There aren’t too many more intriguing matchups in the NFL than Aaron Rodgers vs. Mike Zimmer’s defense.
Both sides of Sunday’s billing are performing up to their usual standard. Rodgers has two game-winning drives and leads the NFL in touchdown passes while the Vikings’ defense is ninth in yards per play allowed and eighth in points per game allowed.
Rodgers has gotten the best of Zimmer four times in six matchups during Zim’s time in Minnesota, but the best performance by the Vikings’ defense against Green Bay’s future Hall of Fame quarterback came in Week 2 last season. Rodgers went 20-for-36 with 213 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a 70.7 rating.
Pressure from the Vikings’ front four was the No. 1 cause of Rodgers’ tough outing. Up front, Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter, Linval Joseph, Tom Johnson and Brian Robison each had one sack.
There are plenty of times where the Vikings’ D-linemen simply demolish their opponent and get to the quarterback, but often times it’s a joint effort with the secondary. Zimmer’s ability to force opposing quarterbacks into confusion after the snap often allows the D-line an extra second to get after the QB.
“They do a good job of disguising things, making a lot of different looks the exact same then running different coverages and pressures out of it,” Rodgers said on a conference call with the Twin Cities media on Wednesday.
Here are a couple of examples of the Vikings’ pre-snap looks in last year’s game that caused trouble for Rodgers.
In the play below, the Vikings load up seven men on the defensive line. Safety Harrison Smith (top) and defensive end Brian Robison are uncovered while Linval Joseph is shaded just inside the tackle, linebacker Anthony Barr is over the guard, linebacker Eric Kendricks is over the center, defensive tackle Tom Johnson is over the guard and Danielle Hunter is wide.
It appears Rodgers changes the protection before the snap. The line slides to its left and both the running back and tight end stay in to block. Both outside receivers run go routes and the slot receiver runs a 10-yard out.
When Rodgers snaps the ball, the Vikings drop everyone back and rush four. Smith and both linebackers drop into zones, eliminating the middle of the field for the slot receiver. The Vikings end up with seven men covering three.
Here is the full play:
The Vikings’ personnel allows them to run disguised coverages like this. Kendricks and Barr are both quick linebackers who can start at the line of scrimmage and still get outside to tackle running backs if needed and Smith is one of the most dynamic players at his position. He’s able to successfully cover 1-on-1, blitz or drop into a zone where he can use his exceptional instincts.
Below we have an example of just how valuable Smith is to containing Rodgers. It should come as no shock that the Week 16 struggles against Rodgers came when Smith was trying to play through injury.
Smith is the robber. Before the snap, the Packers’ quarterback reads two deep safeties. That should leave an area in the middle of the field open for intermediate passes. There isn’t a better quarterback in the NFL at throwing intermediate balls. Last year, on throws between 1-10 yards, he completed 73% and posted a 111.0 rating.
But once Rodgers snaps the ball, Anthony Barr pressures and Smith essentially takes his place in the zone. So the QB would be looking for the opening because of the blitz, but it wouldn’t be there.
The slot receiver runs a 10-yard in route, but Smith is there underneath, giving Rodgers no other option than to heave the ball down the sideline. If Smith had been playing deep, the slot man would have been in 1-on-1 coverage behind Kendricks for a first down.
Of course, these are just two examples of ways that Zimmer tries to throw opposing quarterbacks off. The chess match between Zimmer and Rodgers could include all sorts of different looks. That’s what makes one of the NFL’s most compelling matchups this week.
Additional notes from last year’s Week 2 win by the Vikings: