Over the past two weeks, the Vikings have played against two of the game’s top wide receivers in terms of their importance to their respective offenses – Calvin Johnson and Keenan Allen.
Megatron is a player that every defender knows is going to get his catches. The goal isn’t to shut him down, it’s to contain what he does. To that extent, the Vikings were successful. Detroit never had the lead, Matthew Stafford was forced to drop back 58 times – throwing 53 passes, getting sacked once and flushed out of the pocket four teams, leading the Lions with 20 rushing yards. Johnson was targeted 17 times, catching 10 of them for just 83 yards and a touchdown. He got his, but didn’t make the back-breaking play that turned the game around.
The Chargers dropped to pass 44 times last week. Philip Rivers was sacked four times and, of the 40 passes thrown, 18 of them were directed toward Allen. He caught 12 of them for 133 yards and two touchdowns – not the kind of numbers Mike Zimmer wants to see, but understandable under the circumstances – a team behind and forced to pass and designing plays to get Allen the ball with a chance to run to daylight.
This week, as the Vikings arguably have the most important game of the Mike Zimmer era, they are heading in to play 3-0 Denver on the road. The Broncos have two receivers that can kill opposing defenses – Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.
Last year, Thomas caught 111 passes for 1,619 yards and 11 touchdowns. Sanders wasn’t far behind, catching 101 passes for 1,404 yards and nine TDs. If given time, Peyton Manning can abuse defenses and the cornerbacks will be facing a severe test of their coverage skills.
Captain Munnerlyn will be in the mix, given the amount of quick-hitting passes that the Broncos run, and he is taking on the challenge knowing that he will be going eyeball to eyeball not only with Sanders and Thomas, but with Manning as well.
“We’ve definitely got to show them different looks and that starts with me,” Munnerlyn said. “I have a tendency of showing this and showing that. Being the nickel back, you definitely have to show different looks and try not to show your hand as much. Try to switch up the leverage and do different things.”
There is always a challenge when a defense goes up against star receivers like Megatron, Dez Bryant, Julio Jones or Antonio Brown. They make plays that even double-teams can’t prevent. When teams have two receivers of elite skill like Thomas and Sanders, it doubles the pressure and doesn’t double the fun.
“They’re both Pro Bowlers,” Munnerlyn said. “They’re special receivers. They make big-time plays. They catch the ball very well and they make guys miss. Both of them are fast guys. Some people say, ‘Oh, Demaryius really isn’t that fast.’ Yes he is. We’ve got to cover up these guys up and make plays.”
Both Sanders and Thomas are dangerous down the field, but they are just as lethal at the line of scrimmage executing bubble screens and lining up multiple receivers to one side of the field and dragging Thomas underneath.
To look at a stat sheet, it would be easy to assume that a 50-yard touchdown pass to Thomas would come on a bomb down the sideline. Just as many of them are passes at or behind the line of scrimmage that break loose for long after-the-catch passes.
Munnerlyn knows those plays are coming because the Broncos run them every week and teams find it difficult to stop them. Thomas may start out on the outside, but he will slide across under the other receivers, which will put him in Munnerlyn’s crosshairs.
“I watched the Detroit game and it seemed like he had about five screen plays to him,” Munnerlyn said. “They don’t care what down and distance it is. They’re trying to get the ball in his hands and make guys miss. They definitely do a lot of that, so we’re going to have our eyes open for that. But, at the same time, we have to go out and execute the game plan and force Peyton to show his hand a little.”
The Vikings have faced top-end receivers the last two weeks and have come away with wins, despite those players putting up solid numbers. Take them times two and you have the dilemma the back end of the Vikings defense will have to deal with.
The big plays can come at anytime from anywhere on the field and they have two playmakers that can make the reception that drops seven points on the scoreboard. The Vikings will be preparing for anything at any time because the Broncos aren’t shy about going for the throat.
“This team takes chances,” Munnerlyn said. “Fourth-and-1, they threw a deep ball and threw it for a touchdown. Most guys on fourth-and-1, they might send the punt team out there or try to get a first down to get in field goal position. He went for it all and he threw the deep ball and it worked. We definitely know we’ve got our hands full, but, at the same time, we’re going to go out there and compete and have fun.”