For the last decade, few wide receivers have commanded the respect that Andre Johnson of the Houston Texans has earned. At 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, Johnson is a big, physical receiver who has put together a career that could potentially land him in the Hall of Fame.
Since 2006, Johnson has posted three 100-catch seasons and was on pace to catch 100 passes in the other three seasons before injuries sidelined him. Through 14 games, he has 93 receptions for 1,360 yards and four touchdowns. He has caught eight or more passes in eight games this season, including seven of the last nine games. He is having one of his most prolific seasons and has been a headache for defensive coordinators all season long.
For teams like the Vikings, Johnson is a problem they don't have to face very often. But he is reminiscent of a couple of players the Vikings secondary has become more than a little bit familiar with.
"He's a big guy and, in a lot of ways, he reminds me of some of the big receivers we've already seen this year – Brandon Marshall and Calvin Johnson," cornerback A.J. Jefferson said. "We've experienced those guys who are big, strong and have the ability to stretch a defense. For us, we have to get our hands on him, try to re-route him and take off his timing with his quarterback."
Fortunately for the Vikings, their biggest, most physical cornerback (Chris Cook) is expected to return to action this week. He won't have much time to acclimate himself back to the field because Johnson will be a huge challenge right out of the gate. However, Cook said he's motivated by such matchups.
"Big receivers are always a challenge for us," Cook said. "They like the challenge because they know you're going to get physical with them. That's the kind of football I like."
What makes Johnson different from a lot of big receivers is that there isn't any consistency as to where he will line up. He will be on the outside left on one play, outside right on the next, in the slot on the next, in motion on the next. While the Texans, like the Vikings, are a run-first offense, Johnson's ability to make plays is what forces defenses to respect what he brings to the table – or risk getting burned.
"They line him up in different spots on just about every play," safety Mistral Raymond said. "They want to move him around because he's a big-bodied guy who can hurt you. They always try to get their run established and force you to try to stop that. They do a lot of creative things to get him downfield when teams are forced to go into eight-man boxes. He's a playmaker. He's an elite receiver in this league and has been for a long time."
The Texans have been one of the most effective offenses in the league this season because they have the combination of a power running game and a big-play threat like Johnson that forces defenses to pick their poison in who they give their effort to stop and who potentially will get one-on-one matchups.
"One of the reasons is they have an outstanding running back, a big-time wide receiver and the quarterback is very efficient," head coach Leslie Frazier said. "It puts a lot of stress on your defense. There you go loading the box to stop the run and all of the sudden there goes Andre Johnson behind your secondary. You've got to be careful and you've got to be smart about what you're doing."
The Vikings only play the Texans once every four years, but the Vikings defenders are preparing for him in the same way they prepare for Megatron and Marshall. All three share many of the same qualities and are the clear go-to receiver in the passing game, so much of what the Vikings do to stop one of them is similar to what they will try to do to stop another.
"I think they all have the threat of being the big target who can stretch the field," safety Harrison Smith said. "They're all very talented players and you know that their team is going to target them and that the ball will be coming their way. They make it hard to defend them because they don't try to disguise things. You can bet they will get the ball coming his way 10 times a game or more."
The problems that receivers like Johnson can cause is that, even if a defender does a near-perfect job in coverage, Johnson's size and skill allows him to make plays and leave defenders shaking their heads.
"Anybody that's big like that can create space at any time," Jefferson said. "You can't let him get open. You have to have a body on him at all times – just try to create some kind of physicality. It's frustrating at times, because you can play almost perfect defense on him, but he has such a big catching radius that, if he and Schaub are on the same page, they can still make plays. Those are the kind of guys that are hard to defend because you can do everything right and they can still find a way to make a play."
The headlines heading into Sunday's game will center more on the battle between Adrian Peterson and Arian Foster, but it may end up being Johnson who determines whether the Texans offense will succeed against the Vikings Sunday. He has found a niche for himself and has learned to make the most of it, whether it's catching long bombs or doing the dirty work over the middle. The Vikings are expecting Johnson to be a critical part of the Texans' offensive game plan and see Johnson as just as big a threat as Foster because, like the star running back, Johnson is a perfect fit in the Houston offense and has established a role in the offense that is vital to its success.
"He's doing some great things and he's having an outstanding season," Raymond said. "In this league, you have to be a flexible player to be an elite guy. Teams get accustomed to seeing you line up in the same spot, they can come up with a game plan to try to eliminate you. They move him around, he's accepted that kind of role and seems to embrace it. He's a great player and we're going to have our hands full trying to hold him down."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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