Green Bay’s Aaron Jones fumbled on the game’s third offensive play (with Minnesota recovering), and Mike Boone crashed off left guard for 5 yards on the Vikings first play from scrimmage. Four plays into 2019’s final Monday Night game, and the start for Minnesota couldn’t have been better. With the game barely started, they broke the huddle for their second offensive play with a second and goal from the Packer 5-yard line.
And then Za’Darius Smith took over the game. Blowing through the Viking offensive line as though it was made of tissue paper, Smith would pressure Viking quarterback Kirk Cousins on each of the next two plays, forcing him to throw both passes away. The Vikings’ golden opportunity ended in a field goal.
After the Packers were thrashed by San Francisco in Week 12 – a game where Jimmy Garoppolo threw for 253 yards on just 14 completions – I suggested that Green Bay’s two edge rushers (Za’Darious and Preston Smith) might need a little help. The statistics generally support this sentiment. In spite of the successes of the two Smith’s, the Packers came into that Monday night contest slightly below the league average in quarterback sacks (they had 35 against the league average of 35.1) and their 6.7% sack percentage was right at the league average. The lack of pass-rush pressure contributed significantly to the 12.6 yards per catch that the secondary has allowed – the fifth worst figure in the league.
As the season plays out, the lack of additional pass rushers may, indeed, come back to haunt the Packers. But for one Monday night in late December, Za’Darius Smith didn’t need any help.
For the game, Green Bay sacked Cousins 5 times (3.5 of them by Z Smith), hit him 7 times (5 by Z Smith), and pressured him 10 times (6 by Z Smith). He also had 5 of their 7 tackles-for-a-loss as he was just as devastating to the running game as he was to the Viking passing attack.
It is uncommon to see a team dominated as thoroughly as Green Bay dominated the Vikings – much worse than indicated by the 23-10 final (gamebook) (summary). Both of the Minnesota scores were set up by first-half turnovers, with the two scoring drives totaling all of 31 yards. The Vikings finished the first half with just 2 first downs, and finished the game with just 7 on 139 yards of total offense. They failed to earn a first down in 8 of their 13 possessions, and even finished three of those possessions with negative yardage (if penalty yards are included). Counting sacks, Minnesota averaged fewer yards per passing play (2.2) than they averaged per running play (3.6).
The full price of the offense’s inability to stay on the field was born by the defense, who endured 75 Green Bay offensive snaps over a soul-crushing 37:32 of possession. The Packers eventually rolled up 184 rushing yards against Minnesota – 118 of them in the game’s second half (almost as many second half rushing yards as the Vikings managed total yards for the whole game).
For most of the season, this was one of the NFL’s most anticipated games. Looming before the second-seeded Packers was this trip into Minnesota and the raucous atmosphere of US Bank Stadium. Over the second half of the season, the Viking offense had come to life, and this was expected to be a pitched battle for the division crown.
Za’Darius, apparently, never got the memo.
The aftermath gives Green Bay the NFC North division, again, and holds them very securely in the second spot in the NFC pecking order. There is still work to be done. If they beat Detroit in Week 17, they could finish as high as number one (if San Francisco loses) or they could still drop to third if they lose to the Lions and New Orleans beats Carolina.
As for the Vikings, their final game against Chicago has been rendered meaningless – they will finish as the NFC’s sixth seed. They will head into this year’s playoffs with all the questions raised by this game hovering over them.
That first playoff game will come on the road against one of the teams (the 49ers, Packers or Saints) that currently sit at 12-3. It will be a tall order for this Viking team.