Last week, the Minnesota Vikings had a critical matchup between Xavier Rhodes and Calvin Johnson. As they look for a second home win in a row, it’s Rhodes that is under the spotlight again, as his battle with San Diego’s Keenan Allen is this week’s key matchup.
Allen isn’t as celebrated as Megatron, but the reason why this is the week’s critical matchup is that the Chargers are likely going to be without two of their top passing-game weapons – tight ends Antonio Gates and Ladarius Green. Gates is sidelined due to a league suspension and Green suffered a second concussion in 11 days last week and likely is going to limited at best Sunday. He is listed as questionable on the injury report.
As a result, the onus will be on the San Diego wide receivers to pick up the slack. As Allen showed in Week 1, when he caught 15 passes against Detroit, if the Vikings don’t lock him down, he could be in line for a big day. To limit Allen, the Vikings could take the same approach they did with Johnson – steer Rhodes his way.
Rhodes takes pride in the fact that the coaching staff has the confidence in him to occasionally have him chase a No. 1 receiver around the field wherever he lines up. He has seen it as a challenge he is willing to take on.
“I think it’s a testament to the hard work I’ve done and the hard work I’m doing paying off,” Rhodes said. “Now everyone is starting to see it. I don’t really pay attention to what everyone else says, I just keep doing my work and try to be the best I can be.”
Allen may not be an elite receiver like Johnson, but Rhodes knows that every week there are receivers with special skill sets that can burn defenses.
“Every team you face has great receivers,” Rhodes said. “When it’s a guy like Calvin, it’s a little different because everyone knows he’s their main guy. That’s the guy they try to get the ball to.”
Rhodes said Johnson has the separation speed but Allen is sneaking in his positioning.
Given the missing tight end component pieces in the San Diego offense, head coach Mike Zimmer expects to see the Chargers spending a lot of time in the “11 personnel” – one running back, a blocking tight end and three wide receivers.
Does that help the Vikings prepare for the Chargers?
“Yes and no,” Zimmer said. “Because you always wonder if they’re going to change their personnel groups. But they’re in it quite a bit, yeah. I think Rivers feels comfortable in it. They’ll be in some different groups, but mostly you’re right.”
It’s difficult to underestimate the loss that Philip Rivers and the San Diego offense will endure if both tight ends are gone as expected because each of them brings a unique skill set to the table and both are capable of making plays that can be the difference between winning and losing.
Zimmer has faced both of them from his days with Cincinnati, including a playoff matchup, and knows as well as anyone that the Vikings may be dodging a bullet by not having to face them.
“They’re different tight ends,” Zimmer said. “Green is fast, Gates is sneaky. But they’re different guys basically doing the same things out of different spots. The way they do it is a lot different. Gates has always been extremely tough in the red zone. Green is tough on crossing routes because he’s got so much speed, and then as they get closer to the red zone, he’s more of a vertical threat.”
Allen won’t be the only weapon on the field that the Vikings secondary will have to face. Allen leads the team in receptions (17) and yards (182), but veteran Stevie Johnson leads the team in touchdowns (2) and chain-moving veteran Malcom Floyd is also in the mix.
Rhodes sees a lot of similarities in Allen and Calvin Johnson. Both of them have excellent speed off the line and can get separation quickly, giving Rivers quick-strike options on slant patterns or deep downfield targets when they get a free release.
“(Allen) is a guy who just knows how to get open,” Rhodes said. “He and Stevie Johnson are two guys who use their quickness to get open. Their speed makes them difficult to jam and they’re pretty aggressive. They know their strengths and use it to their advantage.”
The Vikings are going to try to counteract the Chargers passing attack by running the ball and controlling the clock. Whether they are able to do that or not, Rhodes knows that when he’s on the field, Rivers is going to be throwing – early and often whether his team is ahead or behind.
“That’s a passing team,” Rhodes said. “You can expect three-wide and four-wide all game long. They’re going have multiple receivers out there more times than not, so it’s going to be a challenge for me and all of us to keep them in front of us and not allow them to take deep shots on us.”
There will be a lot of critical man-on-man matchups Sunday that will go a long way on determining who wins or loses, but the battle between Rhodes and Allen will be as important as any. If the shorthanded Chargers receiver corps has Allen shut down, it will be extremely difficult to overcome that, making the Rhodes-Allen battle this week’s matchup to watch.