Vikings Insider, The GM’s View
The week of the regular season opener was always one of my favorite weeks on the NFL calendar. It ranked just below a playoff game week, in my estimation. Then factor in Packer Week, and the excitement level for Vikings players, coaches, front office staff, and fans increases exponentially.
“It’s a big week for our team,” Head Coach Kevin O’Connell said. “We’ve got to make a good showing, be prepared and ready to roll with a really good football team coming in, the Green Bay Packers.”
Beyond the matchup with Minnesota’s archrival come so many sub-plots in this game, starting with the first game for the Vikings new leadership duo of O’Connell and GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah. It also will be the first regular season game in which O’Connell is the play-caller on offense.
“Personally, I’m excited to get to U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday and just feel that energy,” O’Connell said.
The Vikings players also are excited about this opener, especially the six new starters, five of whom are on coordinator Ed Donatell’s new 3-4 base defense. Per the team’s updated depth chart released this week, they are defensive linemen Harrison Phillips and Jonathan Bullard, inside linebacker Jordan Hicks, outside linebacker/edge rusher Za’Darius Smith and safety Cam Bynum. We can add Chandon Sullivan to that list since, as the slot corner, he’s a virtual starter. And star defender Danielle Hunter returns in a new position at outside backer/edge rusher.
The lone new starter on offense is rookie right guard Ed Ingram. Tight end Irv Smith Jr. was slated to be a starter last year until his preseason knee injury knocked him out for the year.
Smith and Sullivan are ex-Packers, so that adds some juice to this matchup for them. “I can’t wait to go against my old team,” said Smith with a big smile on Monday. He was a two-time Pro Bowler with the Packers.
Other sub-plots surround Aaron Rodgers and his receiving corps, minus superstar Davante Adams (traded to the Raiders) and a deep threat in Marquez Valdes-Scantling (free agent signee in Kansas City). Starter Allen Lazard missed practice last week and on Monday with an undisclosed injury. Then there’s the status and potential effectiveness (against the talented duo of Hunter and Smith) of Pro Bowl offensive linemen David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins. They are both likely to start as they come off knee injuries. And how will the Packers special teams perform after they were shaky last season, with a late blocked punt as the turning point in their divisional playoff home loss to the 49ers?
The biggest question for me on the Vikings is how quickly the team will jell on offense and defense with the new schemes under O’Connell and Donatell. With almost all key starters getting no play time in preseason games (as was the case with the Packers), it won’t be surprising for the Vikings offense to sputter early in the game against a projected top-five defense loaded with talent. The same may be true for the Packers offense against the Vikings talented but untested D.
A great matchup to watch will involve two Pro Bowlers as Vikings superstar receiver Justin Jefferson tries to get open against Packers top corner Jaire Alexander. But first, the Vikings offensive line will have to give Kirk Cousins time to throw against an excellent front seven. Cousins actually is 4-3-1 in his career against Green Bay, so he has done well against the Pack when he has adequate protection.
Check back Friday for my keys to the game and a prediction on this exciting opener. I do agree with this O’Connell quote: “We know there’s a good chance this game is going to come down to the very end.”
A look-back 30 years to another exciting Vikings-Packers opener in a Vikings coach debut:
Back in 1992, I was the Vikings rookie GM (like Adofo-Mensah, although I had been in Minnesota as the team’s assistant GM the previous six years). Denny Green was launching his Vikings head coaching career, and the opener was in Lambeau against the Packers in Mike Holmgren’s first game as head coach.
Unlike O’Connell’s approach this preseason, Green had played our starters a quarter or half in all four preseason games, and we clobbered the opposition. But that 4-0 preseason record meant nothing as the Packers took us to overtime. Rich Gannon was our starting QB, while Don (“Majik Man”) Majkowski quarterbacked Green Bay with second-year man Brett Favre on the bench (until he took over for the next 16 years in the following week).
Running back Terry Allen’s 45-yard run set up Fuad Reveiz for the game-winning 25-yard field goal as we had a nerve-wracking but successful start to an 11-5 season and the NFC Central Division (as it was called then) title.
O’Connell hopes he can have a similarly successful start to his head coaching career this Sunday. As opposed to Green having to open in Green Bay, O’Connell will have the advantage of over 66,000 predominantly purple-clad, screaming fans who have an extra three plus hours to get psyched up with the 3:25 pm kickoff. Of course, there will be some Packer fans sprinkled in as usual, and they can get loud if the game is going their way.
Around the NFL Observations:
1.It’s a terrific Thursday night opener this week in L.A. between the defending Super Bowl champion Rams and the Bills, who are the preseason favorite in the AFC. I like Pro Bowl QB Josh Allen and ex-Ram/ex-Bronco pass rusher Von Miller to lead Buffalo to a close win. I’ll have more predictions on Friday for this exciting Week 1.
2. Mitch Trubisky, the former Vikings foe from his Bears days, has been named the Steelers starting QB for their big Sunday opener in Cincinnati against Joe Burrow and the defending AFC champs.
Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis and does other sports consulting and media work along with college/corporate speaking. Follow him and direct message him on Twitter– @jeffdiamondnfl