Vikings vs. Packers countdown: A difficult test for Minnesota’s defense

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (center) throws a pass during the second half against the Minnesota Vikings.

Ann Heisenfelt/Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

The Minnesota Vikings are going big for their first game at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Recently acquired quarterback Sam Bradford is expected to make his Minnesota debut in primetime, as the Vikings take on Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.

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Minnesota’s defense led the way last week, powering the Vikings to a win despite a dismal start for running back Adrian Peterson and a safe, if so-so, performance by quarterback Shaun Hill.

The Vikings face a difficult test in Rodgers and his re-stocked wide receiver corps following the loss of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, but after an encouraging performance against the Tennessee Titans, the Vikings defense is bracing for a slugfest at their new stadium.

THREE THINGS TO WATCH

— Bradford is the likely play for Zimmer and co. in their new stadium. General manager Rick Spielman may have coughed up two valuable draft picks for the former No. 1 pick out of desperation rather than desire, but he clearly intends to roll with Bradford at some point. The Vikings’ offense was competent against the Titans, but they didn’t score, leaving the defense to bail them out in the second half. The Packers’ offense won’t be quite as forgiving as second-year quarterback Marcus Mariota and the Titans, and kicking the tires on Bradford, even if he hasn’t quite mastered the offense yet, could lead to improvement.  Still, no matter the quarterback, their game plan should remain largely the same: Expect plenty of short passes to receiver Stefon Diggs and tight end Kyle Rudolph. Thankfully, the Vikings have a tendency to mix things up when facing their biggest rival.

— The Vikings like to get tricky against the Packers. Receiver Adam Thielen duped the Green Bay’s special teams unit into a big gain last time, turning head coach Mike Zimmer’s gutsy fake punt from his own 38-yard line into a gain of 41 yards. Despite a questionable situation at quarterback Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner have speed to spare at the other skill positions, and there are plenty of ways to make use of it with minimal input from Bradford. Thielen gashed the Packers for 26 yards on a jet sweep last year, the same play that netted Patterson eight yards and a first down against the Titans last week.

— Stopping Rodgers was tough before running back Eddie Lacy came along, but adding the threat of a big gain on the ground gives the Packers’ offense an extra dimension. Since drafting Lacy in 2013 the Packers are 8-2-1 when Lacy rushes for at least 100 yards, and 15-6-1 when he scores at least one touchdown. Lacy has hit the century mark four times against the Vikings, netting the Packers a 3-0-1 record, while he’s averaged 94.7 yards per game against the Vikings overall and picked up five total touchdowns. The Vikings held Titans running back DeMarco Murray to a respectable 3.23 yards per carry in Week 1, but were burned through the air, surrendering two receiving touchdowns to Murray alone. Lacy ranks 23rd in receptions by a running back since joining the league in 2013 with 98, and averages 9.08 yards per reception.

TWO THINGS TO REMEMBER

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— Peterson struggled against the Titans, averaging just 1.63 yards per carry on 19 attempts, but Week 1 duds aren’t exactly unprecedented for the league’s reigning rushing champ. Peterson posted a similar stat line in last season’s opener — a 20-3 loss to the San Francisco 49ers — and has a history of production against the Packers. Peterson has averaged 110 rushing yards per game in 16 matchups with the Packers dating back to 2007, registering 5.27 yards per carry.

— For better or worse, the Vikings’ passing game will likely play a big role Sunday night, but in Minnesota’s last matchup with Green Bay it wasn’t much of a factor. Bridgewater attempted just 19 passes in that game, throwing for 99 yards, no touchdowns and an interception, as Peterson, kicker Blair Walsh and the defense handled the scoring. The Vikings obviously benefit from a healthy passing attack, but a stout defense and a resurgent Peterson could make it a moot point.

ONE KEY MATCHUP

On paper the matchup is between Zimmer and Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, but in practice it’s a little less conventional: Zimmer vs. Rodgers. His passer rating against the Vikings has dropped from 116.8 during his first five seasons in the league to 99.8 during the Zimmer era. The Vikings have picked up at least five sacks in their last five wins against Green Bay, while their last win featured heavy doses of Everson Griffen, linebacker Anthony Barr and tackle Sharrif Floyd. The trio tagged Rodgers for a combined four sacks, while safety Harrison Smith and tackle hooked up for one too. However, Floyd will be out this Sunday.

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