Packers Insider: Thumbs up to struggling defense
THE BIG PICTURE
The Packers made it clear when they put Aaron Rodgers back on injured reserve that beating the Vikings on Saturday night was not their top priority. Nor should it have been. After eight straight trips to the postseason, these last two meaningless games offered a rare opportunity for the Packers to get a look at young, inexperienced players against division opponents competing with regular-season intensity. At the same time, it also makes sense to shut down injured players such as receiver Davante Adams rather than exposing them to further risk. The scoreboard won’t necessarily be the best indicator of how successful the Packers are as they close out the 2017 season.
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BOX SCORE: Vikings 16, Packers 0
Given the ineptitude of the Packers’ offense, a cynic would say this 16-0 loss was decided when the Vikings’ Kai Forbath kicked a 49-yard field on their first possession to go ahead 3-0. But the game did start to feel out of reach after Minnesota extended its lead to 10-0 on a four-yard pass from Case Keenum to Stefon Diggs at the end of the first quarter. The Packers didn’t cross midfield until less than five minutes remained in the first half, and that drive ended when Brett Hundley was intercepted by Vikings safety Harrison Smith on a third-and-3 from the Minnesota 15. The Packers left the field to a chorus of boos at halftime, and it never got any better as Green Bay was shut out twice in a season for the first time since 2006.
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It was during the Packers’ first meeting with the Vikings that Keenum emerged as Minnesota’s starting quarterback. After having replaced an ailing Sam Bradford midway through the previous week’s game against the Chicago Bears, Keenum threw for 239 yards and a touchdown in leading Minnesota’s Week 6 upset of Green Bay. Keenum went on to post big numbers in helping the Vikings (12-3) win six more games in a row and clinch the NFC North title, but the Packers’ much-maligned defense kept him in check (likely aided by the frigid conditions — 10 degrees at kickoff with a wind chill of zero). Kenny Clark was a force in the middle, clogging up running lanes and recording two sacks, two tackles for loss and two quarterback hits. Despite getting no help from the offense, Dom Capers’ patchwork defense managed to keep Green Bay in the game.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy expected this game to be “a great experience” for Hundley. Unlike his first game against the Vikings in Week 6, when he was thrust into action after Rodgers broke his collarbone and was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the moment, Hundley prepared all week as the starter and had three victories under his belt. But whether it was the injuries that depleted the offense, the Vikings’ ferocious defense, his own ineptitude or a combination of all those factors, Hundley’s performance was abysmal: 17-for-40 for 130 yards, two interceptions and a passer rating of 30.2. He made an awful decision on Smith’s interception at the end of the first half, trying to hit Lance Kendricks with two defenders blanketing his tight end. And although he did gain 48 yards on five carries, he too often abandoned the pocket and scrambled aimlessly while not seeing his frustrated receivers open downfield. Hundley finished the home portion of the season with no TD passes and seven interceptions.
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BOX SCORE: Vikings 16, Packers 0
NFL: Scoreboard | Standings
With Hundley again directing the offense, the Packers’ running game was expected to move back into the forefront. But any hopes of a 1-2 punch featuring Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones went out the window when Jones suffered a knee injury after only three carries for 13 yards. Coupled with McCarthy’s refusal to release Devante Mays (who fumbled twice against Baltimore) from the doghouse, Williams was left to shoulder the load. He gained 58 yards on 15 carries but couldn’t do enough damage against a Vikings defense that dared Hundley to throw.
You can’t tell these Packers without a scorecard with the way the injuries are piling up. Linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, cornerback Damarious Randall and guard Jahri Evans joined Adams to make it five starters on the pregame inactives list. The hits just kept on coming, with right tackle Jason Spriggs being carted off with a serious knee injury after just one play. Receiver Jordy Nelson (shoulder), Aaron Jones (knee), tight end Richard Rodgers (shoulder) and safety Josh Jones (shoulder, knee) all were ruled out later in the game.
Adams’ absence deprived Hundley of his go-to receiver, and neither Nelson nor Randall Cobb was up to the challenge of stepping in. Nelson had a bad drop and made only three catches for 11 yards before leaving with a shoulder injury. Cobb, targeted often early, had four catches for 22 yards. Most promising was the debut of rookie Michael Clark, the 6-foot-6 former college basketball player who spent most of the season on the practice squad after being a training-camp sensation. Clark was targeted nine times and had three receptions for 36 yards, including back-to-back catches for 10 and 19 yards.
The Lambeau Field turf is set to be replaced during the offseason, and it can’t happen soon enough after another game in which players on both teams were slip-sliding away. Hundley acknowledged that it was “pretty slippery out there at first” and required a change of cleats. McCarthy pointed to this being the first cold-weather game of the season and that there was “more grass than we probably have ever had this time of year.” Both teams obviously were affected, but for fans, it had to be frustrating watching gifted athletes struggle to keep their feet.
BITS AND PIECES
» The Vikings notched their first shutout in 24 years (a 13-0 victory over Detroit on Dec. 5, 1993). It was their first against the Packers since Nov. 14, 1971.
» The Packers’ loss ended their string of five straight victories in regular-season games played on Saturdays.
» With the loss, the Packers’ record against the Vikings under McCarthy (regular season and playoffs) fell to 16-8-1 overall and 9-3-1 at Lambeau Field.
» Paid attendance on a chilly night at Lambeau Field was announced as 78,092, the team’s 327th consecutive regular-season sellout.