Packers’ revamped defense looks to slow Dalvin Cook
By Keith Jenkins
AP Sports Writer
GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — The Green Bay Packers strolled into Chicago for the season opener boasting a revamped defense with several expensive additions, and suffocated quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and the Bears’ offense.
Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s unit will see an entirely different challenge in running back Dalvin Cook on Sunday when the Packers (1-0) host the Minnesota Vikings (1-0), another NFC North foe.
Cook rushed for 111 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries against the Atlanta Falcons last week. It was the third-year back’s third 100-yard outing in his 16th career game.
“Yeah, the run game, I mean it all starts, that running back, he’s an elite runner,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. “Dalvin Cook’s an elite runner, and they did a nice job up front. They took it to Atlanta, quite frankly, last week.”
When healthy, Cook has proven to be one of the prime runners in the league. But staying healthy has been the biggest challenge of Cook’s young career.
Cook, a 2017 second-round pick, played only four games as a rookie, suffering a torn ACL. Cook battled injury again last season, missing a chunk after a hamstring injury in a 29-29 tie at Lambeau Field in Week 2.
Cook said he’s not thinking about last season’s injury or last season’s tie.
“Different team, different mindset, different coaches, everything’s different,” he said. “You’ve got to expect different things. I can’t really talk about what we did last year.”
The Packers allowed just 46 yards on the ground in the opener, with inside linebacker Blake Martinez leading the team with five tackles and a sack. Outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith and safety Adrian Amos, all acquired in March through free agency, combined for five tackles, 21⁄2 sacks and an interception. The Smiths combined for 10 total quarterback pressures; Za’Darius Smith had six, which leads the league.
“The guys that they brought in are pretty good players,” Cook said of the Green Bay defense. “They kind of added some rangy, long guys. I think their defensive speed is a plus for them, and they kind of fly around. I think that’s what’s going to get their defense charged up. I think we’ve got to kind of limit that for those guys and match speed for speed. We can do that.”
If there’s anyone who knows what to expect from Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins, it’s LaFleur. LaFleur was Cousins’ position coach in Washington in 2012 and 2013. Washington was LaFleur’s first stop in the NFL.
“If you let him sit back there and have time, he’s going to pick you apart because he’s extremely accurate,” LaFleur said of Cousins.
Cousins, who sent a congratulatory text message to LaFleur after the first-year Packers coach picked up his first career win in Chicago, played sparingly under LaFleur as Cousins backed up 2012 AP Offensive Rookie of the Year Robert Griffin III.
Cousins had just 10 pass attempts in the win last week, the fewest of any game he’s started in his career.
“I have no interest in dropping back 50 times if we don’t need to,” he said. “I like to win the way we did last week if that’s the way it can happen. I’ll play whatever game is called, whatever game we need, and all that really matters is that we find a way at the end to win. I’m not going to nitpick or look at any of the steps along the way to get there.”
Aaron Rodgers has seven games with a passer rating of 130-plus against Minnesota, the most by a quarterback against one team in NFL history. Rodgers has 24 touchdown and zero interceptions in those seven games (6-1).
“It’s just high-percentage passes,” he said. “You’re trying to find in the progression what guys give you the best chance of a completion and the lowest chance of a negative play. This is the way I’ve played and we’ve played here for a long time. We take care of the football.”
Two of Minnesota’s biggest defensive stars have shined brightest against Green Bay. Free safety Harrison Smith, who had a team-high eight tackles last week, has five career interceptions against the Packers. The eight-year veteran has 20 career picks. Meanwhile, defensive end Everson Griffen has 121⁄2 sacks in 19 career games against Green Bay.
“You have Pro Bowl-caliber players on every level of the defense, great inside linebackers, two guys off the edge who can rush really, really well, and then a back end that can really cover, one of the top safeties in the league in Harrison, and obviously a great corner combo with Trae and Xavier,” Rodgers said. “They do a great job of playing their scheme. They’ve been together for a while. They’re a tough team to try to attack.”
Both LaFleur and Green Bay offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said the offense needs to operate more efficiently on first and second downs on Sunday to avoid third-and-long situations. The Packers converted only 2 of 12 third-down opportunities in the opener.
The Vikings placed receiver Josh Doctson on injured reserve Thursday with a hamstring injury. Minnesota signed the 2016 first-round pick just before the start of the season after he was released by Washington. Doctson was inactive for Week 1.
Green Bay left tackle David Bakhtiari, who appeared on the team’s injury report Wednesday with a back issue, was not in pads on Thursday. LaFleur wouldn’t say whether Bakhtiari was held out for precautionary reasons or if it means his availability for Sunday is in question.