First games of the season can have a higher degree of unexpected outcomes, as teams and coaches figure out things out of the gate. Some teams can come out not as well prepared as they thought, or struggle with changes from the previous season, or are surprised by what their opponent is doing. Other teams take advantage of those shortcomings. The other thing nobody really knows until the game starts is how well they handle the physicality of the game. There is no real game speed, live tackle to the ground, playing starters action before the regular season starts anymore, and so how well defenses tackle the first time out is a question mark. Ball security and real full-go among skill position players and both sides can be a bit of a question mark too.
From a fan and pundit standpoint, expectations can be off too. For example, Jalen Ramsey is considered one of the best cornerbacks in the league, having been named first-team All-Pro the last two seasons. But in his first game out against the Bills, he gave up a perfect passer rating when targeted- 158.3. That’s anything but All-Pro caliber.
There is also the surprise factor. Both teams have likely installed some un-scouted looks and plays that could catch the other team off-guard. There are also some new players from last season, and it can be unclear how they matchup in either their first NFL game or first game with a new team, scheme, etc.
Having said all that, the Packers and Vikings both play versions of the same scheme on both sides of the ball, so there will be a great deal of familiarity in terms of scheme. Most players are also known on both sides, so there is familiarity there too. Even familiarity with coaches on both sides, as many of them have worked together in the past. Both sides will have begun some preparation for this game months ago, so a lot of study will have gone into it.
But there are a few key changes that will likely impact the game. Here are a few of them.
How Well Does Aaron Rodgers and His New Receivers Gel?
Davante Adams is gone. Marquez Valdes-Scantling is gone. In the game on Sunday, the Packers will be starting Sammy Watkins and Randall Cobb, with rookie Romeo Doubs and perhaps rookie Christian Watkins mixed in. Cobb is the only receiver Rodgers has played with in the past, so there is a lot of chemistry and timing lost between Rodgers and his receiver corps to start the season. Watkins, 29, has had 55 receptions on 97 targets over the past two seasons at Kansas City and Baltimore, and is more of a bridge player for the Packers until their younger draft picks develop. But he’ll be WR1 on Sunday. Cobb, 32, had just 28 receptions last season for the Packers on 39 targets for 375 yards, and also seems more of a place holder at this point until younger receivers are ready to take over. Among the new draft picks, Romeo Doubs has shown flashes and generally seems to have been the Packers’ equivalent of Mr. Mankato in training camp. Doubs had 8 receptions on 15 targets in preseason games, with three drops and an 81.1 passer rating when targeted. Christian Watson missed training camp and the preseason and has had little time on the field with Aaron Rodgers, even in practice. Allen Lazard, who would be a starter and has played with Rodgers in previous seasons, is listed as doubtful with an ankle injury (someone stepped on his ankle in practice last weekend) and hasn’t practiced all week, so likely won’t play on Sunday.
Obviously this isn’t an ideal situation for the Packers’ passing game, so they may try to compensate by getting their running backs more involved in the passing game, along with tight end Robert Tonyan, who just got off the PUP list after recovering from an ACL injury. How well Tonyan does his first game back after that is a bit of a question mark too.
And while the Packers’ running backs could prove to be effective in the passing game against the Vikings, overall there is a lot for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense to overcome on Sunday regarding their receiving corps.
Packers Offensive Line Not Full Strength
Making matters worse for the Packers offense, they have injury issues with both starting tackles. All-Pro LT David Bakhtiari hasn’t played since late in the 2020 season, suffering an ACL injury with post-surgery complications requiring two more, and just came off the PUP list after training camp. He’s listed as “questionable” but didn’t practice Friday and was limited Wednesday and Thursday. My guess is he won’t play. Hard to imagine him starting with limited practice after not playing for nearly two years.
