MINNEAPOLIS — When Kevin O’Connell takes the field with the Minnesota Vikings for his first game as a head coach, the 37-year-old will carry with him the blank slate that’s one of the benefits of being a rookie in this high-pressure, much-coveted job.
O’Connell needn’t be concerned for now about being booed at home by impatient or inebriated fans. His play calls and game management will be closely scrutinized in the media, at the stadium and on the couch, sure, but even with a ready-made roster full of proven starters and more than a couple of stars, the heat won’t turn up every week he doesn’t win for a while.
Matt LaFleur hasn’t helped his cause.
No head coach in NFL history has fared better over his first three seasons than LaFleur, who will take his staggering 39-10 record with the Green Bay Packers and three NFC North titles to U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday. The last two of those first-place finishes came in a runaway, one reason why O’Connell is here as the successor to Mike Zimmer in this attempt by the Vikings to reset without rebuilding and retake the division they haven’t won since 2017.
“I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t going to be a little extra excited, a little bit more than just any other game,” said O’Connell, who was offensive coordinator of the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams last season. “This isn’t just any other game.”
LaFleur was also a first-timer when he was hired by the Packers at age 39, bringing a similar background of playing and coaching quarterback and serving as an offensive coordinator on the way up. He and O’Connell both held that role under Rams head coach Sean McVay (LaFleur in 2017 and O’Connell from 2020-21), and they have the same agent (Trace Armstrong).
“Just being around him at the owners’ meetings and knowing what Sean had to say about him, he’s a guy that I definitely respect,” LaFleur said. “He’s a guy that definitely carries himself the right way. He’s worked at it, and he’s deserving of this opportunity.”
In his 18th season with Green Bay, his 15th as the starting quarterback, Aaron Rodgers will be without his trusty go-to wide receiver following the departure of All-Pro Davante Adams. Allen Lazard, the leading returner at that position, is uncertain to play due to an ankle injury.
The possibilities for filling that production include two well-regarded rookies: Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs. Watson was drafted in the second round out of North Dakota State with the pick (No. 34 overall) traded to the Packers by the Vikings as they moved down to net another selection.
“I definitely feel like there’ll be a little bit of nerves, it being my first one,” said Watson, who was limited by a knee injury in training camp but fully participated in practice this week. “I’m confident in myself and confident in the playbook. If I do get the chance I feel like I’ll be ready to go.”
Doubs was a fourth-rounder out of Nevada.
“Our confidence is still high,” Doubs said. “Allen Lazard, regardless of if he plays or not, he’ll still push us the same way as he would if he was playing.”
The Vikings have an almost entirely new staff, with O’Connell bringing a new scheme with offensive coordinator Wes Phillips from the Rams. Defensive coordinator Ed Donatell has a 3-4-based system in place on the other side of the ball. Special teams coordinator Matt Daniels has supplied fresh energy and strategy as well.
This will also be Adam Stenavich’s first game as offensive coordinator for Green Bay and Rich Bisaccia’s debut as special teams coordinator. Bisaccia, who served as interim head coach for Las Vegas last season, was brought in to help fix a facet of the game that has lagged badly for the Packers in recent years.
New Vikings punt returner Jalen Reagor, who was acquired in a trade last week with Philadelphia, can attest to that. He had a 73-yard punt return touchdown as a rookie in 2020 against Green Bay.
“I’m salivating over this guy,” Daniels said. “This guy’s got some weight to him. He’s really hard to tackle. He has the ability to make you miss. He’s elusive, and obviously he has the home run speed to take it the distance. That’s what makes him so spooky.”
By all accounts, Vikings kicker Greg Joseph — whose 29-yard field goal as time expired gave Minnesota a 34-31 victory over Green Bay last season at U.S. Bank Stadium — had a strong training camp. Strong enough, actually, that O’Connell sounded open to extending Joseph’s range in games. The 28-year-old’s career long is 55 yards, one of seven 50-plus yarders he made in 2021.
“I have so much confidence in him. Our team does. I think it’s just a matter of that particular drive: Do we want to go for it in that area of the field? Do we want to try and pin our opponent deep and try to flip the field and get the ball back and play the field position game?” O’Connell said.
Packers kicker Mason Crosby, who spent training camp on the physically unable to perform list following arthroscopic knee surgery, has appeared in 241 consecutive regular season games.
