GREEN BAY, Wis. — Jason Simmons would take a repeat performance by Jaire Alexander and Kevin King.
The Green Bay Packers’ secondary coach might not admit that directly but as he leaned against a wall outside the Lambeau Field locker room and contemplated what his starting cornerbacks did more than three months ago against the Minnesota Vikings, a look of satisfaction crossed his face.
“The one thing they did was they realized the threat that both of those guys present,” Simmons said. “That’s probably the best tandem in the league.”
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In that, he was referring to Vikings receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen.
But it was after that Week 2 game — a 21-16 Packers win in which Diggs caught just one pass (a 45-yard touchdown on a ball that Alexander said he lost in the sun) and Thielen had a modest five catches for 75 yards — when Alexander boasted: “Me and [King], shoot, the best tandem in the league.”
Both proclamations — the one from Simmons about the Diggs-Thielen combination and Alexander’s — can be poked full of holes after Thielen missed most of the past two months with a hamstring injury before he returned last Sunday against the Chargers and after the Packers’ defense has been burned by explosive plays.
But come Monday’s rematch in Minneapolis (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN), there’s a good chance that whichever tandem has the better night also will come out on the winning side.
Jaire Alexander, left, and Kevin King might not be “the best tandem in the league” but they were effective against the Vikings in Week 2. Emilee Chinn/Getty Images
“Honestly it’s going to come down to player versus player,” said Simmons, a 10-year NFL defensive back himself. “We see these guys, they know us, we know them. The deal is a lot of times not to get in the way of good players at his point and make sure they’re able to go play fast.”
Diggs and Thielen were Packers killers last season. In the two games against Green Bay, a Vikings’ win and a tie, they combined for 37 catches, 461 yards and five touchdowns.
On Monday, they would need 31 catches for 337 yards and four touchdowns to match last season’s two-game numbers against the Packers.
What’s more, they did little damage against Alexander and King in Week 2. According to Pro Football Focus, Thielen caught only two passes for 36 yards on four targets against Alexander, while Alexander was targeted twice when he was on Diggs and did not allow a completion. King was in coverage on Diggs’ deep-ball touchdown and Alexander came over to help late. King came back to make one of the game-saving plays – a fourth-quarter interception in the end zone on a ball thrown for Diggs.
“Jaire and Kevin played great games, and it was a battle for sure,” said Packers nose tackle Kenny Clark, who had a strip sack in the first quarter against the Vikings in Week 2. “We’re going to need another performance like that from all of our top players against all of theirs.”
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Alexander, voted a Pro Bowl alternate this week, ranks sixth in the NFL in pass breakups (18), while King is tied for seventh in interceptions (four). Like Thielen, King has battled injuries. The Packers rested him in Week 14 against the Redskins to help his ailing shoulder heal for the stretch run. He returned last week and played all 84 defensive snaps against the Bears. Thielen also returned last week from a nagging hamstring injury and caught three passes for 27 yards.
In the first meeting against the Vikings, Simmons and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine charged Alexander and King with playing plenty of one-on-one coverage while they committed a safety to the box in an effort to slow down running back Dalvin Cook. If Cook can’t play this week because of his shoulder injury, it could allow them to help Alexander and King a little more.
In that game, Kirk Cousins posted his second-worst Total QBR as a starter (7.8), but he’s turned it around of late in large part due to play-action with Cook. The Vikings have the second-highest play-action rate in the NFL this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and Cousins has 13 touchdowns without an interception on such plays.
“We were in a lot of single-high and they challenged us,” Simmons said. “They actually caught some passes, so I have to give them credit as well. They had some 50-50 balls — Diggs’ touchdown was a big one. But the big thing was we took the challenge. We know that they present a really good run threat to us, so we know we’re going to some single-high, and the guys have to take the challenge.”