Packers defense's priorities start with Vikings' Dalvin Cook

Ryan Wood
Packers News
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GREEN BAY - It’s unusual to hear a professional football player compare his job to a video game. Even in this Madden NFL culture, what you see on Sundays is different. There are no fake trades. You can’t turn injuries off. Everything on the field is real.

Except what the Minnesota Vikings did last week seemed rather unreal.

It’s not that the Vikings ran 38 times in their win against the Atlanta Falcons. That was only the second-most carries for a team in Week 1. The Vikings rarely passed. Their 10 attempts were half the amount of the team with the second-fewest passes.

That imbalance — 38 runs, 10 passes — felt like it was pulled straight from a video game. You just don’t see it in real life.

“I know if I’m playing Madden,” safety Adrian Amos said, “and I’ve got the controller, and you can’t stop the run, I’m going to just keep running it.”

It might be one reason why, to a man, everyone on the Packers’ defense said stopping Vikings running back Dalvin Cook is the foundation for this week’s plan. There are others.

Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Mike Daniels (76) tackles Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (33) in the second quarter at Lambeau Field on Sunday, September 16, 2018 in Green Bay, Wis.

In Cook, whom Packers coach Matt LaFleur called “an elite runner,” Green Bay will face one of the few tailbacks capable of wrecking a game on his own. Cook can break off big plays outside the tackles. He can run downhill. When healthy, he is a load.

He isn’t the only load on the Vikings' offense.

On the perimeter, receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs are perhaps the NFL’s best one-two punch at their position. Each reached 1,000 yards last season, one of only three sets of teammates to do that. Their 2,394 combined yards trailed only Kansas City’s Tyreke Hill and Travis Kelce (2,815), and Los Angeles Rams receivers Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks (2,423). Thielen and Diggs were the only teammates to have more than 100 catches apiece.

Both have torched the Packers’ secondary in the past. Thielen, a Pro Bowler last year, had at least 125 yards and a touchdown in both games against the Packers last season, a tie and a Vikings win. (He also had 202 yards and two touchdowns on 12 receptions in a Christmas Eve loss at Lambeau Field in 2016.) Diggs matched Thielen with nine catches for 128 yards and two touchdowns last season at Lambeau Field, and also had nine catches for 182 yards and a touchdown early in the 2016 season at Minnesota.

Cook, meanwhile, hasn't rushed for 40 yards in either of his career games against the Packers, much less 100.

It might seem strange, then, to hear defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s priority this week.

“It starts with Cook,” Pettine said. “That is critical to do a good job of not letting him get to the perimeter. As you saw what happened in the Atlanta game, he can just circle the defense. You can’t just give him free access on downhill, inside gaps, because some of his big runs in the preseason were a result of that as well.

“So we’ve talked all week, we have to play with great run fundamentals up front to start.”

Cook might be a Pro Bowler already in his third season if not for injuries. He opened his career with 354 yards and two touchdowns in three and a half games before tearing the ACL in his left knee early in the second half of his fourth game. A hamstring injury limited him last season, when he missed five games.

He showed last week why the Packers find him so dangerous. Cook had 111 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries against the Falcons. He exited Week 1 fourth in the league in yards, second in carries and was among only five players with multiple touchdown runs, a fantasy football owner’s delight.

It’s the potential impact Cook can have on the rest of his offense that has him atop the Packers defense’s priority list this week.

“This is a pass-first league,” Amos said, “but at the same time, when you can run the ball, it opens up everything else. So if you can’t stop somebody’s running attack, then you start trying to load the box. You start getting itchy in the back end, and then that’s when they go over the top on you. So it’s important to stop that run game first, and then that builds confidence in your defense. If you’re not stopping the run, that builds confidence in the offense. Then they can move the chains, they can pound it.”

As nose tackle Kenny Clark said: “If somebody is just trucking at you, getting four or five yards every play, it can get annoying.”

The Packers will likely adjust the personnel they used in their opener against Chicago. They prioritized athleticism in pass coverage last week, forcing Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky to beat them with his arm and decision making. The Packers had three safeties on the field for 77 percent of the game, with Raven Greene playing 55 snaps. Many of Greene’s snaps came when he was dropped inside the box as a hybrid linebacker.

Against the Vikings’ physical offense, newly acquired linebacker BJ Goodson could be a staple in the Packers’ base defense this week. Pettine said he expects Goodson to be playing more Sunday, depending on how the Vikings try to attack his defense. The Packers could swap Goodson for Greene, getting more bulk against the run while keeping the other 10 starters on the field.

It’s also possible the Vikings regress to the mean this week. At no time last season did they approach the type of run-pass differential they showed last week. Quarterback Kirk Cousins, whom the Vikings lured last year with an $84 million, fully guaranteed contract, threw at least 40 passes in a game seven times in 2018. He twice threw more than 50 passes. Cousins never threw fewer than 21 times.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer butted heads occasionally last season with former offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, who now holds the same job in Jacksonville, regarding a lack of commitment to the run game. So perhaps the Vikings’ 38 carries in Week 1 was in line with what Zimmer expects. Still, given the Vikings’ personnel, such games are likely the exception, not the norm.

“I’ve never seen it happen,” said Packers outside linebacker Preston Smith, a former teammate of Cousins’ in Washington. “Yeah, that’s rare. You never see a team with a quarterback getting paid that kind of money throw the ball 10 times.”

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