There are plenty of battles that will take place on the field Sunday when the Vikings meet the Philadelphia Eagles, but perhaps none will be more important to the outcome of the game than how the depleted Vikings secondary handles Philly wide receiver DeSean Jackson, making this the key matchup this week.
The Vikings have struggled against playmaking wide receivers all season long and Jackson is a big play waiting to happen. Over his six-year career, he has averaged 17.3 yards per reception. He is dynamic and a consummate playmaker. Perhaps surprisingly, he is having the best statistical season of his career. His 65 receptions represent a career high. His 1,080 receiving yards are just 76 yards shy of his career high and his eight receiving touchdowns are the most he has scored since he had nine TDs in 2009.
The knock against Jackson was that he tended to run hot and cold. He could have a huge game one week and do nothing the next. However, this season, he has four 100-yard games, six games with 80 or more receiving yards, seven games with a touchdown, 10 games with at least one catch of 20 yards, four games with at least one reception of 50 yards or more and five games in which he has averaged 20 yards or more per reception. He isn't the kind of player who catches six or seven passes a game every game, but, when he does, he makes things happen.
For the Vikings, he poses the problem of being able to play all of the wide receiver positions. He has the speed to take a defender deep down the sideline on the outside. He can take a bubble screen behind the line of scrimmage and turn it into a huge gain. He can go in motion and force a defense to rotate its coverage based solely on his movement. He can play in the slot, where his quick feet can get separation immediately and turn a 5-yard slant pass into a 50-yard gain.
The Vikings have had more than their share of problems against an opponent's playmaking receivers, including Brandon Marshall (7-113-1 in Week 2), Josh Gordon (10-146-1), Jordy Nelson (7-123-2), Pierre Garcon (7-119-1), Brandon LaFell (4-107-1), Jerricho Cotchery (5-103-1), Alshon Jeffery (12-249-2 in Week 13) and Marlon Brown (7-92-1).
The Vikings secondary has seen injuries to all five of its primary players from the season opener – Chris Cook, Josh Robinson, Xavier Rhodes, Harrison Smith and Jamarca Sanford. The bench has been extremely tested, as those players have been replaced by special teams players like Andrew Sendejo, Marcus Sherels and Robert Blanton. With Robinson placed on injured reserve Saturday and Chris Cook listed as questionable Friday, practice squad player Robert Steeples was promoted to the active roster.
It has been a nightmare in the secondary for the Vikings and Jackson and Riley Cooper could be the latest in a growing list of receivers capable of making the back-breaking plays that turn around a game.
Coming into Sunday's game, much of the focus will be on running back LeSean McCoy, who leads the NFL in rushing, and QB Nick Foles, who has 20 touchdowns and just one interception. But, when all is said and done, if the Vikings are going to beat Philadelphia, the one player they will have to stop is Jackson, because when he gets the ball in his hands, big things can happen.
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: Stonewalling Jackson a priority
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