Tom Oates: Even a healthy Aaron Rodgers might not be enough against Vikings
GREEN BAY — Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said Wednesday that Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers walks on water.
The Packers would settle for Rodgers’ walking onto the field without a limp when the NFC North Division powers meet Sunday at Lambeau Field. Frankly, having a functional Rodgers is the only way they’re going to win.
Indeed, there is a commonly held belief in the NFL that the Vikings have assembled the best roster in the league. If you look at it rationally, something few can do in this rivalry, you would be hard-pressed to dispute the notion that the Vikings are ahead of the Packers right now.
Minnesota added former Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins in free agency and got explosive running back Dalvin Cook back from knee surgery, giving it playmakers at every running/receiving position on offense and a quarterback who can get the ball to them. Their defense allowed the fewest points and fewest yards in the NFL last season and added free agent tackle Sheldon Richardson, a former Pro Bowler.
Rodgers might have been able to return after halftime and beat Chicago on one leg last Sunday, but the Bears aren’t the Vikings. Such magic will be considerably more difficult to conjure up against Minnesota, which is loaded with talent on both sides of the ball and has an established defense that has spent five years in Zimmer’s system.
If you compare the rosters of the Packers and Vikings, the obvious difference is Rodgers. He’s a playmaking genius, as he showed in rallying the Packers to 24 second-half points and a victory against an excellent Bears defense, while Cousins is a game manager. A really good game manager, but a game manager nonetheless. The Packers also have a better offensive line.
In just about every other way, the advantage goes to the Vikings. That doesn’t mean the Packers can’t win Sunday, only that the Vikings offer a formidable challenge.
“There’s no weaknesses on their defense,” Rodgers said. “You look at all three levels. A lot of times when you’re playing a defense, when you think about the team, you can maybe name three or four guys off the top of your head that you know about or you’ve seen play or you’ve heard about. It’s different with this team. You know most of them because they’re big names. It’s a lot of big names on that team, a lot of guys who have gotten paid second contracts and made a lot of plays for a number of years. And Mike is obviously a fantastic coach. He has those guys prepared. He has a great scheme that other people have tried to copy across the league.”
Five Vikings defenders — tackle Linval Joseph, end Everson Griffen, outside linebacker Anthony Barr, safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Xavier Rhodes — played in the Pro Bowl last season. Richardson last played in the 2014 Pro Bowl but he was outstanding in the Vikings’ season-opening victory over San Francisco.
Besides having elite players sprinkled all over the field, the Vikings defense has uncommon continuity. All but two starters — Richardson and linebacker Ben Gedeon — have been with the team for four seasons or more.
“They all really play off each other,” Packers guard Lane Taylor said. “They’ve got good players at each tier of their defense. They’ve got a good defensive coordinator to go with that. They all really play together well. Good challenge for us.”
So what must the Packers offense do Sunday?
“You’ve got to attack them just like anyone else,” Taylor said. “You want to make plays, get them on their heels and get after them.”
The Packers defense, which showed signs of a much-needed revival against the Bears, could say the same thing. Cook is a dynamic back who is being used heavily in the passing game this season. Wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen and tight end Kyle Rudolph were all highly productive last season and Cousins is an upgrade over departed quarterback Case Keenum.
“Tremendous skill talent,” safety Kentrell Brice said. “They have a lot of weapons.”
The Vikings also have a potential problem area. Their line went from a weakness to a strength last season, but popular line coach Tony Sparano died unexpectedly in July, injuries hit during training camp and the line hasn’t been the same. Considering the defensive line is a strength for the Packers, that could be a rare favorable matchup for Green Bay.
For the record, the Packers don’t much care what anyone thinks about the Vikings’ talent.
“I don’t really pay attention to what they’re ranked,” Brice said. “I know who we are in this locker room and I know what we can do and I know our potential. Kudos to them for having those things, but we play together as a team and we rely on each other. We’re focused on ourselves.”
They’re especially focused on Rodgers. The Packers swept the Vikings in Zimmer’s first season, the teams split the next two seasons and the Vikings won twice last season after Barr broke Rodgers’ collarbone with a since-outlawed hit in the first half of the first meeting, ruining the Packers’ season.
On Wednesday, Rodgers sounded like he expects to play Sunday despite a sore knee. He’s always been the great equalizer for the Packers, but this time he might need some help from his teammates.