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Packers' rush up the middle played a big role in a horrible day for Vikings' Kirk Cousins

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GREEN BAY − Jaire Alexander and his defensive-backfield mates, of course, deserve their share of the credit for Kirk Cousins’ miserable day against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.

But the Packers’ pass rush, if not consistent, was just as a big a factor in Cousins throwing three interceptions and putting up a season-worst 49.2 rating in the Packers’ 41-17 blowout of the Minnesota Vikings.

Usually when you think of a pass rush as making a big difference in a game, you think of rushers coming free and getting clean shots at the quarterback or chasing him out of the pocket as he runs for his life.

That wasn’t so much the case Sunday. The Packers did sack Cousins twice, and both kept points off the board. But it was as much about collapsing the front of the pocket and having rushers in Cousins’ face, moving him off his spot and making him uncomfortable, as it was about sacking him.

Three interior rushers – Kenny Clark, Jarran Reed and T.J. Slaton – stood out. Clark’s biggest play was a strip sack and fumble recovery, Slaton had two tipped passes (one of which was intercepted), and Reed (two quarterback hits) was in Cousins' face several times.

The three took advantage of the Vikings injuries at center, where starter Garrett Bradbury didn’t play because of a back injury and backup Austin Schlottmann left the game early in the first quarter because of a broken leg. That left third-stringer Chris Reed to play most of the game at center, and the Packers worked him while softening the pocket directly in front of Cousins.

Coordinator Joe Barry’s defensive game plan Sunday was much different than in the Vikings’ season-opening 23-7 win over the Packers. Besides not putting Alexander on Justin Jefferson and playing mostly zone in the opener, Barry made stopping running back Dalvin Cook the priority. This game, Barry’s priority was defending the pass, and the front six or seven defenders were responsible for handling Cook on their own.

It worked. Despite the lesser emphasis on stopping him, Cook ran for only 27 yards on nine carries and was a non-factor in the game.  

In the meantime, on passing downs Barry had his tackles widen out a gap to make it tougher to double team Clark and help tackle-end stunts happen more quickly. The Packers ran only a handful of stunts, though you have to wonder if they’d have run more if the score hadn’t gotten out of hand in the third quarter.

Regardless, the interior rush helped get the Packers defense off the field several times in the first half, starting early in the game.

On the third play, a third-and-4 for the Vikings, Clark beat rookie guard Ed Ingram up the middle and forced Cousins to get the ball out fast rather than hold it and go through another progression in his reads. Cousins tried to hit Adam Thielen on a short pass over the middle, but Rasul Douglas had tight coverage and broke up the hurried throw. That forced a punt.

A little later, after the Packers’ big goal-line stand, Clark again beat Ingram on a third-and-3. Clark bull rushed Ingram into Cousins’ lap and prevented Cousins from stepping into a throw to tight end T.J. Hockenson, who had gotten a step behind Darnell Savage about 25 yards downfield. Cousins, throwing flat footed and with all arm, just barely overshot Hockenson for the incompletion that ended the possession.

The interior rush also set up Darnell Savage’s 75-yard interception return for a touchdown on the Vikings’ next possession. With Minnesota facing a third-and-10 at the Packers’ 45, Reed and Clark changed things up by lining up close to each other and running a tackle-tackle stunt. Reed got free and pressured Cousins right up the middle, which forced the quarterback to get the ball out quicker than he wanted and without much zip on the ball because Reed hit him on the delivery. Hockenson made the catch, but Douglas tackled him for an 8-yard gain, 2 yards short of the first down.

That set up a fourth down that the Vikings went for, and Douglas tipped the pass to Hockenson over the middle. Savage caught the carom and ran for the score.

Slaton tipped a pass at the line of scrimmage for an incompletion on the next series, though it might have cost Alexander an interception. Alexander had tight coverage on Jefferson and appeared to jump the forced pass, but Slaton knocked down the ball. And then, on the Vikings’ next possession, Slaton tipped another Cousins pass that caused a flutter ball downfield that Adrian Amos easily intercepted.

That set up the touchdown that put the Packers ahead 24-3, and the rout was on.

Barry and his defense had a banner day in helping spot the Packers to a 41-3 lead, holding Jefferson to one reception, and making Cousins’ day miserable. Pressure up the middle is a quarterback’s worst enemy, and that’s a big reason Cousins had a terrible game.

Matt LaFleur taking big shots on fourth-and-1 situations

In back-to-back games now, coach Matt LaFleur has taken a shot at a big play on fourth-and-1, and come up empty.

Early in the Packers’ win at Miami last week, Rodgers on fourth-and-1 overthrew Christian Watson, who had gotten a step behind the defense. Then Sunday night in the first quarter, with the Packers leading 7-3, LaFleur again appeared to call for a shot play on fourth-and-1 from the Vikings’ 39.

On that play, LaFleur sent three receivers on routes. Watson and Allen Lazard ran go routes on opposite sides of the line. Randall Cobb from the slot ran a crossing route about 10 yards downfield. Nobody ran a quick short route designed just to pick up the first down – late in the play Aaron Jones leaked out over the middle, but he initially stayed in for blitz pickup, and by that time the Vikings’ pass rush had blown up the play.

Rodgers ended up getting sacked, so the Packers turned the ball over on downs.

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There’s a logic to taking shots on fourth-and-short, mainly that the defense is stacked at the line of scrimmage and looking to prevent the 5-yard out route. It is a chance to attack one-on-one coverage for a big play. And if it works, the call looks genius.

But there’s a lot to be said for running an easier, safer play on fourth-and-short that has a good chance of just keeping the chains moving. We’ll see if LaFleur changes his thinking if he goes for fourth-and-short against Detroit this week.

Extra points on Vikings center problems and Lambeau advantage

  • Injuries at center caused the Vikings major problems Sunday. Reed, their No. 3, came in on third down of the Packers’ goal-line stand from the 1 in the first quarter, and Slaton beat him to make the first hit on Cook in the backfield that Alexander and Amos finished off. The Vikings opted to kick the short field goal, so the stop saved the Packers’ four points and gave the team as a whole a lift. The timing of the Vikings’ offensive line was off, too, and they false-started three times.
  • The Packers’ home-field advantage in January came through Sunday in that the Vikings had trouble with Lambeau Field’s slick surface on an unseasonably warm day (40 degrees). The Vikings’ slips were a factor on at least three plays. Hockenson fell on a pass intended for him early in the game for an incompletion. Jefferson slipped on Amos’ interception in the second quarter. And linebacker Eric Kendricks slipped on a third-and-10 in the third quarter that helped Cobb get wide open on the catch and run for a first down. “We had to go ahead and make some cleat changes and things like that,” Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell said after the game. “It’s part of when you go on the road. You don’t get your home environment that we have come to be very, very happy when we get games at U.S. Bank Stadium.”
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