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Zulgad: Dismal defense: Vikings' once-proud unit looks lost against Aaron Rodgers

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Green Bay Packers wide receiver Davante Adams (17) catches a 1-yard touchdown pass ahead of Minnesota Vikings defensive back Holton Hill (24) during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

MINNEAPOLIS — Mike Zimmer was named the Vikings’ coach in 2014 because general manager Rick Spielman was tired of seeing the team’s defense get picked apart on a regular basis by quarterbacks such as Aaron Rodgers. Zimmer was known for his ability to build defenses and for several years his teams did a good job of frustrating Rodgers in back-and-forth matchups that were worth the price of admission.
Then came Sunday.
The Vikings began their 60th season by appearing to honor the defenses that were coached by Zimmer’s predecessor, Leslie Frazier, in an embarrassing 43-34 loss to Green Bay at an empty U.S. Bank Stadium. In a performance that Zimmer is unlikely to soon forget, the Vikings gave up the most points in a game during his tenure and the second-most yards (522 yards) behind only the 556 the then high-flying Rams had in a Thursday night game in 2018.
The Vikings might have only lost by nine points, but this game was never that close. Rodgers looked like the Rodgers of old because the Vikings played defense like they did when poor Josh Robinson was trying to learn how to play nickel corner.
The Vikings made some drastic changes to the unit during the offseason, so there was some curiosity about how it would perform Sunday. Nose tackle Michael Pierce, the team’s biggest free agent signing, had opted out of the season because of health concerns related to COVID-19, and Pro Bowl left end Danielle Hunter is out for at least the first three games because of a neck injury.
The Vikings also were starting three new cornerbacks, with Mike Hughes, Holton Hill and rookie Cameron Dantzler playing in the nickel and right end Yannick Ngakoue was making his debut after being acquired in a trade with Jacksonville at the end of August. So would the Vikings be able to get a pass rush with Hunter out? And how would the corners fare against Rodgers?
The answers to these questions, in order, were no and terrible. The Vikings did not sack Rodgers once and Rodgers continually beat up on Dantzler, Hughes and Hill, completing 32 of 44 passes for 364 yards and four touchdowns. Green Bay’s top wide receiver, Davante Adams, was targeted 17 times and caught 14 of those throws for 156 yards and two touchdowns. Marquez Valdes-Scantling dropped two passes, including a deep ball from Rodgers, and still had four receptions for 96 yards and a touchdown.

“We’re going to have to get better quick,” Zimmer said in the understatement of all understatements. “We made too many mistakes, obviously. We didn’t cover them very good and then we gave up some big plays. I’m probably more upset about jumping offsides on third down, which we know he is a great hard count guy.”
That was another problem. The lack of focus from the Vikings’ defensive line turned two Packers third downs into first downs as Rodgers completely controlled matters playing in a normally hostile environment. What was the Vikings’ home stadium like on Sunday? The piped in noise the team was allowed to use was barely noticeable to anyone, making U.S. Bank Stadium almost as welcoming as the guys wearing purple.
What was odd was that Zimmer didn’t seem to have an idea that his pass rush might be lacking with Hunter out, or he didn’t think it would be that big of deal. The game plan from the Vikings’ coaches seemed uninspired as the Packers took control in the first half, keeping the ball for 22 minutes, 45 seconds and running 44 plays to the Vikings’ 17.
“I don’t know,” Zimmer said about the lack of a rush on Rodgers. “We didn’t get much pressure on him, that’s for sure. … The second half we didn’t challenge him. We didn’t rush the quarterback. They blocked us pretty well.”
Before anyone completely panics about what took place on Sunday, it’s worth remembering this was Week 1 in a pandemic-altered season where no preseason games were played and training camp practices were altered. The Vikings’ terrible tackling on defense can at least be partially attributed to that. But it would be foolish to dismiss this game as a fluke. That would let Zimmer’s defense off the hook way too much for a performance that has to be considered concerning.
So what will Zimmer do differently next Sunday against the Colts in Indianapolis? It was odd that first-round corner Jeff Gladney did not play at all against the Packers, while a third-round pick, Dantzer, saw extensive time. Would Gladney have saved the day against Rodgers? No, but he better be part of the solution of slowing down opposing quarterbacks at some point soon.
“There’s a lot of football left to be played, but we got to get better quick,” Zimmer said.
If the Vikings don’t, you can go ahead and sound that panic alarm.