By Carmen Vitali
FOX Sports NFC North reporter
Even if you believed Minnesota could challenge Green Bay for the NFC North crown, I don’t think anyone could have predicted the start the Vikings got off to at home against the Packers to open the season.
The Vikings were in control the entire game, getting out to a 17-0 lead by halftime. It answered a lot of questions about the new regime in Minnesota — and perhaps raised even more about reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers and his lack of resources in Green Bay.
Most of the Vikings’ production came from star wide receiver Justin Jefferson, who ended up with a career-high 184 yards on nine catches, including two for touchdowns. It announced coach Kevin O’Connell’s arrival in Minnesota, as he gave Jefferson the “Cooper Kupp treatment” just as most though he would.
Jefferson picked apart the Packers’ zone scheme, as O’Connell schemed him impossibly open on a near-constant basis.
Justin Jefferson goes for 184 yards, two TDs
Justin Jefferson couldn’t be stopped against the Packers, as he went for 184 yards and two touchdowns to help Minnesota grab a 23-7 victory.
Fellow Vikings receiver Adam Thielen made sure the Packers couldn’t completely sell out to cover Jefferson, and so did the Vikings’ run game.
Minnesota has one of the more complete rosters in the league, thanks to some clever maneuvering by new general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah. That showed on offense especially, with the Vikings running a balanced attack and refusing to let the Packers make them one-dimensional. They ran the ball 28 times, and quarterback Kirk Cousins attempted 32 passes, even though they operated almost solely out of three-wide-receiver sets.
Minnesota saw almost a 30% uptick in 11 personnel, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, deploying the grouping over 70% of the time.
It’s a calling card of that Shanahan coaching tree. You might use the same type of players, but the motion and window dressing is going to confuse defenses every time. Jefferson was the main beneficiary of that pre-snap motion, giving him the ability to exploit mismatches and cross into zones the Packers weren’t expecting him to.
“We have some new players in the building, we have some new coaches in the building, new system but we’re coming,” Jefferson said after the game.
The crazy part about the Minnesota offense is that for as dominant as they were, it’s more about efficiency than anything — another calling card of O’Connell’s offenses. They ran the same number of offensive plays as the Packers (61) but averaged 6.5 yards per play, which was a full yard more than Green Bay. In all, they had 395 yards of total offense, putting up 23 points in the process. They also won the time of possession battle, 31:23 to 28:37.
More takeaways from the Vikings’ victory over the Packers:
— The Minnesota defensive front, led by former Packer Za’Darius Smith, harassed Rodgers all afternoon, amassing a total of 4.0 sacks on the day. Smith lined up all along the line and his sack on his former quarterback came from inside as he dragged Packers guard Jack Hanson with him. He directly impacted the game himself and likely also let the rest of his new team in on the formula to beat his old one.
— If the Vikings’ offense is complete, the defense has followed suit. Though their first-round pick, Lewis Cine, was inactive, Harrison Smith made enough plays on the back level for everyone. Smith had an interception along with a pass breakup and seven combined tackles.
Smith tied for the second-most on the team in the latter, behind linebacker Jordan Hicks, who had double that amount. He might be having his own career resurgence after signing with the Vikings this offseason. In addition to those 14 combined tackles, he was the only non-defensive lineman to record a sack and had a pass breakup along with a quarterback hit on the day.
— Now for the Packers, who looked woefully underprepared for the start of the season. The concern over who would shoulder the receiving load after Davante Adams jumped ship in free agency turned out to be understated.
Early in the game, Rodgers launched a pass down the sideline and placed it perfectly for a streaking Christian Watson, who dropped a guaranteed touchdown, making his rookie status painfully obvious. Rodgers wouldn’t go to Watson again until the fourth quarter but by then, it was too late.
— Rodgers simply had no one to throw to — nor did he have a ton of time to throw. Both David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins did not suit up, as they’re both still working their way back from ACL injuries. Guard Jon Runyan went down in the second half with a concussion and as a result, the Packers had no offensive rhythm.
— Given the lack of receiving weapons, the plan looked to be getting both running backs Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon involved. Try as they might, the aforementioned offensive line issues prevented them from being very successful. Neither back went over 50 yards rushing on the day, though Dillon did have the Packers’ lone touchdown.
— On a brighter note, Packers outside linebacker Rashan Gary recorded the first sack of Green Bay’s season, getting to Cousins during the Vikings’ second series of the game. Though Packers fans have long seen the potential of Gary, who recorded 9.5 sacks last season, it seems he’s hell-bent on making sure he ascends to another level this season.
— Though the Packers got a wake-up call to start their season, there was still not a whole lot of panic to be seen in Rodgers’ eyes. It makes me think the Packers aren’t panicking either, and they’ll likely be just fine going forward — especially when they get their full offensive line back. The NFC North is going to be fun this season.
Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the title of Super Bowl Champion (and boat-parade participant) to her résumé. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.
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