It’s been some time since we saw a win as convincing as the 23-7 victory the Minnesota Vikings slapped on the Green Bay Packers’ heads. The word “convincing” there has a couple of meanings. Not only was it a convincing victory in the sense of overall dominance, but it also convinced me of a few things. I had picked against the Vikings in this one, and can you blame me? The Packers entered the season with top-five Super Bowl odds, and the Vikings have essentially run back the roster that took them to eighth place in the NFC for two consecutive years.
But I’m always happy to admit when I’m wrong. Furthermore, I’m happy to examine why I was wrong to see if I can’t improve my understanding of the league. My prediction was rooted in a few things. One was an assumption that the Packers, led by Aaron Rodgers, would always have a fearsome offense, with or without a superstar like Davante Adams. The other was that a new staff would take some time to get their players on the same page. I anticipated errors, especially on defense, and the Packers would punish those mistakes. I thought the Vikings would be able to move the ball, but that ultimately the more consistent team wins the shootout.
So here’s what I was wrong about — and what I wasn’t.
The Vikings moved the ball
Anyone who attended even one day of training camp in August could tell: Justin Jefferson is going to have a monster year. His routes look even more creative than they did last year, and the new-look Kevin O’Connell offense will give him more opportunities. Turns out, the obvious was correct.
Headed into this game, the Packers figured that Jaire Alexander would be able to slow Jefferson down. That’s a decent enough assumption, as good as Alexander is. But to do that, he has to be matched up with Jefferson. And the Vikings denied that, much to Alexander’s chagrin.
Scroll through any game breakdowns, and you’ll find a similar sentiment. So why wasn’t Alexander consistently on Jefferson? Why was Jefferson matched up with Darnell Savage and Quay Walker all day instead of their All-Pro? It wasn’t some overthought mistake by Joe Berry. It was exactly what O’Connell wanted. O’Connell put Jefferson all over the field by utilizing motion and varied alignments.
The varied alignments make it hard enough, but the motion makes it especially difficult. O’Connell’s scheme, just like Sean McVay’s Super Bowl-winning scheme, utilizes a ton of jet motion. It’s not just about getting Jefferson a favorable matchup, but that is a nice perk. The real reason is to get another body onto that side of the field in the run game, and especially as a counter to inserting safeties (not unlike what Harrison Smith did all day to limit after-catch gains).
But in cases like the one below, it helps to stress the opposing-coverage principles. Let’s say Jefferson is in a stack with Irv Smith, Jr. on the weak side of the play. With just those two threats on that side, it’s easy enough to play a triangle coverage (meaning three defenders somehow distributing the coverage responsibilities. Get it?). But what happens when Jefferson motions to the other side? Do you just take one player and run him alongside Jefferson, tipping the quarterback off to your coverage? Do you zone it off, trying to work everyone together? The Packers chose the latter, and it ended with a lot of unfortunate matchups.
What happens when the same concept stresses the defense, but after the snap? You can’t change the play anymore. Everyone just has to be perfect. The Packers weren’t.
Kevin O’Connell made things easy for Jefferson. And when you take a player that good and make things easy on him, he will start putting up video-game numbers. Fire up Madden on Rookie difficulty for the first time since you were a kid, and you’ll see how it feels.
Cousins also deserves a lot of credit. He worked the pocket, bought time, and found opportunities downfield. He also took care of the football and threw up some fantastic passes. If the Vikings can get 16 more games like that out of Cousins, they’ll be headed somewhere special.
The Vikings Made Mistakes
I also wasn’t wrong to predict some mistakes from the Vikings. The secondary busted three separate coverages, including this one to Romeo Doubs. My guess is that this is Chandon Sullivan‘s fault. Peterson makes what is called a “smash” call, meant to counter this smash concept from Green Bay. He aggressively runs up to the under route, and Sullivan is supposed to take the corner route to Doubs. We can’t know with any certainty unless we’re in the room, though.
Assign blame however you see fit, but the point is, this is the kind of thing I was worried about. The Vikings are learning new rules, new terms, and new techniques. Day 1 is never going to be your smoothest performance. These sorts of miscommunications happened a lot. Thankfully, the Vikings’ principal front four (Harrison Phillips, Dalvin Tomlinson, Danielle Hunter, and Za’Darius Smith) had an elite game.
The Vikings also suffered two delay of game penalties thanks to procedural issues. So there is some new head coach stuff to clean up. I’ll admit, I expected more than we saw. I especially expected the Vikings to suffer more flags, but credit to O’Connell and his staff: They have the team ready to go.
That said, there were enough mistakes of this type to ruin the Vikings’ day. But mistakes don’t hand your opponent plays. They hand your opponent opportunities. And the Packers couldn’t seize them.
The Packers Couldn’T Punish mistakes
Green Bay’s first offensive game really set the tone for the play. Christian Watson ran a great route, getting Patrick Peterson off his balance. It’s a bad rep for Peterson, who had a solid game outside the few plays highlighted in this piece. But Watson had a ton of space, and Rodgers delivered a perfect ball. Dropped.
This kept happening. After the above-mentioned coverage bust, the Packers threw a quick pass for four yards, ran for nothing, and took a sack. They’d punt. The Vikings gave the Packers opportunities to gain momentum, but Green Bay couldn’t capitalize like I thought they would.
Does that mean the win is secretly a mirage? Far from it. The dominance that Jefferson and Cousins showed in this game looks sustainable to me, and for as long as that front four is healthy, I can foresee it causing all kinds of problems. But I knew about all of that.
So, what did I get wrong? Two things explain the difference between my prediction and the outcome. First, the Vikings were a little cleaner than I thought they would be. That’s great, but it’s not too far off from what I expected. The real kicker is the second element: I vastly overestimated the Green Bay Packers. I thought an Aaron Rodgers-led team could find all the coverage problems, whether there was pressure or not.
What does this mean for the North?
The Packers entered the season as heavy favorites to win the NFC North, and with good reason. The Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions are both in the middle of major rebuilds, and the Vikings came into this game unproven. There were reasons for optimism for Minnesota, like there are with any new head coach. He’ll scheme up looks to get Justin Jefferson the ball, the new-look defense won’t blow as many leads as Zimmer’s did the last two years. But those things had to be proven. They were.
On the other hand, the Packers had royal intentions headed into this season. Now, with the coach questioning his players’ efforthis players questioning his leadershipand the offense somehow running through A.J. Dillon, we have to ask existential questions about them. Are they really going to waltz to another 13-win season? Can we take that for granted anymore? And can we even pencil them in as NFC North champions with Minnesota looking as far ahead of schedule as they did?
I think they call that a “statement game.”