One of the primary reasons the Vikings hired head coach Mike Zimmer was the awful state of the Vikings defense, especially in the secondary. The Vikings allowed an average of 30 points a game – the worst in the NFL – and much of the problem was big pass plays. Zimmer is trying to change the culture of the Vikings defense and few teams can give them a more severe test than the Arizona Cardinals, making the battle between Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd against the Vikings’ cornerbacks this week’s matchup to watch.
The new-look Vikings defense is transforming to a much more aggressive group that will be attacking offenses to put pressure on the quarterback. The expectation is that the Vikings are going to dial up blitzes much more often and bring pressure from different angles. That will put a lot of the onus on cornerbacks to maintain single coverage on receivers, often deep down the field.
The key to improvement will be 2013 first-round pick Xavier Rhodes. A big corner with press coverage ability, Rhodes is going to be asked to play on an island much more than he was in the previous Tampa-2 scheme. Josh Robinson had his share of struggles last year and will need to step up his game in order to make a difference. The free agent signing of Captain Munnerlyn will also be key as both an outside corner and in the slot, where he excelled with the Panthers.
All three of them are expected to be critical to the Vikings defense, considering the strength of wide receivers in NFC North, which includes five elite receivers in Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, Chicago’s Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery and Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. They’re going to be threats in every game they play, which makes the Cardinals an ideal test for where the Vikings stand in regard to taking the fight to the offense instead of playing passively and getting picked apart.
Fitzgerald has had seven seasons with 80 or more receptions, has topped 1,000 yards six times and scored eight or more touchdowns seven times. While his yardage numbers have dropped a bit over the last two years, he has averaged 10 targets a game over the last nine seasons. He is deadly in the red zone and, although he is entering his 11th season, there are few wide receivers more feared – and rightly so – than Fitzgerald.
Floyd is emerging as a dominant No. 2 option as he enters his third season. As a rookie, he caught 45 passes for 562 yards and two touchdowns. He followed that up by posting 65 catches for 1,041 yards and five touchdowns, supplanting Fitzgerald as the Cardinals’ receiving yardage leader for the first time in nine years. More importantly to his success last season was that he averaged 16 yards per reception and had 11 games with at least one catch of 20 or more yards.
If the Vikings are going to make the jump back to respectability this year, the defense will have to step up its game once the regular season begins. While the historical record won’t remember the final score of Saturday night’s game, it may be something the Vikings point to as the game they discovered whether the defense has what it takes to erase the memory of the 2013 season, making the Vikings cornerbacks’ performance against Fitzgerald and Floyd this week’s key matchup.
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: A real receiver test
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