The Vikings entered the 2011 season with what they felt was a solid core in the secondary. However, the combination of injuries and ineffectiveness has depleted the secondary to where it has become one of the team's most glaring weaknesses – so much so that head coach Leslie Frazier spent much of his Monday press conference calling out the defensive backs. With the Vikings heading into Detroit to face a struggling Lions team that has lost five of its last seven games, containing Detroit's biggest weapon on offense is Priority No. 1 – making the battle between the Vikings' beleaguered defensive backs and wide receiver Calvin Johnson this week's key matchup.
"If he isn't the best wide receiver in the league, he's on a pretty short list," safety Jamarca Sanford said. "When you look at what he brings to the table – he's 6-5, he weighs 220, he has 4.3 speed, he has strength, he has ball skills – what more can you ask? He's a special player."
When the Lions are at their best, it is due in no small part to the performance of the man nicknamed Megatron. Entering play this weekend, Johnson is ranked third in the NFL in receptions (69), tied for first in receiving yardage (1,092) and second in the league in receiving touchdowns (12). His résumé is impressive. In 12 games, he has been targeted six times in one game, seven times twice, eight times in three games, and in the other six games he has been targeted nine, 10, 11, 11, 13 and 19 times. He has caught five or more passes in 10 of 12 games, has topped 80 receiving yards nine times and 100 yards five times. He is, as advertised, a beast.
The first time the Vikings played the Lions, it was tight end Brandon Pettrigrew who did the most consistent damage, catching 11 passes for 112 yards. The reason? It was as much due to Megatron's presence as Pettigrew's receiving ability. The Vikings continually rolled a safety Johnson's way to prevent one-on-one opportunities. Despite being blanketed, the Vikings couldn't double-cover or bracket Johnson on every play – and they paid for it. He finished the game with seven catches for 108 yards and two critical second-half touchdowns in a 26-23 overtime win for Detroit.
And that was against a Vikings defense that was at full strength.
In that game, the Vikings played six defensive backs extensively – cornerbacks Antoine Winfield, Chris Cook and Cedric Griffin (all of whom got credit as starters in that game) and safeties Husain Abdullah, Tyrell Johnson and Jamarca Sanford. Of those six, four are gone – Winfield, Abdullah and Johnson have been placed on season-ending injured reserve and Cook hasn't been with the team since being arrested on felony domestic violence charges.
As badly as the Lions torched the Vikings secondary in their Week 3 meeting – Matthew Stafford completed 32 of 46 passes for 378 yards with two touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 108.8 – one can only imagine what Detroit has planned for the Vikings with a secondary that bears little resemblance to what the Lions faced (and lit up) in Week 3.
As it currently stands, the defensive backs the Lions are going to face aren't exactly a murderer's row of competition. At cornerback, Griffin has admitted he's nowhere near 100 percent from his pre-injury form, Asher Allen was playing special teams in Week 3, Marcus Sherels' only job was returning punts and Benny Sapp was hoping to return to employment a week after being cut by the Patriots. At safety, Sanford is now the most experienced man in the secondary with this defense and he's only in his third season. When the teams last played, starting rookie Mistral Raymond was inactive, Eric Frampton was playing on special teams only and Jarrad Page wasn't on the team.
The Vikings have tried to patch a secondary together without its two best tacklers (Winfield and Abdullah) and three starters from the last meeting. It will be a tall order to keep down Megatron and, if they Vikings do pay too much attention to him, Pettigrew and former Viking Nate Burleson could both have big days.
Stopping Johnson has never been easy, but it will become the job of all of the Viking's eight secondary players expected to be part of the rotation and most analysts believe Johnson will win the one-on-eight battle, making this the key matchup this week.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
Key matchup: Megatron vs. the replacements
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