GREEN BAY — An injury-riddled, inexperienced, short-on-talent defense has sabotaged the Minnesota Vikings' season.
But against the Green Bay Packers Sunday at Lambeau Field, the Vikings had the best defense on the field.
What does that say about the Packers defense?
It says the Packers defense, the team's weakest link for almost a decade, remains the biggest obstacle standing between them and an NFL title.
In Green Bay's embarrassing 28-22 loss to Minnesota Sunday, the Vikings' Dalvin Cook did exactly what San Francisco's Raheem Mostert did when the 49ers ousted the Packers from the playoffs in last season's NFC Championship Game. Whether he was overpowering the Packers, running away from them or making their tacklers whiff, Cook made the defense look bad.
Cook rushed for 163 yards on 30 carries in a game where both offenses looked unstoppable in the first half. He also caught two passes for 63 yards, scoring four touchdowns as the Vikings tallied on long drives the first four times they had the ball. That forced the Packers to play from behind even though their offense was also performing brilliantly.
"We knew we had to stop the run," Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. "That didn’t happen."
Instead, it was more of the same old tired defense. The last two times an NFL player had more than 200 yards from scrimmage and scored four touchdowns in a game, it was Mostert and Cook. Both came against the Packers.
With Green Bay entering the game with a 5-1 record and Minnesota at 1-5, it looked like the Packers would show the Vikings once and for all who is the boss of the NFC North Division. But all the game showed was that the Packers need better players, better coaching or some combination of the two on defense. If not, they'll continue to fall victim to the good teams on their schedule. Or even struggling teams, like the Vikings, that have good offenses.
"I’ve got to go back and look at it (on film), but it certainly didn’t feel like it was up to par today," LaFleur said. "I know there was a couple missed tackles — more than a couple, a lot of missed tackles. I think we’ve all got to look critically ourselves and we better figure out a solution quickly because the formula’s been written and we have got to step up and get it fixed. If not, we’re going to continue to get these types of results."
Like, say, Thursday night when the Packers travel to San Francisco for a rematch with the 49ers. Mostert, who had 220 yards rushing when the teams met in January, is on injured-reserve, but the 49ers remain a top-10 running team in the league. And the Packers remain a team that is vulnerable to good running backs and good running games.
Including playoff games, the Packers have a 19-6 record in two seasons under LaFleur. In five of the six losses, they gave up 158 or more yards on the ground. Only twice have they given up 158 or more yards on the ground and won.
Cook, one of the NFL's most explosive backs, fueled the Vikings' run-first game plan Sunday.
"He just got downhill in a hurry," safety Adrian Amos said. "He had some open holes and he ran through it and he hit them hard and he ran physical. There's a lot of things we need to correct."
Amos led the Packers in tackles coming up from the secondary, which shouldn't happen when a team runs on 34 of its 49 plays. Especially when the Packers had nose tackle Kenny Clark back for the second straight game and played more base defense — three down linemen, two inside linebackers — than they have in a long time under defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.
Now that the formula to beat the Packers — run the ball early and often — is out there for all to see, the Packers can expect more teams to test their run defense. How can they stop it?
"You start tackling the man with the ball," Amos said. "We've got to look at film and see where we're out of gaps, but it comes down to tackling the man with the ball and getting off blocks."
On a raw, windy day at Lambeau, the Packers weren't able to do that. The keys to winning cold-weather games like this in November and December are running the ball and stopping the run. The Packers have run the ball well this season and did so again Sunday behind Jamaal Williams and A.J. Dillon. Like the defense, however, the Packers offense couldn't keep pace with Cook.
"We knew exactly what they were going to do in terms of they were going to ride him and also just with the conditions out there, it was pretty windy and we never put them in a situation where they had to drop back and throw the football — or at least not too many times," LaFleur said. "That’s something that we better get it fixed, and we better get it fixed fast because I have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen on a short week on Thursday in San Francisco as well."
Unless the Packers land a defensive lineman before the trade deadline, which seems unlikely, their best hope is for Pettine to alter his scheme. In the pass-happy NFL, Pettine has long placed a higher priority on stopping the pass than the run.
That works most of the time. As the Packers found out again Sunday, it doesn't work all the time.