Chris Cook is actually more familiar with defending against Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson from their playing days in college than facing him in the NFL.
Back then, it was Cook's Virginia Cavaliers taking on Johnson's Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets when it was late in Johnson's college career and early in Cook's.
"It's nothing new for me to be lined up across from him. I always look forward to playing against him," Cook, the Vikings' third-year cornerback, said. "When we first get out there, every year, every time I've ever played against him, both of us say the same thing: ‘Time to go!'"
The matchup is a natural one, given the size of each of the players. Cook is 6-foot-2, 212 pounds. Johnson, nicknamed "Megatron," is 6-foot-5, 236 pounds and leading the NFL with 369 receiving yards after three weeks.
"He's a big, tall, fast, physical receiver that can stretch the field, so when that happens it's tough to keep an extra guy in the box for the run," defensive coordinator Alan Williams said of the issues Johnson creates for a defense. "You have to be able to shut down the run with seven or six defenders and you have to be able to stop him and take your shots, calculated shots, when you want to rotate a guy into the box. It's a guessing game in terms of when they're going to take their shots and when they're going to run the ball. It's a big challenge for us to limit him. I don't know if anyone is going to ever stop him from getting his fair share of catches. You want to limit what he does in terms of explosive plays down the field."
Cook said he looks forward to the challenge any NFL receiver poses, but Johnson is the best of both worlds when it comes to receiving assets – he's big and he's fast.
"I feel like guys with bigger speed are always the bigger challenge. The quicker guys off the line, if you want to press them and you miss and they've got enough speed to get by you and get going, they present a big challenge as far as speed guys," Cook said. "Big guys, if you want to press them at the line, they can come off and be physical with you and toss you from side to side and do different things. It's just a different challenge whether it's a speed guy or a big and fast guy like Calvin, who has both. I really can't say which one is more challenging to defend. They each present their own problems."
Although this is Cook's third NFL season, he has started only 11 games after injury and legal issues took considerable bites out of his first two seasons in the league.
He has only played against Johnson twice in the NFL, both of them September matchups at the Metrodome each of the last two seasons. Cook started both of those games.
In the 2010 matchup, a 24-10 win for the Vikings, Cook had five tackles and one pass knocked down. Johnson was held to six catches for 56 yards and no touchdowns.
However, in last year's matchup with Cook and company, a 26-21 Lions win at the Metrodome, Johnson had his best game against the Vikings, catching seven passes for 108 yards and two touchdowns. Cook started that game, too, and had three tackles and two passes defensed.
At times earlier in his career, Cook would follow taller receivers from one side of the field to another. Lately, however, Cook has been staying on the right side of the defense.
"They just decided to keep me on the right side so I could have more consistent movements and just get used to the right side," Cook said, admitting it's possible that tactic could change for Sunday.
The Vikings drafted Cook for matchups such as this. Although Johnson has a three-inch height advantage, Cook remains one of the taller cornerbacks in the league. Bigger receivers mean a bigger premium on tall cornerbacks, too.
"I think that definitely helps bigger guys like me to play my position. The game is evolving into a passing game and everybody wants big receivers – big, tall guys that can go up and get the ball," Cook said. "You've got to counter it with big corners and big guys in the secondary."
Last week, Cook faced San Francisco 49ers receiver Randy Moss, who measures 6-foot-4, several times. While the book on Moss is that he doesn't like to be jammed at the line of scrimmage, the Vikings often had Cook playing about five yards off the line. Both Cook and head coach Leslie Frazier said that was all part of the different coverages presented to the 49ers.
As it turned out, Moss only played in 36 percent of the 49ers' offensive snaps and caught three of the six passes intended for him for 27 yards. Johnson, meanwhile, appears to be at the peak of his career.
He led the NFL with 1,681 receiving yards in 2011 and was fourth with 96 receptions. He has 21 touchdowns over the last two years and 21 receptions of 25 yards or more.
So, does Cook consider Johnson to be the best receiver in the NFL right now?
"Right now? It's hard to say, man. There are so many good guys you can't really pinpoint and say this guy is better than this guy. There's a lot of different guys that do different things better," Cook said. "Calvin, he's probably the best deep-ball guy in the league as far as going and catching the ball over one, two or maybe three defenders at times. And then there's guys like Victor Cruz, he's so quick and smart, he just finds ways to get open. You can't really just pinpoint and say one guy is better than another. All of them do different things well."
Of Detroit's divisional opponents last year, the Vikings actually fared best against Johnson. In games against Minnesota, Johnson had a combined 10 catches for 137 yards and two touchdowns. Chicago allowed Johnson 12 catches for 211 yards and no touchdowns in two contests, while Green Bay gave him 15 catches for 293 yards and two touchdowns.
No matter how you look at it, Johnson has proven to be one of the best big receivers in the league. Cook, who is likely to see his share of Megatron, puts him in the top three.
"Larry (Fitzgerald) is pretty big. Andre Johnson is pretty big, too. I'd put all three of those guys in just about the same category when it comes to best big receivers," Cook said. "Those three are the top three in any order. You can't really say one is better than the other because they're all great receivers and I respect all of them a lot."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Cook vs. Calvin: ‘Time to go!'
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