Skip to main content

Facets of familiarity await Aaron Rodgers vs. 'different' Vikings defense

Green Bay dealing with injury uncertainty at several offensive spots as Sunday’s opener approaches

QB Aaron Rodgers
QB Aaron Rodgers

GREEN BAY – Aaron Rodgers still might see linebacker Eric Kendricks mugged up to blitz the A gap, or safety Harrison Smith creeping toward the line of scrimmage to attack off the slot.

But even if some of those familiar elements present themselves Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium, it'll still be an adjustment for Rodgers to face a Vikings defense run by someone other than Mike Zimmer for the first time in nine years.

"Different, for sure," Rodgers said Wednesday as the Packers got into full-fledged preparation for the 2022 opener at Minnesota. "This is a little bit more like our defense and the defenses kind of taking over the NFL."

By that Rodgers means 3-4 base fronts with various combo coverages in the back end popularized by longtime defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, whose scheme Rodgers faced plenty last decade when Fangio called the shots for San Francisco's (2011-14) and Chicago's (2015-18) defenses.

New Minnesota defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, who ran Green Bay's defense much earlier in his career (2000-03), is now a Fangio disciple, having worked under him with the 49ers, Bears and Broncos over the past 11 years.

Donatell now works for new Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell, who took over for Zimmer after eight seasons (2014-21) that included two NFC North titles and three playoff appearances overall.

As Donatell implements his scheme, he's doing so with longtime foes familiar to the Packers such as Kendricks, Smith and Danielle Hunter, while mixing in former Packers defenders Za'Darius Smith and Chandon Sullivan, plus veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson, now in his second season with the Vikings.

"There's not much quote-unquote film of their new guys and their scheme," tight end Robert Tonyan said. "But we (have to) go out there and just trust us, trust what we do."

Perhaps the bigger issue facing the Packers is who exactly will be available to play. Tonyan is one of four offensive starters, along with receiver Allen Lazard and offensive tackles David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins, whose status for Sunday is in question.

Lazard (ankle) didn't practice Wednesday, while Tonyan, Bakhtiari and Jenkins are all listed as limited on the injury report due to their ongoing recovery from knee injuries.

Rodgers commented last week that Tonyan was a definite presence in the team's extended 11-on-11 workout before the weekend break, so that bodes well. He's just two seasons removed from catching 11 TD passes from Rodgers, who would like to "get him going early."

There's more uncertainty up front, though, with a pectoral injury being added to the report for Jenkins and the continued "day-to-day" approach with Bakhtiari. Head Coach Matt LaFleur has been non-committal as to what the offensive line will look like come Sunday.

"It would definitely settle everybody's nerves maybe a little bit," Rodgers said, if Bakhtiari and Jenkins get cleared to go. "But both the tackles who would play if those guys didn't (have) played a lot of football for us."

Rodgers was referring to Yosh Nijman, who started eight games at left tackle last year, and second-year pro Royce Newman, who started 16 games at right guard but would be next up at right tackle if Jenkins remains sidelined.

At receiver, Rodgers expressed confidence Lazard could contribute even if he can't practice much, as long as the ankle heals. Either way, his potential absence or reduced workload could mean a bigger opening-day calling than expected for rookie receivers Romeo Doubs and Christian Watson behind veterans Randall Cobb and Sammy Watkins.

In that vein, last week's "four quarters" of 11-on-11 work after roster cuts were an important transition for the young receivers to this week's game prep and the action that awaits in their NFL debuts.

"The speed is amped up," Rodgers said. "They felt the other day, I think, what me in a game-like situation is like – my energy, the expectation, the tempo with which we play at.

"Look, they know what the expectations are. We're not going to put them in positions to not be successful, but there's going to be opportunities for them when they get out there to make plays, and I'm confident they're going to make the plays that are available."

Related Content