GREEN BAY (13-5) at MINNESOTA (8-9)
Sunday, 4:25 p.m. EDT, Fox
OPENING LINE: Packers by 1½, according to FanDuel SportsBook.
SERIES RECORD: Packers lead 64-56-3.
LAST MEETING: Packers beat Vikings 37-10 on Jan. 2, 2022, in Green Bay.
PACKERS OFFENSE: OVERALL (10), RUSH (18), PASS (8), SCORING (9).
PACKERS DEFENSE: OVERALL (9), RUSH (11), PASS (10), SCORING (14).
VIKINGS OFFENSE: OVERALL (12), RUSH (17), PASS (11), SCORING (14).
VIKINGS DEFENSE: OVERALL (30), RUSH (26), PASS (28), SCORING (124.
TURNOVER DIFFERENTIAL: Packers plus-13; Vikings plus-11.
PACKERS PLAYER TO WATCH: QB Aaron Rodgers, the two-time reigning NFL MVP, has tortured the Vikings with a combined 13 TD passes without an interception in the past four matchups between these teams. He’ll be challenged to maintain that level of success without two-time All-Pro WR Davante Adams, who was traded to Las Vegas in the offseason.
VIKINGS PLAYER TO WATCH: WR Justin Jefferson has the most receiving yards (3,016) in NFL history through a player’s first two seasons. He had 169 yards and two TDs in Minnesota’s 34-31 win against Green Bay at home last year.
KEY MATCHUP: Packers OL vs. Vikings pass rush. Minnesota has fared best against Green Bay when Rodgers is consistently pressured. New Vikings OLB Za’Darius Smith, who had 26 sacks for the Packers over the 2019-20 seasons before being limited to one game because of a back injury in 2021, will be eager to stick it to his former team after being released this spring. Danielle Hunter and his 60½ sacks in 85 games mans the other OLB spot, creating a daunting assignment for Green Bay’s two best blockers David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins. They were limited in training camp in their recovery from torn ACLs, but if cleared to play they’ll likely be the starting tackles.
KEY INJURIES: Packers WR Allen Lazard (ankle) didn’t practice Wednesday and is uncertain to play. … Packers TE Robert Tonyan (knee) and S Darnell Savage (hamstring) were limited practice participants Wednesday. … Vikings TE Irv Smith Jr. has recovered from a thumb injury that sidelined him for much of training camp. … Vikings DT Jonathan Bullard (bicep), an expected starter, was the only player limited in practice Wednesday on a remarkably clean injury report.
SERIES NOTES: This marks the second time in three years the Packers and Vikings have opened the season in Minnesota. The Packers won 43-34 at Minnesota in 2020. … The Packers and Vikings have split their 60 previous meetings in Minnesota. … They split their two regular-season matchups last year. The Vikings were missing QB Kirk Cousins in the loss at Green Bay because of COVID-19. … The Packers are 16-10-1 against the Vikings in games that Rodgers has started. Including the playoffs, Rodgers has thrown 57 TDs and seven interceptions against the Vikings. … Cousins is 3-3-1 against the Packers since joining the Vikings.
STATS AND STUFF: The Packers are aiming for a fourth straight NFC North title. … The Packers have posted the NFC’s best regular-season record each of the past two years, though they haven’t reached the Super Bowl since their 2010 championship season. … Green Bay’s Matt LaFleur is the only head coach in NFL history to win at least 13 games in each of his first three seasons. … The Packers benched most of their starters for the three preseason games. They used the same strategy last year and lost 38-3 to New Orleans in the regular-season opener. … The Packers have won 32 September games since 2008, the second-highest total in the league behind New England’s 33. … This marks the first game as a head coach for Minnesota’s Kevin O’Connell. His predecessor Mike Zimmer lost his first home game against Green Bay 24-21 on Nov. 23, 2014. … Cousins will start his fifth straight season opener for the Vikings, the most for the franchise since Daunte Culpepper took six straight from 2000-05. Fran Tarkenton has the record with seven (1972-78). The Vikings went 1-5 in September over the past two years.
FANTASY TIP: With Jefferson and Adam Thielen likely to draw most of the attention from the Packers secondary led by standout CBs Jaire Alexander and Eric Stokes, Vikings WR K.J. Osborn might find more space to produce. He had 290 yards and five TDs over the last six games last year.