Jaire Alexander knew he might be in trouble.
The Green Bay Packers third-year cornerback had just made a momentum-shifting play — what would wind up being the first of two such game-changers the brash Alexander would make during the first half of the Packers’ 43-34 victory over the Minnesota Vikings Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis — and as Alexander made his way to the Packers sideline, he knew irascible defensive coordinator Mike Pettine might not be as congratulatory as one might expect.
For as fantastic as his second-quarter sack of Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins for a safety had been — on a play on which Alexander had seemingly come on a surprise corner blitz and ran untouched to take Cousins down in the end zone — no one had been more surprised than Pettine, the Packers defensive coordinator.
Why? Because he hadn’t called for Alexander to blitz on the play. Instead, Alexander had moved closer to the line of scrimmage expecting a handoff to running back Dalvin Cook, based on what Alexander had seen from Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen going in motion to start the play.
“I was anticipating run because of the motion by Thielen. So once I anticipated run, I shot my shot,” Alexander explained. “And when I saw it wasn’t a run, it was too late to turn back. So I just kept going.”
That bee-line led directly to Cousins, who never saw Alexander coming. Pettine, meanwhile, saw Alexander coming off the field and immediately, um, congratulated him.
“Ah … heh-heh-heh … um … I’m not really going to say what he said verbatim,” Alexander confessed. “But he called me ‘sneaky’ and he gave me a fist bump. So, you know, it was all smiles.”
Alexander gave the coaches plenty to smile about later in the half, delivering what might’ve been the Packers’ biggest defensive play of the game. Two plays after quarterback Aaron Rodgers had thrown a 24-yard touchdown pass to Davante Adams to give the Packers a 15-7 lead with 39 seconds left until halftime, Alexander came up from behind on a Cousins pass to Thielen and picked it off at the Vikings’ 45-yard line.
Two plays later, Rodgers hit Marquez Valdes-Scantling for a 45-yard touchdown and a 22-7 lead — a 14-point swing that put the Packers in control for good.
“The turnover before the half was absolutely huge. For Jaire to make that play, and for us to turn around and execute on offense, that was big-time,” Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said. “I think that changed the momentum of the game, had a big impact on the outcome of the game.”
Already without an injured Billy Turner, who started all 18 games last year, the Packers lost two more offensive linemen during the course of the game as left guard Lucas Patrick left with a first-half shoulder injury and right guard Lane Taylor, coming off an outstanding training camp, suffered what appeared to be a serious right knee injury and was carted from the field.
Patrick started at left guard in place of Elgton Jenkins, who started at right tackle in place of Turner, who was inactive with a knee injury suffered in practice on Aug. 30. When Patrick departed, Jenkins shifted back to left guard and ex-University of Wisconsin tackle Ricky Wagner took over at right tackle.
Taylor went down while blocking on a stretch run by Aaron Jones with 12 minutes 29 seconds to play in the game. Rookie sixth-round pick Jon Runyan Jr. took over for him.
LaFleur said he did not know how serious Taylor’s injury was — “I went in there after the game and just wished him well, told him I appreciate how hard he played,” he said — but Rodgers’ tone after the game was not encouraging. Taylor’s 2019 season ended after two games because of a biceps injury suffered in practice.
“I’m disappointed obviously for both Lucas and Lane,” Rodgers said. “Obviously with Rick and Jon — I was teasing Jon on the sideline in the fourth quarter, I said, ‘Did you expect to play today?’ Because it was taking a few guys to get hurt for him to get in there. But I was proud of those guys stepping in and contributing.”
In all, the line not only kept Rodgers clean — he wasn’t sacked and was scarcely touched by the Vikings’ pass rush — but also cleared the way for an efficient run game that finished with 158 net yards on the ground.
“Like I’ve been telling you guys all along, we’re just trying to get our best five out there and we thought (moving Jenkins to right tackle) gave us our best chance to win,” LaFleur said. “We’re lucky to have a guy like Rick Wagner and Jon Ruynan. Both of those guys stepped up and were able to go into the game. I think it says a lot about Elgton and his ability to start at one position and transition inside and go to guard. I feel awful for Lane and Lucas that they weren’t able to finish for us, but it was really encouraging to see those three guys be able to step up and deliver for us.”
Sounds of silence
The operative word was “weird.” Playing football in an empty stadium? Definitely weird.
“Weird. Really weird, and it will probably take some more time to get used to,” said Adams, anticipating next Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions at a similarly empty Lambeau Field. “Definitely different, but it obviously worked out for us.”
Still, Rodgers called it “one of the strangest experiences I’ve had in the NFL, to be in a stadium like this and have memories of some really rockin’ times.
“Just the noise this place can generate, it’s a lot different and strange.”
Not wanting to have their message “hijacked,” in Adams’ words, the Packers opted to stay in the locker room as a team when “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing” were played before the game. The Vikings, who recognized the family of George Floyd before the game, stood as a team together at the goal line, with arms locked. A handful of Vikings players knelt during the national anthem.
The Vikings also silenced their signature Gjallarhorn out of respect for Floyd, the Black man who died while a Minneapolis police officer knelt on the back of his neck in May. That officer and three others are facing charges in Floyd’s death.
The Packers came out of the locker room after a moment of silence and the anthems ended.
“We had multiple conversations as a team, and we wanted to make sure we controlled the narrative of what happened,” Adams said. “We just wanted to make sure we stayed together, kept the focus on what it was.
“You get out there and guys kneeling, guys not, whatever, it just gets hijacked. We didn’t want anyone to take off with it and give a new meaning to what we were trying to do. We decided to stay inside as a team. We talked about it as a team, almost ad nauseam, and we came up with a good decision to go ahead and stay in the locker room.”
In a statement released by the team, president/CEO Mark Murphy said, “The Green Bay Packers respect the national anthem and United States flag and all that they represent, including the right to express ourselves.
“We decided as a team to remain in the locker room during the playing of the national anthem and ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ so as to not distract from our message that we stand united for social justice and racial equality.
“This is part of our continued call on our leaders to engage in meaningful dialogue that results in change. We feel it is important for all of us to participate in these difficult conversations with humility and be open to different perspectives.”
MVS bounces back
Although Valdes-Scantling did have a productive game (four receptions for 96 yards, including the touchdown) he also had two bad drops — a third-and-6 drop on what would have picked up a first down, and a deep-ball drop on what might have been a 61-yard touchdown. After the second drop, though, Rodgers went back to him a few plays later and connected on a 39-yard completion to set up a touchdown.
“I know you guys think playing wide receiver in the league is a really easy job but it’s not. It’s difficult, especially when the game means so much to you and being successful and being there for your teammates means so much to you,” Adams said. “So for him to come back and respond the way that he did and catch that ball … I’m more proud of him for that than if he would’ve caught the initial ball and scored, honestly. Because I know exactly how difficult it is to bounce back from something like that.”
The Packers also lost nose tackle Kenny Clark to a groin injury during the first half, and his absence was obvious when the Vikings came out running to start the third quarter. LaFleur didn’t provide an update on Clark’s status, either. … Undrafted rookie free agent Krys Barnes, promoted to the 53-man roster on Saturday, started at inside linebacker Sunday and finished with six tackles (second-most on the team) and two tackles for loss — one on an Alexander Mattison run that lost 1 yard and one on a Cook screen that lost 2 yards. “He did an outstanding job,” LaFleur said. … The down judge on Sunday’s officiating crew was longtime local official Mike Carr, who grew up in Columbus and serves as Oregon High School’s athletic director.
Photos: Packers take down Vikings in season opener