at a high level, until I’m 40,” the 31-year old Peterson told MMQB in May. Better in two-back sets and with the QB under center, he’s an impatient runner with flashing feet and top speed. Jerick McKinnon (5-9, 205) is a fine talent. Matt Asiata (5-11½, 219) is a bull. FB Zach Line (6-0½, 233) fits his blocks well but isn’t a hammer.
George Edwards is the coordinator but coach Mike Zimmer makes the calls. It’s a 4-3 “over”, one-gap scheme with “quarters” probably as the frequent coverage. Zimmer loves to blitz but has governed himself in the last four meetings against Green Bay, sending five or more on 26.9%, 28.6%, 24.4% and 28.3% of passes. He’s an expert at attacking protections, particularly through the A gaps. Last year, the Vikings ranked fifth in points (18.9), 13th in yards (344.2) and tied for 20th in takeaways (22).
All eight players return from 2015. RE Everson Griffen (6-3, 273) is one of the game’s premier rushers. He runs like a LB, has quickness and bend, goes hard, has power and takes care of the run game, too. LE Brian Robison (6-3, 259) is 33 but has missed just two games, takes care of his body and still is flexible and deceptively fast. Danielle Hunter (6-5, 252), a third-round pick in ’15, is a budding star. Just 21, he runs 4.56, has a 10-10 broad jump, bench presses 25 times and has 34¼ arms. This year, he has expanded his rush repertoire from just speed. NT Linval Joseph (6-4½, 329) could be the best in the league. He stacks double-teams, discards single blocks and is a genuine threat as a rusher. Sharrif Floyd (6-2½, 311), a 3-technique drafted 23rd in ’13, has been nagged by a balky knee. He crowds the line, jumps the count and can create havoc with quickness and chase. Floyd’s backup, Tom Johnson (6-2½, 288), is a former Saint with stir-it-up ability as a sub rusher. NT Shamar Stephen (6-5, 310) is solid against the run.
SLB Anthony Barr (6-4½, 255), the ninth pick in ’14, is a modern-day Matt Blair. He has phenomenal 4.46 speed, a Wonderlic of 28 and the ability to rush and cover. A RB-TE for two years at UCLA, he still shows slight hesitancy in his play. There is nothing halting about MLB Eric Kendricks (6-0, 232), a pint-sized dynamo with tremendous instincts. He has 4.60 speed to make tackles at the boundary and cover well anywhere. He can get covered up and displaced against the interior run. WLB Chad Greenway (6-2½, 237), a 10-year starter, has lost some range and power but usually knows where the ball is.
RC Xavier Rhodes, a budding top-10 CB, is out with a knee injury suffered while stretching Sunday morning in his hotel room. He was replaced by Kenosha Bradford’s Trae Waynes (6-0, 190), the 11th pick in ’15. With 4.26 speed, he’s the fastest player on the team. He might have better natural cover skills than Rhodes but isn’t nearly as strong or as effective. His jam needs work. LC Terence Newman (5-10½, 197), the fifth pick by Dallas in ’03, remains a respectable contributor at 38. His 4.38 is a distant memory but he’s crafty, knows his limitations and will smack you in run support. Former Panther Captain Munnerlyn (5-8½, 195), a 72-game starter, can be a pest. Rugged for his size and ever aware, he has lost speed and can be exploited in man coverage. Rookie Mackensie Alexander (5-10½, 192), a second-round pick, is quick and confident but needs more discipline. FS Harrison Smith (6-2, 214), the 29th pick in ’12, and SS Andrew Sendejo (6-0, 210), a 28-game starter, both are explosive hitters. Nearing elite status, Smith is tough, smart, stealthy and increasingly more under control. Sendejo is better working downhill than playing the deep middle. He has good straight-line speed but isn’t fluid or natural in coverage. Impressive rookie Jayron Kearse (6-4, 215), a seventh-round pick, is the No. 3 safety.
Coach Mike Priefer’s units can match returners with any team. On kickoffs, Cordarrelle Patterson uses his long stride, 4.34 speed and nifty open-field running skills to be a constant threat. On punts, little Marcus Sherels has been top-notch since ’11. K Blair Walsh is trying to extricate himself from a funk. Fourth-year P Jeff Locke is barely adequate. He’s a hang-time punter with a below-average leg. Thielen, Sendejo and Hunter are top core players. Minnesota ranked 10th last year.
This is no time for the Packers to kick off short to the corner trying to pin their opponent. With Cordarrelle Patterson deep, Mason Crosby needs to boot the ball beyond the end line. In six games against Green Bay, Patterson has returns of 109, 51, 57, 42, 52 and 70 yards. His 18-return average of 36.7 against the Packers surpasses his career mark of 30.4. On Sunday, the Titans were ahead, 10-0, at halftime when Patterson turned the game around with a 61-yard return to open the second half. After not taking a snap from scrimmage the last seven games of 2015, Patterson played five in Nashville, running a jet sweep for 8 and making a nice catch for 6.
It’s hard entering a rivalry game with an erratic kicker. Blair Walsh will be under the microscope because of his last two games. In January, he hooked a 27-yard attempt in the final seconds that would have KO’d Seattle in the NFC wild-card playoffs. In Tennessee, Walsh was wide left from 37, missed left badly twice from 56 (the first didn’t count) and blew an extra point wide right. He bounced back with makes from 50, 33, 45 and 30. In his first four years, Walsh was the unanimous choice on the All-NFC North team three times. Mason Crosby, who beat him out in ’14, looks like a better bet now.
Rick Spielman still is remembered in Miami as the general manager who in 2004 traded a second-round pick for quarterback A.J. Feeley.
In part, that decision cost Spielman his job with the Dolphins, just as his decision to trade a first-round draft choice next year and a fourth-round pick (could improve to a second) in 2018 for quarterback Sam Bradford could end his 10-year run atop the Vikings’ personnel department.
No matter what happens with Bradford, the Wilf family should remember the dynamics of that decision and remain fully supportive of their GM’s attempt to save this season and possibly the next.
Shaun Hill, 36, is one of the league’s more reliable backups. He just doesn’t have enough arm talent or athleticism to lead Minnesota to the playoffs.
Bradford does, and so the trade with Philadelphia was made.
“I think the veteran guys appreciate the fact that management tried to do whatever we can do to help win,” coach Mike Zimmer said late last week. A day earlier, offensive coordinator Norv Turner said, “I think it was a boost for everybody. I think it was bold, but it’s very positive.”
This is the fourth major move Spielman has made at quarterback in the arms race to overtake the Packers, who have been quarterback-rich for a generation.
In 2009, he convinced Brett Favre to return: pass.
In 2011, he used the 12th pick of the draft on Christian Ponder: fail.
In 2014, he traded up to the last pick in the first round for Teddy Bridgewater: pass.
Twelve days ago, he acquired Bradford from the Eagles: incomplete.
Bradford has had the same knee reconstructed twice. His career record is 25-37-1. Bradford might get hurt again, and even if he doesn’t he might not be good enough.
Spielman knows that. He also knows that Bridgewater’s severely damaged knee might prevent him from playing next season, and that Bradford’s two-year, $35 million contract offers protection for 2018 as well.
Expect Bradford to debut Sunday night. With him, at least the Vikings have a fighting chance until the return of Bridgewater.