Vikings vs. Packers preview

After Thursday, the Green Bay Packers will have played half their NFC North schedule, while the Minnesota Vikings have yet to play a divisional opponent.

Yet each team enters the Thursday night game with a 2-2 record and trails the division-leading Detroit Lions (3-1).

ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and Packers reporter Rob Demovsky break down the matchup:

Demovsky: Ben, Packers LBs Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers couldn't even name the Vikings' running backs, but they knew the damage those running backs did last week against the Falcons. What makes Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata so effective?

Goessling: Well, that's still a bit of an open-ended question. They haven't been good other than last week, when they were outstanding. But I think a lot of it is the changes the Vikings made to their running game. They were running quite a bit more out of a shotgun set, with three receivers on the field to spread the Falcons' defense out. The Vikings are also starting to mix in some read-option stuff, and while that didn't result in quarterback Teddy Bridgewater keeping the ball too much on option plays, it gave defensive ends something else to think about before pursuing the running back. McKinnon is still finding his way in terms of learning how to read a defensive front and find his holes, but when he gets fully developed, I think he'll be a dynamic running back. He is an athletic freak and has dangerous speed in the open field. Asiata is more of the workhorse, but he's also effective as a receiving threat. It's a nice tandem for now, and they have helped the Vikings weather the absence of Adrian Peterson.

Speaking of running games, it seems that the Packers are still trying to get theirs to the point where it was at last season. Will we see more of James Starks this week, and how do you think that will help Eddie Lacy?

Demovsky: Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy tried to force-feed Lacy last week against the Bears, and it didn't help him get into a groove. In the process, McCarthy ignored Starks, who played only one snap and didn't get a single carry, which was an odd strategy because Starks has actually been productive (5.0 yards per carry) in limited reps this season. It appears McCarthy has seen the error of his ways because he vowed this week that will not happen again and said Starks should touch the ball every game. For that matter, so should DuJuan Harris, who gives the Packers a change-of-pace type of back.

It's always interesting when new coaches come into the division. When the Packers lost at Cincinnati last year, they got a taste of what a Mike Zimmer defense can do (Zimmer was the Bengals' defensive coordinator). In Zimmer's first season as Minnesota's head coach, how far away is the Vikings' defense from where he would like it to be?

Goessling: It still has a ways to go. Zimmer was talking on Tuesday about the defensive line, which typically has had the freedom to chase the quarterback, no matter the cost. Well, Zimmer wants his defensive linemen to rush as a team, not overpursuing for individual sacks while opening up a lane for the quarterback to escape, and he saw too much of that Sunday. The Vikings also need to get better depth in their secondary, and I still think they will wind up looking for a more effective counterpart for safety Harrison Smith than they have on the roster. The linebackers have some promise, especially with what Anthony Barr can do, but the Vikings still have been too easy to target in pass coverage. I think it's probably going to take another draft, and another year of Zimmer working with players in his system, but the D is definitely headed in the right direction. You already see flashes of how the Vikings could have a really good defense in the future, and Barr and Smith could be stars.

It seems the Packers, on the other hand, haven't seen the desired results from their defensive changes. What has been the problem there, and do you think they will be as vulnerable to Bridgewater on Thursday (assuming he plays) as they've been to mobile quarterbacks in the past?

Demovsky: The Packers spent all offseason talking about and working on their defensive changes. The mantra was "less scheme, more personnel," meaning they wanted to simplify the number of defensive calls they had, yet at the same time utilize their personnel better. So far, the results have been about the same, although at least the secondary looks a little better with the addition of safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. He has played more and more each week and had perhaps his best game Sunday against the Bears. But when the Packers decided to get smaller and more athletic up front on the defensive line, it rendered them ineffective against the run so far. The issue hasn't been the mobile quarterbacks but rather just about any running back they have faced.

We didn't get to see Bears defensive end (and longtime Vikings DE) Jared Allen last week in Chicago because he was inactive, but do the Vikings miss him at all? And speaking of defensive players, what impact has the rookie Barr made so far?

Goessling: When Allen became a free agent after last season, I didn't get the sense the Vikings were terribly interested in bringing him back, largely because he wouldn't have fit in Zimmer's scheme for some of the reasons we were discussing before. Zimmer wants his defensive ends to play the run first on the way to the quarterback, and I don't think that would have fit Allen at this point in his career. Barr has been really impressive, though he still has some holes in his game, as many rookies do. Watch his sack of Matt Ryan in the fourth quarter last week; he was in man coverage on a Falcons running back, and when he saw the back was staying in to double-team Everson Griffen, Barr surged through the middle of the line and showed some elite closing speed. He's been far too vulnerable to crossing routes from tight ends and running backs, but he's also been a force against the run. The next step is for him to use his speed and size to be an asset in pass coverage, too.

It's hard to believe we've gotten this far without talking much about QB Aaron Rodgers. What's your assessment of where he's at in Year 7 as a starter, and how he feels about the Packers' direction? And, more to the point for this week's game, why has he had so much trouble with Zimmer's defenses in the past?

Demovsky: Rodgers knows this offense so well that he could call the plays himself. In fact, you wonder why McCarthy hasn't turned that over to Rodgers, especially in the no-huddle offense. The coach went into this season wanting to play fast, and one way to increase the tempo would have been to let Rodgers call the game as Peyton Manning often does. But that hasn't happened. Rodgers was so good in the preseason this year (I know, preseason is meaningless) that it has been a mild surprise that he hasn't been his usual dominant self, but he clearly hasn't found playmakers not named Jordy Nelson or Randall Cobb. In fact, Rodgers barely has gotten his other receivers, Jarrett Boykin and Davante Adams, involved at all. The same goes for the tight ends. As for matching up with Zimmer's defenses, in that game last year in Cincinnati, the Bengals were able to pressure Rodgers (sacking him four times) and forced him into two interceptions (something Rodgers almost never does).

Let's wrap things up with another quarterback question. We've heard all week that Bridgewater is likely to play, but what are the chances the Vikings are just duping everyone as they did before that playoff game at Lambeau Field two years ago?

Goessling: That's a very good question, and that playoff game has been on my mind all week, too. I still would bet on Bridgewater playing; he said he's feeling much better, and he talked this week about how he played through a sprained right ankle and a broken left wrist on a short week in college. He's a tough kid, and I think he's going to play if it's at all possible. But the Vikings haven't exactly been forthright with information on Bridgewater this week, and it's not usually Zimmer's style to withhold injury updates. I highly doubt a switch to Christian Ponder would throw the Packers off, so it's possible the Vikings really are hedging their bets, rather than trying to be tricky. As I said, though, if I had to make a prediction, I'd guess Bridgewater plays.