The Green Bay Packers Know the Minnesota Vikings Have an Ace up Their Sleeve on Sunday Night Football. Can They Take It Away, Though?

The Minnesota Vikings will be without quarterback Kirk Cousins on Sunday night as they take on the Green Bay Packers. Cousins is out on the reserve/COVID-19 list, and Sean Mannion will take his place. The 7-8 Vikings are in a tough spot, and the 12-3 Packers seem to know it.

The Vikings appear to have only one clear path to success in this game. Now the question is this: Can the Packers stop Minnesota from going down that path and pick up their 13th win of the season?

Expect the Minnesota Vikings to run the ball a ton against Green Bay

Dalvin Cook Minnesota Vikings
Dalvin Cook #33 of the Minnesota Vikings runs the ball against the Green Bay Packers | Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The Vikings have one ace up their sleeve against the Packers, and everyone knows it. Especially without Cousins, Minnesota’s best chance to pick up a win on Sunday night is to pound the rock with no mercy against Green Bay’s defense.

Dalvin Cook is back from his stint on the COVID list, and Alexander Mattison is about as good as a backup running back as you’ll find in the NFL.

Minnesota’s best chance at making life easier for Mannion is to get Green Bay’s aggressive secondary peeking in the backfield and worrying more about what Cook and Mattison are doing and less about Justin Jefferson and the fact that Mannion is, in fact, a professional quarterback who can get the second-year star the rock.

Getting Green Bay’s eyes in the backfield will also slow down Rashan Gary and Preston Smith on the pass-rush. Every second will count for Mannion, who hasn’t thrown a touchdown since entering the league in 2015 but has thrown three interceptions.

The Green Bay Packers have had issues stopping the run this season

Nick Chubb vs. the Green Bay Packers
Nick Chubb #24 of the Cleveland Browns runs for yards during a game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field | Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The Packers have a very opportunistic defense that’s actually a top-five unit in terms of interceptions (18), but Green Bay has struggled to stop the run at times this season.

Just look at Green Bay’s narrow Christmas Day win over the Cleveland Browns. The Packers absolutely shut down Baker Mayfield, who threw four interceptions, but had no answer for the Browns’ rushing attack. Cleveland rushed for 219 yards as a team against the Packers, with Nick Chubb accounting for 126 of those yards.

Cleveland was the far inferior team in that contest but almost beat the Packers off the strength of the run game. That has got to be the blueprint for the Vikings. At the very least, that’s the game plan the Packers are expecting Minnesota to roll out with.

“The Vikings are a run-first offense,” Green Bay linebacker De’Vondre Campbell said according to Ryan Wood and Kassidy Hill, “and everything they do is predicated off the run. So it doesn’t matter who’s at quarterback. It’s a system. If they’re running the ball well, then the quarterback will play well.”

How the Packers can beat the Vikings on Sunday Night Football

Rashan Gary of the Green Bay Packers
Rashan Gary #52 of the Green Bay Packers reacts after a play against the Washington Football Team | John Fisher/Getty Images

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The game plan needs to be very simple for defensive coordinator Joe Barry and the Packers on Sunday night.

First and foremost, the Packers need to sell out to stop the run. They know it; the Vikings know they’re going to do it. Heck, the average football fan tuning into this game and seeing that Cousins is out will know it as well.

Minnesota’s best path to a win is to ask Cook to break the Packers’ hearts, and that’s something he has been more than happy to do over the years. He’s always one of the best running backs in the league when healthy, but he seems to shift his game into a higher gear when the Packers are on the other sideline.

Expect the Packers to get their bigger run-stopping personnel on the field early and often. That means 6-foot-4, 330-pound defensive tackle T.J. Slaton should get some pretty essential reps in order to clog up the middle for the Pack. Look for Green Bay to also use Gary and Preston Smith more in run coverage as edge-setters. That’s something both players are big and strong enough to do, and they’re more than willing to pitch in against the run.

From there, the Packers would be wise to ditch the soft coverage they’ve played over the past few weeks and instead apply some pressure to Minnesota’s wide receivers. If that means jamming at the line of scrimmage, which is something Barry’s scheme doesn’t feature much of, maybe this is the week to do it. If it means doubling Jefferson and treating him like opposing defenses treat Davante Adams, this is the week to show him that type of respect.

The strategy can be boiled down to this: Make Mannion beat you as a quarterback. Take away his run threat and lock up Jefferson, who is likely to be his safety-net in this game.

It’s a simple strategy, but it’s easier said than done. It is one that will lead to a big win for a Green Bay squad looking to close in on the No. 1 overall seed in the NFC playoffs, though.

Stats courtesy of ESPN and Pro Football Reference.