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Packers' next opponent: Vikings a formidable hurdle in bid for top-two playoff seed

Jim Owczarski
Packers News

The Green Bay Packers (11-3) have clinched a postseason berth but head to U.S. Bank Stadium in search of an NFC North crown and favorable NFC playoff seed against the Minnesota Vikings (10-4). Wins over the Vikings and the Detroit Lions in the regular-season finale would guarantee at least the No. 2 seed for the Packers.

Basics on the Vikings

Last week

The Vikings kept their division title hopes alive by forcing seven turnovers and scoring a defensive touchdown in a 39-10 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers. The offense took a hit with the loss of star running back Dalvin Cook to a shoulder injury, and Kirk Cousins threw for one touchdown. Dan Bailey made four field goals.

Schemes

First-time offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski (along with assistant head coach/offensive advisor Gary Kubiak) have found a play-calling groove since the Vikings’ Week 2 trip to Lambeau Field by making Cousins more efficient. Kubiak is a former mentor to Packers head coach Matt LaFleur, so the Vikings do have some similar plays offensively now that he’s part of their offense.

Defensively, Zimmer and coordinator George Edwards do what they do — they run a base 4-3 scheme and use that “Double A” blitz pressure to challenge the middle of the offensive line.

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) eludes a sack by Green Bay Packers nose tackle Kenny Clark (97) during the third quarter of their game Sunday. September 15, 2019 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. The Green Bay Packers beat the Minnesota Vikings 21-16.

Key numbers

4

League rank of the Vikings’ red-zone offense and defense.

13.5

Sacks by defensive end Danielle Hunter.

70.5

Completion percentage for Cousins.

150-673

Difference in carries and rush yards between Cook and backup Alexander Mattison.

Players to watch

Alexander Mattison, RB

Cook, who suffered what looked to be a serious shoulder injury Sunday, has accounted for 1,654 yards of total offense and 13 touchdowns. His backup is Mattison, who has proven effective in spots but missed the Chargers game with an ankle injury. He averages 4.6 yards per carry and has 10 catches. He also proved to be a physical runner at the end of the Vikings’ Week 2 loss to Green Bay at Lambeau, helping move the team into scoring position until Cousins threw a game-clinching interception.

Irv Smith, TE

The second-round pick has come on of late and has developed a bit of chemistry with Cousins. The Packers have issues defending athletic tight ends, and over his last nine games Smith has caught 28 passes for 232 yards and two touchdowns. It may not seem like a lot, but through his first five games he had only five catches, so he is being worked more and more into the offense.

Harrison Smith, S

Smith is always one to watch and he is once again having a nice season with three interceptions, two forced fumbles and 1.5 sacks. He also has 11 passes defensed and three tackles for loss. No doubt he’ll be keeping an eye on Davante Adams to help take the Packers’ No. 1 receiver away, and he is athletic enough to make plays from sideline-to-sideline.

Reasons to worry

The Packers have yet to win in three tries at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings have a different and more dynamic offense than the one the Packers saw in Week 2, though much of that has been built off a run game centered on a banged-up Cook. Cousins is completing 70% of his throws and has a rating of 111.1 while throwing only three interceptions since tossing two against Green Bay in Week 2. Overall, the offense is No. 9 in the NFL and No. 5 in scoring. They are the most complete offense the Packers will have faced.

Defensively, the Vikings are No. 14 in yards but are sixth in points allowed. The combination of Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen has more than 20 sacks, and the defense ranks fourth with 27 turnovers forced. They can pressure the quarterback in a variety of ways and are No. 8 against the run, so they will likely follow the recent game plan of previous teams to take Aaron Jones away and force the Packers’ receivers to make plays.

Reasons to relax

Cook looked hurt in Los Angeles after falling on his shoulder, and he had been playing through pain already. Mattison has looked solid in spots, but has an ankle injury and hasn't been asked to carry the load. It is a bit of a mystery how the offense would look if Cook cannot play or is severely limited.

So the Vikings still will have to rely on Cousins to make a play to win an important game — which is not something he does often. And the prime-time spectacle hasn’t been kind to him either, as he is 6-14 in prime-time games and 0-8 on Monday Night Football. And since the Packers tend to play close games, the odds of Cousins making a critical error or incompletion late go up.

Contact Jim Owczarski at jowczarski@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @JimOwczarski or Facebook at facebook.com/JOwczarski.