One of the first questions that was asked of Xavier Rhodes when he was drafted by the Vikings in 2013 was whether he thought one of the primary reasons the Vikings took him was because they faced Calvin Johnson twice a year.
He knew that the bright lights would be on when he and a man known as Megatron would go mano a mano.
Maybe, just maybe, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman was mindful of the last time his Vikings had seen Megatron prior to drafting Rhodes.
In that Nov. 11, 2012 game, Johnson caught 12 passes for 207 yards and a touchdown.
He owned the Vikings. Everyone knew it. Change had to made. That change was Rhodes.
In the three games they’ve gone up against each other, Johnson has caught 18 passes for 173 yards and one touchdown. By Megatron standards, that’s one big game. By Dead End Rhodes standards, that’s his resume.
In their first meeting on Sept. 8, 2013, Johnson lined up opposite Rhodes because the Lions coaches knew where he was lining up. Johnson caught four passes for 37 yards.
In their only meeting last year on Dec. 14, Rhodes was told to shadow Johnson. He chased him wherever he went. Johnson caught four passes for 53 yards.
Last month, aware the Vikings were intending for Rhodes to blanket their best receiver, the Lions coaching staff was determined to get the ball to Calvin.
They did. 10 times. One of the 10 was a touchdown. But the total he gained in those 10 catches was 83 yards – the first time in his career he caught double-digit passes and didn’t hit 100 yards. Johnson has 12 career games in which he has caught 10 or more passes. The most yardage he gained in those was 329 against the Green Bay Packers in 2013. The least was 118 yards against the Packers in 2012 … until last month’s 83-yard game against the Vikings and Rhodes.
On its face, the reception numbers were more than a little impressive. The check-down nature of those catches has Rhodes gaining a new understanding of how his battles with Johnson will go.
“They’re going to find a way for Calvin to get the ball,” Rhodes said. “They’re going to find a way. He’s going to get his. We just need to eliminate the big plays – not just on Calvin, but the other good receivers they can get the ball to.”
Asked by the local Vikings media about the matchup, Johnson showed some begrudging respect for Rhodes, giving credit where credit has been due.
“We played him a couple times now – he’s a good player,” Johnson said. “It’s a good matchup. Two big guys going against each other.”
In their last meeting, there were mixed reactions to Johnson’s numbers. Anyone who catches 10 passes get your attention, but averaging 8.3 yards is never viewed as Megatron-like.
“That was the goal, to try to eliminate the deep passes, make them try to go short, because you know they’re going to find a way to get Calvin the ball,” Rhodes said. “We just have to eliminate the big plays.”
Johnson has taken notice of Rhodes as a young gun that is looking to knock him from his perch. It was clear Johnson doesn’t like Rhodes’ coverage tactics.
His assessment of Rhodes was what you would expect from a wide receiver who doesn’t like someone he has faced and been frustrated.
“Long arms, real grabby,” Johnson said. “A lot of times we don’t get those calls, but every now and then. You’ve got to work harder when you do get in those instances where he’s close and you’re pulling away.”
Rhodes is trying to downplay the matchup as best he can, despite the fact that he grew up dreading going up against an opponent of Johnson’s stature.
As a player earning the reputation of being a “shutdown corner,” Rhodes knows that every week he will be going up against a team’s top receiver. But Calvin Johnson is a future Hall of Famer whose ticket has already been punched.
“You’ve got to have confidence each week no matter who the receiver is,” Rhodes said. “Of course, it’s Calvin, one of the best receivers in the league. You’ve just got to believe in yourself each and every week, believe in the scheme and believe in your team. Once you have confidence in all that, you’re going good.”
For the fourth time, Rhodes and Johnson are going to meet on Sunday. Both will be looking to make a statement. With the Vikings looking to establish themselves as a playoff contender and the Lions looking to avoid local chatter centered on the top college players available in next year’s draft, Sunday’s battle between Johnson and Rhodes may be the primary battle that determines Monday’s storyline on their respective seasons.