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Vikings QB Kirk Cousins cranking up his game as Packers' defense looks to do the same

Green Bay seeking more takeaways against familiar foe

Vikings QB Kirk Cousins
Vikings QB Kirk Cousins

GREEN BAY – Only one active NFL quarterback has faced the Packers more times than Minnesota's Kirk Cousins.

That would be Matthew Stafford, formerly of the Lions and now Rams, who has started 21 games against Green Bay.

Cousins makes his 12th career start, including one playoff contest, against the Packers on Sunday at Lambeau Field – two with Washington and now 10 with the Vikings. Russell Wilson is third on the list, having just made his 10th start vs. Green Bay last week.

Cousins' record through the first 11 is dead even at 5-5-1.

Yeah, the "one" at the tail end of that … remember the tie, back in Week 2 of 2018? That was actually Cousins' best numbers game against the Packers, as he threw for 425 yards and four TDs, before getting bailed out by a controversial roughing-the-passer penalty on Clay Matthews that wiped out a fourth-quarter interception and helped the Vikings get the game to overtime.

Bigger picture, Cousins has an awfully strong statistical record against the Packers despite the .500 record. He's posted a passer rating of 118 or higher in seven of the previous 11 matchups, and his overall mark is 103.4 (239-of-362, 3,065 yards, 22 TDs, eight INTs).

More important to the here and now, he's coming off a highly impressive performance Monday night in Minnesota's upset win over San Francisco. Against the 49ers' vaunted defense and without his No. 1 receiver in Justin Jefferson, Cousins completed 35-of-45 passes -- without getting sacked once -- for 378 yards with two TDs and one interception (107.2 rating) in a 22-17 triumph.

He became just the second quarterback in the last three years to throw for 350-plus yards and multiple scores against San Francisco. The other? Two-time Super Bowl champion and two-time league MVP Patrick Mahomes.

"Kirk Cousins is playing outstanding football right now," said Packers Head Coach Matt LaFleur, who was Cousins' position coach with Washington during the QB's first two seasons in the league. "I feel like he's always been severely underrated. I think he's one of the top quarterbacks in the game and he's playing like it."

So what can the Packers do to slow him down? Without Jefferson on the field, rookie receiver Jordan Addison and veteran tight end T.J. Hockenson are the focal points of the Vikings' passing game, and the 49ers didn't handle them well. They combined for 18 catches, 209 yards and two scores (both by Addison, including a 60-yarder right before halftime) on Monday night.

How the Packers match up with them will be a storyline to watch. Jaire Alexander would be the natural pick to guard the first-round pick Addison, after Alexander limited Jefferson to just two catches in the teams' Week 17 meeting at Lambeau last January, but he's questionable for the game due to a back injury that has kept him out three of the last four contests.

The Packers also haven't been at full strength at inside linebacker due to De'Vondre Campbell's ankle injury. Quay Walker might do a lion's share of the work against Hockenson, but it would help to get Campbell back in the mix, too. Campbell also is questionable after missing the last three games.

"We have to make sure we're keyed on those guys, and don't let anything sneak out," said safety Jonathan Owens, slated to start for the injured Darnell Savage.

However the matchups shake out, the Packers' other defensive emphasis this week has been on getting takeaways, which have been hard to come by lately. During Green Bay's current three-game losing streak, the defense has just two, both interceptions by safety Rudy Ford (on the opening possession vs. Detroit and on the first drive of the second half at Las Vegas).

The Packers' season total is only five, tied for fewest in the league right now. While there's always a fine line between trying to force turnovers without compromising the defense – "You can't chase plays," nickel corner Keisean Nixon said – nothing would help a struggling offense more than the short fields and momentum shifts turnovers bring.

"They haven't come," defensive coordinator Joe Barry said. "We have five right now and we have to change that trend."

Added defensive lineman Kenny Clark: "Hopefully when we get one, they just come in bunches."

It's happened before. The Packers were in a similar spot late last season when a run of takeaways fueled a four-game winning streak. The fourth win in that stretch was a home blowout of the Vikings in which Cousins had his worst career game against the Packers, throwing three INTs and posting a 49.2 passer rating.

"Play physical," Nixon said of how the Packers made things so miserable for Cousins. "At the end of the day, everything goes back to our playstyle. That's it. Play tough and execute."

LaFleur has commended the Packers' defense for playing well enough to win the last two games, with the offense not coming through. But by no means does he think the defense is playing its best football, and the lack of takeaways is a major factor.

"There's so many things that I know we can do at a higher level," LaFleur said of the defense.

It gets a chance to ratchet things up against an old nemesis.

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