Aaron Rodgers (above) has been talking about his respect for Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer (above) and his innovative defensive scheme for years. The Packers quarterback isn’t exactly the Lou Holtz of pregame talk – remember how the old Notre Dame coach loved to build up every upcoming opponent, even if it was a little known directional school that had no chance of beating his Irish? – so when Rodgers goes out of his way to repeatedly compliment a coach like Zimmer, you know he means it.
Rodgers did it again in advance of this game, calling Zimmer a “fantastic coach” and pointing out that the Vikings, now in Zimmer’s fourth year, have a dangerous combination of a terrific scheme – one in which he brings seven and eight players up to the line of scrimmage to confuse opponents on which blitzers are coming, and overwhelms protection schemes – and a lineup filled with experienced defenders who know how to play it.
“This is an extremely intelligent defense. A lot of times you’re playing defenses, they’re going to give some stuff away. They’re going to give away some calls, some coverages. Not this one,” Rodgers explained. “You’ve really got to be good with your pre- and at-the-snap reads and your post-snap reads or there’s going to be some times where they’re going to get you.”
There have been those times for Rodgers, whose teams are 4-4 in their eight previous matchups with Zimmer’s crew – 0-2 vs. Cincinnati in 2009 and 2013, and 4-2 against the Vikings since Zimmer’s arrival in 2014. In their last meeting, Rodgers lit up the Vikings (347 yards, four touchdowns, 136.6 rating), but overall, Rodgers has completed 60.7 percent of his passes with 15 touchdowns, four interceptions and 29 sacks (93.3 rating) against Zimmer’s scheme.
“The thing about that defense is – I just tried to explain it to my buddy – there’s eight guys up and there’s seven blockers, so you’re always outnumbered by one if they decide to bring ‘em all. That’s the problem,” quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt explained. “Coach Zimmer does a nice job of bringing all different combinations of those eight men, dropping linemen out, dropping ‘backers out, bringing ‘em all. So there’s a challenge that’s there. But we feel comfortable. Having it seen it for so many years now that we feel like we have the tools that we need to be successful against it.”
One tool that might be missing: Left tackle David Bakhtiari, who’s still recovering from a hamstring injury. That means left guard Lane Taylor will likely be at left tackle blocking pass-rusher Everson Griffen, and the last time the Packers faced Zimmer’s scheme with their left guard playing left tackle – in the 2015 regular-season finale – Rodgers was sacked five times, intercepted once, had a 70.7 passer rating and the Packers lost.
“I don't know if I've ever figured him out. We've just been lucky sometimes,” Zimmer said of Rodgers. “Honestly, he's so great. He's hard to defend. You can have him covered and he can make an unbelievable throw. I don't particularly think that I've done great against him. I think my players have played good at times.
“Obviously, they try to change up and figure things out and we try to change up and figure things out. That's with every team. That's no different. They've just unfortunately got the best quarterback in football doing it.”
Jason Wilde covers the Packers for ESPN Wisconsin. Listen to him with former Packers and Badgers offensive lineman Mark Tauscher weekdays from 9-11 on “Wilde & Tausch” on 100.5 FM ESPN Madison.