The Green Bay Packers defense will be tasked with the difficult challenge of trying to contain Minnesota Vikings tight end TJ Hockenson, and a lot of the responsibility in doing so is going to fall on the shoulders of the linebackers.
With Justin Jefferson sidelined the last few weeks, Hockenson has emerged as the go-to target for Kirk Cousins. Hockenson leads the team in targets with 57 and has been very efficient, catching 47 of them at 8.3 yards per catch with two touchdowns. Hockenson only trails Travis Kelce in total receiving yards this season among tight ends and ranks fourth in yards per route run–an efficiency metric from PFF.
“Anytime you have a tight end, that’s always a really good security blanket for a quarterback,” said Matt LaFleur. “I think TJ is, he’s one of Kirk’s main targets. He’s gone in there, and he consistently produces. He’s a guy that we’ve got to know where he’s at at all times on the field.”
Minnesota will move Hockenson around the formation, with 55 percent of his snaps coming while lined up inline and another 35 percent from the slot, but he’s often targeted in the middle of the field and within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage–right where the Green Bay linebackers will have to be.
Of the 57 targets Hockenson has this season, 38 of them have come over the middle of the field, with 25 of those 38 targets coming within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Hockenson’s average depth of target of 6.2 yards ranks 34th among tight ends, but head coach Kevin O’Connell tries to help get him the ball in space where he can pick up some yards after the catch. Hockenson ranks fourth in that category among tight ends.
Clogging up the middle of the field in an effort to take away space to operate in and swarming to the ball carrier to limit missed tackles, which have been an issue this season for Green Bay, are going to be two key elements when it comes to trying to limit Hockenson’s impact.
“Just the tough player he is,” said Quay Walker, “he leads the team in receptions, so he’s the go-to guy. In order for us to win, we’ve pretty much got to decrease his value, or whatever the case may be, and try to slow him down. He’s a great player, so we’ve just got to rally around him and see what we can do.”
this was a huge moment. 3rd and 12, staring at a 3&out. TJ Hockenson:
— Luke Braun (@LukeBraunNFL) October 24, 2023
The Packers’ linebacker position will hopefully be getting a boost this Sunday with the potential return of De’Vondre Campbell. It was against New Orleans that Campbell left the game early with an ankle injury, and he has been sidelined since. Campbell was a limited participant in all three practices this week.
“He’s fighting to play for sure,” said LaFleur about Campbell’s availability. “Again, he’s another one of those guys that we are going to mark that determination on Sunday.”
Out of 55 eligible linebackers, Walker ranks 15th in PFF’s coverage grade, 20th in yards per catch allowed, and has the 12th lowest missed tackle rate at the position.
This is not a Vikings offense that leans on the run game. They are averaging only 3.9 yards per carry as a team and rank last in rush attempts per game. While the run game can’t be forgotten about by any means – especially by the Packers’ defense – the linebackers’ top priority is going to be helping to contain Hockenson, particularly over the middle. With how Minnesota utilizes him on quick, short area throws, Hockenson, to a degree, is an extension of the run game for the Vikings.