As the Vikings prepare for the Washington Redskins Thursday, all eyes will be on Robert Griffin III and the running game. One of the most dangerous read-option offenses in the NFL, it's the running game that has drawn the most focus. But it could well be the battle between tight end Jordan Reed and Vikings linebackers Chad Greenway, Erin Henderson and Marvin Mitchell that will be this week's key matchup.
One aspect of Mike Shanahan's offense that was missing when RG3 was a rookie last year was a playmaking tight end. In Shanahan's years in Denver, he had one of the game's most explosive and dynamic tight ends of that era – Shannon Sharpe. That big-play ingredient was missing in Washington and the Redskins believe they solved that problem by drafting Reed to replace aging, injury-prone veterans Chris Cooley and Fred Davis. Reed is well ahead of the curve when it comes to his maturation as a pro and he is on the brink of being a consistent offensive weapon in RG3's arsenal.
In the seven games he has played, Reed has caught 38 passes for 425 yards and two touchdowns, including 21 catches for 261 yards and a TD in the last three games. He is being integrated more into the offense and catches just about every pass thrown his way. He has been targeted 49 times and has caught 38 of those passes (78 percent). For comparison purposes, leading receiver Pierre Garcon has been targeted 89 times and caught 54 of them (61 percent). When Reed's number gets called, he tends to deliver and the Redskins are finding ways to call his number more as the season has progressed.
The reason Reed should be of major concern to the Vikings is because typically tight ends in the passing game are covered by linebackers – Greenway and Mitchell on the outside and Henderson when crossing the middle of the field. An athletic tight end capable of stretching the field, he causes problems because he has the speed and the athleticism to create mismatches. Given how the Vikings have struggled against tight ends at key times in games throughout the season, Reed could have a significant impact on who wins and who loses Thursday.
The Vikings' struggles against tight ends began in Week 1. Trailing 27-24 midway through the fourth quarter, a touchdown pass to Joseph Fauria gave Detroit a 10-point lead they wouldn't relinquish. In their Week 2 loss at Chicago, Martellus Bennett, another playmaking downfield receiving tight end, caught seven passes for 76 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner with 10 seconds left in the game. In Week 3, Jordan Cameron caught six passes for 66 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winning score with 51 seconds to play. Even in their Week 4 victory over Pittsburgh, Heath Miller caught six passes for 70 yards. Last week against the Cowboys, Jason Witten caught eight passes for 102 yards and a touchdown, including two receptions in the game-winning drive that converted first downs to keep the drive alive.
The Vikings will have plenty to worry about with the Washington run game. Griffin is as difficult a quarterback to contain since Michael Vick was running wild in Atlanta. Alfred Morris is a between-the-tackles banger who could easily end up with 20 or more carries. But it may well be the downfield threat that Reed provides and the Vikings' sketchy history of covering tight end threats that will make this the matchup to watch Thursday night. RG3 may be getting all the headlines, but it could be Reed who ends up making the difference in winning or losing, just as several other tight ends have done to the Vikings this season.
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.
Key matchup: Another dangerous tight end
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