Elgton Jenkins is the Packers’ right tackle, but he too just came off the PUP list after suffering an ACL injury in the Packers’ 34-31 loss at US Bank stadium last November. He is also listed as questionable and was limited in practice all week. It may be more likely that Jenkins plays on Sunday, but it’s difficult to be too optimistic on him starting after recovering from ACL surgery if he was limited every day in practice. If Bakhtiari can’t go, Yosh Nijman (63 PFF grade last season) would replace him. If Jenkins can’t go, it’s less clear but it could be backup right tackle Rasheed Walker (2022 7th round pick) or more likely right guard Royce Newman would slide out to right tackle and 4th round pick Zach Tom would step in at right guard, or Tom could play right tackle (he had reps there in the preseason). In any case, if both Bakhtiari and Jenkins can’t go, that would leave the Packers’ offensive line with no linemen with a PFF grade 65 or above from last season. Again, not ideal.
Matt LaFleur a Bit Subdued in His Press Conferences This Week
This is a subjective body-language/tone thing, which is superficial, but can be revealing. Listening to Matt LaFleur’s press conferences this week, there was definitely some Zimmer-esque moments when asked about injuries. Normally LaFleur is more upbeat, but I suspect he isn’t thrilled with his injury situation to start the season, on the road, against his most competitive division rival, where the Packers are just 2-4 at US Bank stadium.
The Packers are coming off a special teams debacle that effectively pissed a 13-4 season and #1 seed down their leg, going one-and-done in the playoffs to the 49ers. They gave up a touchdown off a blocked punt and missed a field goal in a 13-10 loss at home in the divisional round. They hired Rich Bisaccia, a longtime special teams coach in the off-season to help rectify their special teams problems, but still finished 31st in special teams PFF team grade in the preseason, so there may be more work to be done there. Additionally, kicker Mason Crosby- who wasn’t good last season- has been injured (knee) and only recently was deemed healthy enough to play against the Vikings. So there may be more than the usual week one question marks on special teams for the Packers.
Packers Defense Should Be Very Good, But Will It Be on Sunday?
Last season, the Packers played the Vikings and Rams back-to-back in weeks 11 and 12. They gave up 34 points to the Vikings offense, and 28 points to the Rams offense- which may be more similar to the Vikings’ offense on Sunday. They didn’t have Jaire Alexander for those games last season, but how good will Alexander be in his first game back after a shoulder injury suffered nearly a year ago? (He did play 8 snaps in the playoff loss to SF). The other thing is that Rasul Douglas, who played outside cornerback for the Packers last season, is now moving inside to slot corner with the loss of Chandon Sullivan to the Vikings. Douglas had his best season last year after getting picked up by the Packers, and his best year in coverage. But prior to that, Douglas was let go after three seasons in Philly, having been a third-round draft pick, and then played only one season in Carolina. So it remains to be seen if Douglas’ season last year was more of a fluke, or if he’s truly turned things around. Moving to slot cornerback, which he’s never really played, could make turning things around more difficult.
In any case, the Vikings offense vs. the Packers defense should be strength on strength between what may be two of the better units on either side of the ball in the league this year. The Packers have a pair of top edge rushers in Rashan Gary and Preston Smith, but the strength of the Vikings offensive line is their bookend tackles in Christian Darrisaw and Brian O’Neill, so that will be an interesting test all-around on Sunday.
And while the Packers have a strong secondary too, they’ll face a tough test on the road to start the season against Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, and K.J. Osborn, with a little Jalen Reagor mixed in according to Kevin O’Connell. Irv Smith will be back too. The Vikings will be full strength with Ed Ingram the only new starter, so they should be in good position to test the Packers defense.
The bottom line question is whether the Packers depleted offense will be able to keep up with what the Vikings offense is able to do against a good Packers defense on Sunday. And while I expect the Packers defense to hold serve occasionally, it’s difficult to see the Packers offense scoring enough points to come out on top. There is the chance that the Packers running backs Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon have enough success to make up for deficiencies in the Packers receiving corps and offensive line, but I wouldn’t say that’s likely.
And so I like the Vikings (one point underdog) to continue to make things tough for the Packers at US Bank stadium and come away with a victory to start the season. Looking around the pundit space and weekly predictions, the Vikings are one of the more popular upset picks this weekend.