Packers, Aaron Rodgers preparing for new faces on Vikings' defense

Two rookie corners and star pass rusher added in Minnesota, but Danielle Hunter goes on IR

QB Aaron Rodgers

GREEN BAY – It's hard to imagine a Minnesota Vikings defense under Mike Zimmer has ever experienced this much personnel turnover from one year to the next.

The Packers just played the Vikings four "games" ago, in Week 16 of last year in Minneapolis, but the defense Green Bay will prepare to face in the 2020 opener on Sunday in the same U.S. Bank Stadium will look different at some key spots.

The storyline of the offseason in Minnesota has been the change at cornerback, where veterans Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes are gone, third-year pros Mike Hughes and Holton Hill have stepped forward, and two rookie draft picks in Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler will be taking on major roles from the get-go.

Then it was announced on Wednesday that pass rusher Danielle Hunter was going on injured reserve, so the Vikings will have a backup taking over and being paired with new acquisition Yannick Ngakoue, who had been franchise-tagged by Jacksonville before getting traded to Minnesota during training camp.

"He's a fantastic player," Packers QB Aaron Rodgers said of Hunter, who has recorded 14½ sacks each of the last two years and has 5½ career sacks against Green Bay. "That's definitely a loss for their defense."

The greater unknown is at corner, where the Vikings used first- and third-round draft picks on Gladney from TCU and Dantzler from Mississippi State, respectively, in a huge youth movement at the position.

Speaking with the Green Bay media, Vikings coach Zimmer called his young corners eager and competitive, and he's been relying on veteran safeties Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris to "teach 'em how to be pros."

Zimmer doesn't seem to be sweating the idea of working new players into key roles, and in fact he mentioned feeling rejuvenated as a coach to prove he can succeed with new personnel. His defenses are routinely among the league's best, and he pointed out how one of the Dallas defenses he coordinated 15-plus years ago ranked fourth in the league without much fanfare heading into the season.

From the Packers' perspective, the challenge is figuring out how the two rookie corners are going to fit into Zimmer's scheme, and/or if he has some surprises in store.

"There's film on Holton Hill and Mike Hughes, but the two young rookies, there's just not a lot to go off of," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. "Anytime you've got some new players, it's tough to really know what to expect. Certainly, we've got a lot of familiarity with the coverage schemes and Coach Zimmer's defense.

"Everybody evolves in the offseason, so I'm sure there's going to be new wrinkles or unscouted looks that we've got to be prepared for and be able to handle."

Most likely, Hughes will be assigned to the Packers' top receiver, Davante Adams, who had gotten his share of matchups with Rhodes over the years. But to Adams, he's less concerned about his opponent than making sure he's on top of his own game, and he believes that extends to the offense as a whole no matter how many new players the Packers face.

"I try to dictate … I don't like to go out and let them set the tone and worry about how this guy plays, if he's going to press a certain way," said Adams, who topped 100 receiving yards in both meetings with the Vikings last year. "The mentality I have running routes every game is just make them chase me.

"I don't think they're going to do a whole lot different. We've just got to lock in on what we need to do for ourselves and make sure we're clean and running our operation, and then from there we can make adjustments in game if needed."

Amidst all the change, there are still plenty of mainstays anchoring Zimmer's defense, too. In addition to Smith and Harris in the back end, inside linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr remain in the middle of all the action.

The back and forth between the Packers and Vikings in some respects is rooted in the extensive familiarity between Rodgers and Zimmer. While the Packers posted one of their biggest wins of last season at Minnesota in Week 16, it was their first triumph at U.S. Bank Stadium after three straight losses there since its opening in 2016.

The two teams also have played to an overtime tie, in 2018, and another down-to-the-wire finish at Lambeau Field last year.

For his part, Rodgers believes it'll be the long-recognized names, not necessarily the new ones, that'll decide Sunday's showdown. For all the talk about the new corners and late-arriving pass rusher, Rodgers pointed specifically to Smith and Kendricks as the defenders Zimmer always builds his game plans around, and that'll be no different.

"Having him and Harrison there together for so many years really, I'm sure, gives Mike confidence that it doesn't matter who they put in there," Rodgers said. "They're going to be able to execute what he wants to do."

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