Few teams have the audacity to put one man up against wide receiver extraordinaire Calvin Johnson. The Vikings did it last year as Mike Zimmer opted to let Xavier Rhodes shadow Johnson throughout the game, keeping Johnson scoreless and allowing him to catch just four passes for 53 yards. As the Vikings face Megatron for the first time since that day, the potential for Megatron vs. Dead End Rhodes is this week’s key matchup.
Rhodes isn’t positive that we’re going to see a sequel to the first matchup the two of them had one on one, but he’s ready for the challenge if it comes.
“I feel good,” Rhodes said. “I’m not saying that’s going to happen this year. Coach will more than likely going to let us know if that’s the game plan or not.”
Rhodes didn’t find out until the Friday before the Dec. 14 meeting last year that he was going to get the unenviable task of following Johnson wherever he went on the field and tasked with shutting him down.
A loyal team player, Rhodes took on the challenge and passed with flying colors. Johnson was only targeted six times and only had one reception of more than 12 yards. Rhodes was confident in the faith Mike Zimmer put in him, but freely admitted he didn’t lobby for the job.
“It wasn’t my decision, it was the coach’s decision,” Rhodes said. “At the end of the day it was the coach. I just had to go in and play my role. With the technique that is run by the coaches, it’s a little difficult. But you’ve got to get used to it and do your job. No matter what, you’ve just got to be ready for anything.”
Drafted four picks ahead of Adrian Peterson, Johnson has made his name in the NFL and may be as big an impact star as A.P. is at the running back position. Since becoming a full-time starter in 2008, the only year Johnson didn’t top 1,000 yards receiving was 2009 when he missed two games due to injury and finished with 984 yards. In 2012, he came close to 2,000 receiving yards, falling just 36 short. Four times he has scored 12 or more touchdowns and has posted more than 10,000 career receiving yards in eight years. Over the last four years, he has posted 31 100-yard games and 12 multi-touchdown games in the 59 games he has played.
The reason he has been given the daunting nickname Megatron is because he is a freakish talent at 6-foot-5, 237 pounds. Receivers that big are rare, much less one with deep speed and the ability to change games in an instant.
“He’s all in one,” Rhodes said. “You see a lot of receivers that have one thing that stands out. Calvin has the height, the size, the physicality. You have to play them all.”
Rhodes admits, like so many others have since 2007, that you don’t simply shut down Johnson. He’s going to get his catches and his yards. It’s keeping them minimized that is the key and Rhodes is going to have the responsibility, whether on a full-time, every-play basis or part of a time share with other corners and safeties. He will get help with safeties rolling over the top, but coming off the success he had last year, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Rhodes chasing to the side of the field Johnson lines up to take him on, despite Zimmer saying he “I doubt it.”
Rhodes is establishing himself as one of the best cornerbacks in the league. Johnson is starting to show a little of the signs of age, but he remains the most feared wide receiver in the league by a vote of his peers when the NFL Network did its annual countdown of the top 100 players in the league. There are younger receivers who are looking to take his throne like Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Dez Bryant and Odell Beckham Jr., but, with his track record of sustained success, there isn’t anyone that strikes more fear into defensive coordinators than Johnson.
If the Lions are going to win, they likely will need a big day from Megatron. If the Vikings are going to win, Rhodes & Co. are likely going to have to limit his production significantly, which makes this the key matchup on Sunday.